The following story comes from an interview I had with my sister Sue, and her significant other, Tim. I didn’t know the full story of their relationship until I worked up enough courage to ask them some hard questions.
On December 27, 1982, at the age of nineteen, while Tim was riding in a car driven by his buddy, there was an accident that left him wheelchair-bound for life, paralyzed from the neck down. He sat between Kevin, the driver, and Mike, in the front seat of Kevin’s Galaxy 500. On their way to a Buffalo ice rink, their car hit a tree after skidding on ice. Tim’s head hit the ceiling of the car. Finding that he couldn’t move, he told Kevin he believed he broke his neck, and remembers asking him to help hold up his head. Kevin ended up with a broken arm, and Mike with facial lacerations and a concussion.
There were no cell phones in those days-the first cell phone made for public use was in 1984-so he guessed it was a person on hearing the crash who called the ambulance. Tim couldn’t recall how they got him out of the car and into the ambulance; memories are fuzzy. He regained consciousness in the ER, when the paramedics were cutting off his jacket, and remembered thinking,“Don’t ruin my jacket!” After that, he knew nothing for a week.
He woke up on a Stryker frame, with tongs in his skull attached to a weight. The Stryker frame allowed the nurses to turn him over without difficulty, offering him an alternate view of the ceiling and the floor. He needed to be on a ventilator to breathe, but that was temporary. When his dad came to visit he got on the floor under the bed to talk to Tim. Tim thought at the time “Dad, get up off the floor.” Eventually he was weaned off the ventilator, and after a seven month stay in the hospital, he returned to his parents’ home and began to piece his new reality back together.
Tim comes from a large family with six siblings, he being the sixth of seven. His mom and dad are devout Catholics; his mom and two of his sisters are nurses. When his dad passed away recently, he donated his body to the University of Buffalo medical department. The family believes in science and religion. There is no need to choose one over the other.
While in the hospital, Tim was clinically diagnosed with quadriplegia, that is, all four of his limbs were paralyzed. His C4/C5 vertebrae were damaged; he literally broke his neck. Tim counted himself lucky to have had access to technological advancements for quadriplegics. If his accident happened five years previous, the outcome may have been different. In describing his first wheelchair, he called it “an amazing piece of equipment.” It wasn’t until May 1983 he was able to use it, after months of physical therapy. It had a chin control with a velcroed plastic bib plus controller, enabling him to maneuver the chair with his chin and cheek, to recline and drive. It came with a tape recorder (he used it to listen to music), and a prism window to see his feet. This chair opened up a whole new world of independence, a big deal for Tim. Following years of physical therapy sessions, and some luck, he regained enough use of his right bicep which allowed him to use a wheelchair with a joystick controller. He benefitted from the tremendous support of a large family, friends, and an extraordinary ability to laugh, dream, achieve and find new purpose.
He attributed his day-to-day victories to the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and his case manager, Norma. She was instrumental in getting him registered for school, signing him up with Medicaid, finding transportation for him to leave the house and get on with his life. Everyone was happy to see Tim get out of the house. “They made it easy and it was up to me to follow through,” he said. And follow through he did. He got his BA in Psychology in the Spring of 1991 from the University of Buffalo. He followed up with a master’s degree in library sciences in the spring of 1995. After volunteering at various library venues, Tim found a temporary position in the Fall of 1995 as an assistant in the University of Buffalo music school library. In January of 1996, a permanent line opened up at the University of Buffalo Libraries in Central Technical Services, where he met my sister Sue.
I was six when my baby sister Sue was born. I recall having mixed feelings about her taking over my slot as youngest of the family. Two months later she smiled at me and I began to love her. Watching my mom, I learned and was able to take over some duties in caring for her: feeding, dressing, entertaining (she was easily entertained). This affection and call to duty went on for four years, until she became my albatross. Being ten years of age and wanting to play with my neighborhood friends, Sue was too young to participate in our street games. My only free time was her nap time, and then I needed to play quietly so as not to wake her. Cops and robbers cannot be played quietly. Somehow we worked it out through the years, grew up, me marrying and leaving town, Sue staying, along with my other three siblings, in Buffalo. She got her master’s degree in Library Sciences at the University at Buffalo in 1982 and was hired to be a cataloger in Central Technical Services shortly afterward, eventually leading a department.
When Sue first met Tim at the University she thought his dad was his aide. Tim’s dad at this time was 72 years old. “A bit old to be an aide,” she thought. Tim remembers Sue as being very busy, a conscientious worker. She would look up “every ten seconds or so.” Sue, as Tim’s boss, remembers thinking 1) he’s cute 2) he’s a good worker. 3) he’s always on time! Later, as his coworker, she thought 1) he’s cute 2) he’s still a good worker, but added 3) he’s kind and 4) he has a great sense of humor.
Sue and Tim soon became close friends. Tim believes that their unique situation led to a more intense relationship simply because of their circumstances. There was no rushing things. When the University had their company picnics, Sue and Tim would go together. Their romance started slow and grew strong. People noticed and soon they were an “item.” Sue could no longer be his boss according to department rules. They became coworkers instead. With deep feeling behind his words, Tim said, “Sue is amazing! She’s willing to put up with a lot of stuff that most women would not be willing to do.” I have to agree, my sister is amazing.
The first formal date was inevitable. In order to get to know each other’s families, Tim sent Sue an email describing his siblings. On their first date they went to see A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries starring Kris Kristofferson, followed by La Hacienda for pizza. On hearing that they were dating, Tim’s dad said, “That’s an excellent choice! I have been praying for the two of you to get together!” After that first date, she got to meet those siblings in person. As she helped Tim into his house (a lift was installed for easy access) she met them all. They had just returned from a road rally and a good impression was made on both sides. Later on, with their relationship well-established, Sue would enter speed-walking and endurance contests with these sisters. She won many of the races and has ribbons and prizes she stores in a box that’s overflowing. She wears a Fitbit and competes with them in walking miles.
I heard about Sue’s relationship with Tim through letters from my mom and phone calls with Sue. My mom had nothing but praise and admiration for him.They formed a close relationship until the day she died. On one of my trips back home, I finally met him. All the awkwardness was with me. Tim, it turned out, knew just what to say and had an amazing ability to put someone at ease. He had me laughing within minutes in the back seat of his handicapped-accessible van, he facing me, his wheelchair locked into place in the floor, Sue driving. Why Sue fell in love, was apparent to me from that day. Their courtship was traditional: talking, first date, movies, restaurants. Love took root and fully blossomed.
Tim’s daily needs are not so traditional: feeding, brushing teeth, shaving, dressing, nighttime turning every two hours to prevent sores, and other human functions we take for granted. Nighttime nurses and morning aides, seven days a week are necessary, and when the inevitable cancellation or no-show happens due to sickness, holidays, weather, etc., others need to take over those duties. It fell to Tim’s mom and his sisters to fill in the gaps. Soon it would be Sue’s duty to fill in those gaps.
In 2014, eighteen years after they first met, and thirty-two years after the accident, Sue and Tim took the big step of moving in together. They had an accessible house designed and built. Alexa is ever-present in their home, allowing Tim to play his favorite music and radio podcasts, turn on and off lights, and even close and open blinds. Due to careful design planning, he’s able to reach every part of the house with his motorized wheelchair. They included an elevator to the basement.
As heroes go, it took me awhile to recognize Sue and Tim as such. They clearly don’t think of themselves as heroic. Tim is there for Sue as a companion and sounding-board. She depends on him to give direction and comfort. Tim is her foundation in a world of uncertainty. He is her cheerleader.
Sue’s at the ready with a warm blanket and hot tea when Tim gets cold. She’s there swatting at the occasional mosquito while relaxing outdoors, and for moral support when things get rough. Something as innocent as coughing, takes on ominous tones when muscles needed to clear the lungs are no longer in use. Leg bags need to be emptied of urine, suppositories need to be given. Wheelchairs and vans break down, frustrations set in. Hopes occasionally are shattered. Tim tried a “standing” wheelchair but was unable to tolerate it as his blood pressure would drop so low, he would occasionally pass out. That plan was scrapped. To access homes that are not handicapped-accessible, Sue sets up heavy planks of wood for Tim to drive his chair up the makeshift ramp. Sue has Tim to thank for her strong arms and slim figure!
We talk about heroes today, sung and unsung. Webster’s definition “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities” and “one who shows great courage” describes these two. Throughout their daily lives, good days and bad, they have not lost their sense of humor or devotion. They meet adversity with calm and intelligence. They are kind and caring toward each other and others, and one feels welcome in their presence. Theirs is a love story of commitment and affection; a story of overcoming misfortune and doing the best with what life has to offer. It’s the story of two heroes, who became heroes simply because they found each other at a time when needs and solutions melded so perfectly.
Ruth Mannino is a mother of four, grandmother of five, retired math teacher, tutor and business analyst. In 2020, she published Thursday Mornings: Breathe, Stretch, Listen, Love, an in-depth look at eight senior citizens, as told in their own words from childhood to adulthood. She is published in Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine and Fifty-Word Stories.