Last spring, responding to an announcement on Oprah, Karen Colvin submitted the story of how grateful she is for her husband always believing in her, even after the accident that left her a C6 quad 18 years ago. The show called back right away. “They had a whole film crew,” says Karen. “They did a background piece, pictures of me very young. The thing is John didn’t know it was about him,” says Karen. It wasn’t until the film was shown to millions of viewers as they sat with Oprah on the set that John began to realize he was the subject of Karen’s tribute. “When Oprah said, ‘What do you think, John,’ his mouth fell open.”
The Colvins have been married 27 years. In the beginning, she says, “I didn’t know I was in love right away. It took a little time. I was in high school and he’d been through college.” What did they see in each other? Karen says John saw what no one else took the time to see–brains behind the pretty face. “He validated my intellect,” she says. John quips, “I just wanted to get laid.”
But John points with pride to how–after her accident–she learned to drive again, founded the National Spinal Cord Injury Hotline and returned to nursing school where she earned her bachelor’s, then her master’s. Now she’s working on her doctorate and teaches at a community college and–oh yes–she somehow found time to raise a son, Dick, now in law school, and a daughter, Tracey, who’s in grad school.
They talk about their marriage as a journey of life partners. They’ve learned how to live with each other, no small feat for any couple, but 27 years is proof of major commitment, especially when you factor in a spinal cord injury at the nine-year mark.
“Some of the pressures a lot of people have–living in a mobile home or an apartment or three-story house–we only had for a limited time,” says Karen. “Then we built an accessible home.” A shower room, a lift that goes between floors, all of this makes things easier, says Karen, “but that doesn’t give you love.”
And love and mutual respect is what a long-lasting marriage is all about. “He’s extraordinary,” says Karen. “He doesn’t understand the ability to abandon anything. We’ve had a great deal of fun, passion.”
From John’s point of view, Karen’s accomplishments reveal her character. “When you talk about that caliber of a person, then it becomes obvious why we’ve stayed together for 27 years.”
Over the years the two have minimized the effects of Karen’s disability. When John returns from work–he’s a real estate developer–he knows Karen’s limits. “I don’t have to ask him to cut up food for me or hold a bottle of soda,” says Karen. “He helps me in the shower, and we make that our personal time. We don’t make that our bitch session. We talk about our day, what’s going on at work, family life, political conversation.” And even though Karen has to put up with pain in her legs like many with spinal cord injuries, she doesn’t complain about it. “We don’t let that stuff dominate our lives.”
One of the benefits of living long-term with a spouse who has a disability is learning about inevitable difficulties associated with aging. John, now 55, says Karen’s disability “has made it easier for me to face growing old. I’ve had to confront accommodations for disability since I was 36.”
Karen is quick to point out that they are not perfect. “Like every other guy, he can be a real ass, and I can be a major bitch. It’s a real relationship with its ups and downs.”
But now they have the Oprah show to look back on. “I’ve gotten e-mails from all over the world, including from disabled people,” Karen says. “It was wonderful for our marriage, it was wonderful for John, and it was wonderful for people all over the world who saw that a marriage with a disability can survive a long time.”
Acceptance, Humor and Date Night
“There’s a myth that marriage equals bliss, says Theresa Karanik, a clinical social worker, married 17 years to Alan Toy, an actor and project director for Living Independently in Los Angeles. “In reality,” says Theresa, “marriage is a difficult enterprise.”
They met at a conference that focused on the role of disability in media. “I was stricken,” says Alan. “I think she was, too.” He strategically invited everyone at his table back to his house so he could keep talking to her. “I knew within a short time I’d met a soulmate,” he says. But they’ve learned over the years that passionate love can bring passionate disagreements.
“There’s nothing shameful about going to therapy,” says Alan. “If people feel comfortable enough to say, ‘We love each other, we have problems, let’s find the love again,’ that’s a positive thing. People ought to be able to do that.”
Another practice that helps their relationship is date night, going out on the town–without John Henry, their 10-year-old son–to take in a movie, have dinner, relax together over drinks and talk. But getting away is held in balance by the joy and challenge of raising John Henry. Says Alan, “Having a child is a terrible beauty, like Yeats described Ireland. It’s difficult and exhilarating.”
“In times of struggle and doubt,” says Theresa, “one look at the child with his joy and beauty and we say, ‘maybe we were meant to be together.'”
Humor and acceptance also pay off. “Sometimes if we’re in the middle of a fight and both of us have said what we need to say, but we don’t know how to get out of it,” says Alan, “we stick out our tongues at each other.”
Does Alan’s post-polio condition affect the relationship? Yes, because sometimes Alan thinks about how usually it’s the guy that takes out the garbage, and now even washing dishes hurts. No, because they each have flaws. She works with his, and he works with hers.
“It took me a while to figure out that I don’t have to win, and that I won’t die if I say, ‘Oh, this is really important to you, let’s do it that way,'” says Theresa. “Then we get to the point of, ‘No, no, let’s do it the way you wanted.'”
“Then,” says Alan, “we start arguing the opposite.”
Alan, Theresa and John Henry live in Santa Monica.
On the Same Team
Heidi Johnson Wright and Steve Wright, both 36-year-old writers, met at Kent State in the 1980s. Although they’ve been married for 13 years, at times they sound like newlyweds. “I know it sounds trite, but I’m lucky enough to be married to my best friend,” says Heidi. “Nobody can make me smile like Steve can.”
“I hate to keep using so many touchy-feely buzzwords,” says Steve, “but we’re very much in love, very much.”
Like all couples, they do have their arguments, but they always remember they’re on the same team and try to work through the rough moments. They credit talking honestly to each other about their feelings.
For example, Heidi, who has rheumatoid arthritis, has had two lengthy hospitalizations since they’ve been married. During these times, Steve, the caregiver, felt stressed because he wished he could do more. “But instead of blowing my top or doing something stupid, I laid it on the line: ‘I’m scared as hell about this. I don’t know what to do. I wish I could grab you up out of that bed and help you out,'” he says.
Although Steve’s her primary caregiver, Heidi has had personal care attendants since she was 18. “It’s such a personal thing for me that I am not real open to his being critical of the attendant. There’s this line I don’t want crossed.” So she, too, lays her feelings on the line and they work it out.
Even though illness or attendant issues can become sources of stress, they do not define their relationship. Heidi and Steve are lovers, fellow travelers, fellow writers and teammates who stay up late at night sometimes thinking up new stories for each other.
Fire in the Eyes
After a five-year friendship, Robin Stephens finally declared her love to Laura Hershey. “She read me a poem, and later wrote me a poem,” says Robin. “Then I knew I had to tell her how I felt.” So Robin sent her a love letter. Meanwhile, Laura was doing likewise. Their mutual love letters crossed in the mail–movie-style. They started living together in 1990, and have been life partners ever since.
“I saw a lot of energy in Robin–fire, the eyes,” Laura says of their initial meeting. “And we were involved with the same issues and political causes. Our relationship is so stimulating.” They’re both prominent organizers in the disabled women’s and disabled gay and lesbian communities. In addition, Laura is advocacy editor for CanDo.com and Robin is a law student at Denver University.
Overall, it’s been a smooth 10 years. They enjoy each other’s company in work and play–traveling and organizing together. But like every committed couple, they have their spats. “I wouldn’t say we have great skills on how to fight fair,” says Laura. “We’re both pretty stubborn. But we don’t hang on to things. We fight, argue and get over it.”
Robin, 41, has cerebral palsy and Laura, 38, has spinal muscular atrophy. Both need personal assistance, and occasionally an issue arises, especially with attendants who have never worked for lesbians or gays before. “It’s hard to deal with sometimes,” says Robin.
“But we support each other,” says Laura.
Right now, their eyes are on the future. Robin’s law student years are almost over, and they need to decide what’s next. “We had two foster children before, and really enjoyed it,” says Laura. “So we’re looking at maybe adopting a child.”
It Just Works
Vickie and Karl Beck’s relationship began with upside-down hand controls; her family botched the job. So she called Karl at The Braun Corporation, where he still works as sales manager, to see if he could get them right side up, then sent her mother to take care of it. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when her hand controls needed to be fixed again, that she met Karl.
That was the beginning. He asked her out a few times, one thing led to another, and when the time was right, Karl proposed on an island in the middle of Tampa while they watched big ships pull out of the bay and small airplanes swing low into a nearby airport. He had a picnic basket complete with champagne and strawberries. “It’s often stormy, very normal for it to rain,” says Vickie. “Karl kept saying, ‘It better not rain, it better not rain.’ And it didn’t. We didn’t have a thunderstorm.”
The same could be said of their marriage. They’ve worked out a smooth, easy balance. At their Clearwater, Fla., home, he cooks and she cleans up after dinner. He tinkers in the garage while she sits in her office and reads or writes articles for the Tampa Tribune.
They make marriage look easy. “I just don’t think it’s that hard, at least for us,” says Vickie. “I don’t worry about whether we’re going to be together or not together, or if the relationship is working or not working. It just works.”
Vickie, 49, has cerebral palsy and Karl, 48, has an L1 incomplete injury. “To live successfully as a disabled person,” says Karl, “requires a combination of patience, flexibility and adaptability.”
Don’t Make Your Mate An Appendage
Move over, Dr. Laura. When George and Pauline Hohmann give advice, people listen. Married 52 years, they speak from experience. George also spent decades as a psychologist and has counseled married couples. “One thing I think that’s very important in sustaining a marriage,” says George, “is to love and accept the person you have. Don’t go about trying to train them or make them an appendage.”
The Hohmanns were married in 1948, four years after a bullet ripped through George’s spinal cord at the T9 level while he was crawling down a tank track just inside Germany’s border. World War II was winding down, but George wasn’t discharged from the Army until 1946. In September of that year he and Pauline met at UCLA after resuming college careers that the war had interrupted. Pauline had been in the Marine Corps, working in personnel, plans and policies.
They had a class together in industrial psychology, which George found boring. “I would wait in the parking lot behind the psychology building for a free hour,” he says, “and Pauline started appearing there with some regularity.”
Their marriage has evolved in stages. First came a time of impulsive activity in Los Angeles, “scouting around with other young couples,” recalls George. At one time they owned a ’47 black Olds convertible they called Pluto, the God of the Underworld. “It was like a gangster’s car,” says George. On one memorable road trip they picked up companions (a couple who would later become their children’s godparents) and took off on an all-night journey bound for San Francisco, only to run out of steam in Bakersfield. “We had been drinking a considerable amount, and we stopped to get coffee or something and we thought, ‘Do we really want to do this?'” So they turned around and headed back to L.A.
Then came children and the focus of their marriage changed to home, church and school. This lasted a long time since both their children went on to earn doctorates. Meanwhile, their careers assumed priority. Pauline worked in administration at UCLA and later in the registrar’s office at the University of Arizona. George was with the Veterans Administration, traveling and consulting, and later taught at the University of Arizona as well. “Now,” George says, “Pauline’s busy with the League of Women Voters, and I’m busy with the bathroom.”
Even though the Hohmanns have had separate careers for most of their married lives, Pauline makes one point clear: “Our family has always been the main thrust of our lives.”
“Yes, always,” says George.
Now that they are well into retirement age–George is 77 and Pauline “is pushing 80”–they have a keen perspective on their latest stage of marriage. “Let me tell you,” says George. “The golden years ain’t for sissies. Your bodies give out on you. At least mine has.”
“Oh, mine too,” adds Pauline.
It’s clear, though, even with all the aches of old age, the Hohmanns are not complainers. Pauline still loves to garden and George good-naturedly puts up with sore shoulders and how much time he has to spend in the bathroom. His disability, he says, is “a damn nuisance. But it’s not been the great tragedy of the century.”
George and Pauline Hohmann are now in the companion stage of their relationship, sharing everyday things. When they look back, their abiding love is evident. “I don’t know that I’d do it differently if I had it all to do over again,” says George. “Unless you think I should. You be the one to judge, Pauline.”
“I was always very proud of what he was doing, both professionally and personally,” she says.