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Published: Saturday, 4/17/2004

Close calls just make the hearts grow fonder

Sharon and Dan figured, sure, an Alaskan cruise is extravagant. But after all, they'd be celebrating their 40th anniversary. Why not live it up?

That's what they thought last summer, anyway.

That was before Dan, 61 and physically fit, suddenly found himself breathless after climbing a flight of steps.

That was before Sharon, 63, turned a peculiar shade of blue and found herself gasping.

No, there's nothing quite like serious his-and-hers heart trouble to make a couple feel as if their lives were just thrown into a blender.

Just weeks before the suburban Oregon couple was to leave for that once-in-a-lifetime cruise, Dan underwent emergency heart bypass surgery.

Then, not too many weeks later, their daughter came to check on her dad and, instead, found her mother in respiratory distress.

"At the hospital," Sharon recalls, "they hooked me up to all kinds of machines and did all kinds of heart checks and found a heart defect."

Two priests. Last rites, twice. Two slow recoveries.

The unexpected bonus of two fresh perspectives.

"I look at him now. He looks at me now. When we talk to each other, we never avert our gaze. I wish we'd had that all along, but it took 40 years and major surgery," says Sharon.

Not that the decades passed by loveless. This is a couple who spent their first date planning the honeymoon and deciding how many kids to have. She was almost through college. He'd just returned from Germany. "And I saw those blue eyes, and I thought, 'Oh God, I'm a goner!'‚óŹ"

Young love ...

"It's that rush, that sexual tension, that excitement. But that doesn't last. You'd kill each other if that went on forever!" says Sharon, who won't let me use their last name out of respect for her "intensely private" husband.

It was "the lowest point" in their lives last summer when both fell so ill and had to struggle so hard to recover. Now, she says, "I can barely stand to look at his chest, where he has all the scars. I see all the suffering he endured, and it hurts me to see that."

Oh, but what a holy gift, this stinging slap of a wake-up call!

"It's the best part of my life now," Sharon says, "and I wouldn't have arrived here without [both illnesses]. I'm not looking back anymore. It's always what's coming, what's next."

A retired teacher, she had loved to introduce students to Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, which she recently re-read for her own pleasure.

"Just as [the character] Emily says: 'Doesn't anyone notice how wonderful this life is? How wonderful and terrible life is!' Emily has taught me so much."

And heart trouble gave Sharon new eyes.

"If I've gone somewhere, I can't get out of the car fast enough; I can't wait to see him. For us now, it's the enduring pleasure of one another's company. I say, wipe away last summer. We've got a second chance. We're doing everything we can. We're doing it all."

To start, they'll celebrate their 41st anniversary with an Alaskan cruise this summer.

Why not live it up?

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