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“Will You Be My Girl?” A Marriage Vow Renewal 34 Years in the Making

“Will You Be My Girl?” A Marriage Vow Renewal 34 Years in the Making
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February 11, 2022
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Lesley and Rob Sattin were first married in 1987. On February 14, Valentine’s Day 2017, Rob received his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease at the age of 59. Here, Lesley shares their story.

I first met my husband Rob over a citizen’s band (CB) radio in 1984. Breaker, breaker! We chatted for two weeks, and the day Rob came to meet me, I told my mom: “I am going to marry this guy.” I fell in love with him the first day I saw him. I think the Italian lilt of his accent did it! In May 1984, he asked me to be his girlfriend, saying: “Will you be my girl?” We got married in 1987 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Rob had the kind of mind that remembered everything: numbers, tiny details — everything was in his head. He was one of the smartest people I have ever known. He always wanted to be the best, have the best. So extraordinarily motivated, always reserved. He started his own HVAC company in South Africa from scratch, and when we moved to the U.S. in 1991, it grew into a huge success.

Rob was the dominant personality in the marriage, and our family was used to having anything we wanted thanks to the success of his business. He was very traditionally male, and when I became the breadwinner, that transition was difficult. The roles had reversed.

Today, I take care of Rob. Today, I am no longer a care partner to my husband as much as I am a caregiver.

I am lucky that our sons, who are in their 20s, live nearby, as do Rob’s parents and sister. We are lucky to have live-in help in the form of Rob’s sister’s mother-in-law, who is 85. While I work from home and attend meetings, she is an extra set of eyes and ears who can alert me of any issues, like Rob wandering. Another blessing. And while I have a huge network of support around me, Rob still gets agitated if the person nearby isn’t me.

Today, Rob can still walk on his own, use the washroom, keep himself occupied — but he doesn't talk much. Alzheimer’s has changed him completely. Today, he likes to draw and color, and arrange beads and other items; this repetition helps his agitation and anxiety. He also takes medication for these symptoms, and fortunately responds well to that. He is happy to come with me on my work errands and help carry boxes. This is not the Rob I met in the 1980s.

February 14, 2017

The day of Rob’s diagnosis just happened to be Valentine’s Day. I felt relief in some ways, since it had taken two years to get a diagnosis. In hindsight, symptoms were there as far back as 2012.

I reached the end of my tether about a year before his diagnosis. It truly was the worst year of my life. I was floundering. Rob had driven the business into the ground due to this disease, and we were all brought to our knees. 

We would go to his doctor together, and I’d say, “He is forgetting things; he is disconnected. He is not himself.” He always insisted that nothing was wrong with him, a lot of denial. I said: “If there is nothing wrong with you, then why are you acting this way?”

I always knew that if I ever left him, it would be the end. His pride wouldn't allow him to change to get me back. It was once he began to battle his disease that his personality completely changed from that of an alpha male to a devoted, hyper-loving husband. He sent me flowers, chocolates and teddy bears to win back my love during a time when things were incredibly strained.

Turning Point

It was then that I sat down with him and said: “We need to seek counseling, look at our finances.” I had a list of things that needed to change. He said: “No problem. Whatever you need.” I think he knew something was wrong, and he was terrified of losing me. And now he was opening up and accepting love and help, saying it out loud. After a tumultuous relationship — we were just 18 and 26 when we met — he was finally relinquishing control. He allowed me to step up, something I had to do for both of us.

We both got a tattoo that reads ‘quatervois,’ which means a crossroads, a turning point in life. Since the day we both got that tattoo, we never had an argument again.

Saying “I Do”: Part Two

Rob doesn't remember me as his wife. One day, he asked if I was married. When I told him that I was his wife, he said he couldn't possibly be married, because he didn't have a ring. (In his HVAC business, wearing a ring could be a safety hazard, so he never wore any kind of jewelry.) My response? “If you want a ring, you're going to have to marry me — again!” And he replied: “I would love to marry you.”

On October 3, 2021, the day of our 34th wedding anniversary, he did just that. It was the most amazing day. Our church community all came together for a potluck, a far call from the lavishness of our first wedding. But this was even more special. There was love all around us, in every corner. I wore the headpiece I had worn 34 years earlier, and our sons walked me down the aisle.

This experience was so meaningful to me. I had walked that same walk 34 years ago as a very young woman. I had no idea what ‘for richer or poorer’ or ‘in sickness and in health’ really meant. I had this naive, fantastic idea of what marriage is. Many of us have no idea how hard it is, the sacrifices you will need to make. I immediately fell in love, but years of difficult moments made it hard to sometimes focus on that love, especially when Rob displayed strange signs I didn't understand to be Alzheimer’s. 

Being able to bring back that love — that’s God. God helped me to soften my heart, keep the past in the past, and make that vow again knowing what I know now, that Rob has a terminal disease, and that he will require everything I have to give. I went into this renewal of vows more prepared, with open eyes and an open heart. Being able to do that in front of God was a gift.

This event allowed people from all parts of our lives to come together, an opportunity to pay homage to the life we built together.

Today, I know Rob likes me. He loves me. He needs me. But he does not remember that I am his wife. I am just so thankful for the day he said he wanted to marry me again. It touched my heart and gave me the strength I needed to be the best caregiver I can be. It's my goal for him to feel safe, and loved, and to keep him close to me. I want him to live with dignity, respect and most of all — love. 

At our vow renewal, we released 34 doves. We’ve had 34 years of challenges, but most of all, 34 years of a love that continues to develop, change, endure. We are lucky. We are blessed.

*This post was adapted from an interview with Lesley Sattin.

About: Alzheimer’s disease runs in Rob’s family, and the family are participants in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, raising nearly $32,000 since their first walk in 2017. Today, the couple live in California with their furry friends, close to family, friends and their church. Read Lesley's blogs about the couple's journey.

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