I am writing this two weeks before our 55th wedding anniversary. We are often asked how we were able to last so long together. The short answer is that I don't know. But I can briefly describe factors that that may have influenced our longevity as husband and wife. A little bit of history in three chapters might help explain our relationship:
Chapter One: Teamwork
Patricia Ann Sheahan and I met at St. Anne's Hospital on Chicago's West Side, where both of us were born, raised, and grew up. She was a student nurse and I was moonlighting while in medical school. Two fellow students and I rotated night call for the hospital laboratory. In those days (late 1950s) who was allowed to do lab tests was not as closely checked as it is now. We slept at the hospital every third night and did some blood counts and urinalyses on occasion. We also drew blood from patients on the weekends before their scheduled surgery. Boring, but it helped pay my tuition.
Pat was in the Registered Nurse Program, meaning she would graduate with an RN certificate, but not a bachelor's degree. These RNs were the backbone of most hospitals in Chicago at that time. She wore a uniform including the starched white cap, she was gorgeous, and I became very interested in her.
We dated and I met her family when a major issue arose that put our relationship in peril: Her family members were avid fans of the Chicago White Sox and I was an equally avid fan of the Chicago Cubs. In Chicago at that time, this was a serious problem. Without a formal agreement, her family and I decided we would not talk baseball.
We were married on May 28th, 1960, a week before I graduated with an MD degree. About nine months later, the first of our three girls was born.
I finished my training in internal medicine at what is now the Rush Medical School and my fellowship in pediatric hematology-oncology at the University of Illinois, Chicago in 1967. The salaries were abysmally low, but we got by with help from our parents, mostly meals. By then we had two more children, so I had started looking for a job. I had offers to stay at the University of Illinois and at Rush, but saw no independent futures there.
With help from Charley Abildgaard, my mentor during the fellowship, I was asked to look at a job at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, which was only four years old. Neither Pat nor I had ever lived anywhere but Chicago. We had three small children and would have little or no family support at that distance. The separation from family was a tough decision, especially since my father was very ill with cardiorespiratory problems. However, he urged me to go because it was an opportunity to advance my career.
But my major supporter for making the move was Pat. She could see how excited I was about the chance it offered and she believed in my ability to succeed there. We had about $2,500 between us and 90 percent of that was used for a down payment for a house. I had been at St. Jude for a week when I asked Dr. Donald Pinkel, the director of St. Jude who recruited me, when I would receive my first paycheck. We were financially on the edge, but Pat skillfully adapted our lives until the paychecks came.
Chapter Two: Master Mother
In the first seven years of our marriage, Pat bore and raised three children, kept us fed and clothed, and made our mortgage payments through a period of financial straits. Our house (like all houses) needed upkeep, repairs, etc., and I still don't know how she managed our budget so successfully. We fully discussed all significant expenditures and agreed on how to proceed.
I watched her practice her profession, motherhood. She was and is a master at managing the children in their best interests, and in ours as a family. I learned a great deal about why she was so successful. First of all, she loved the kids unconditionally and she made sure that they knew it. But she set boundaries and expected them to be honored.
Pat made sure the kids maintained a relationship with her parents and mine. She drove the kids 500+ miles to Chicago for a week or two with our families almost every Christmas, and I would fly up for a couple of days and drive back with them.
When the girls reached the pre-teen and teenage years her management style gradually morphed; in some things she began treating them as we would an adult and expecting appropriate behavior and responsibility. This led to whining and sophisticated arguments by the girls over what we would and would not tolerate. She was a master at outfoxing them when they complained about this or that.
My favorite ploy of hers was about clothes. Girls never seem to have enough clothes. So she made a deal with them. She said she would buy all their socks, underwear, and basic essentials like a coat or shoes. But if they wanted something beyond that, they would need to buy it out of a home account that she would provide. Each girl had a home account book that received $25 per month. In addition, they received a $5 allowance weekly, which was to be deposited in a bank account to introduce them to formal savings. If they wanted a new pair of shoes, they had to have enough money in their home account—otherwise no shoes.
This had a couple of good effects. They had the freedom to buy what they wanted, but learned that if they didn't save some of the money over several months, there was no recourse but to do without anything beyond essentials. She helped them through boyfriend problems and school. She made it clear that she wanted to hear about any problems so she could provide guidance. She loved them unconditionally, and they knew it, but at this age children are not always as confident of that as they are at younger ages.
She also educated me about unconditional love. One example: our middle daughter was away at college and had a boyfriend. They were in love and he was (and is) a very nice guy. However, I learned later (I was the last to know, of course) that they were living together and I blew my top. My sainted wife (sainted because she stuck with me) discussed this with me very calmly—too calmly for my taste. After a long and lively discussion, she finally looked me in the eye and said, “I will not let anything damage my relationship with my kids.” She said it with steely resolve, firmly and from the heart, God bless her. After a few years our middle daughter and her boyfriend got married and have been happily married for 24 years; the bonus was bringing our third grandchild into the world; Matthew is now 13 and a stellar young man.
Chapter Three: Moving Around the Country
After nine years at St. Jude, I became restless and was being recruited by a prestigious university on the West Coast to fix a pediatric hematology-oncology program needing repair and then growing a strong program. Pat and I had a method of thinking about such momentous changes. When the kids were in bed, we took long walks discussing the pros and cons of moves. I (we) turned down the offer. I was approached again about six months later and the walks resumed. I turned them down a second time. I was contacted a third time and the walks commenced, but some interim changes at St. Jude tipped us in favor of the move this time.
It turned out to be a fateful decision and the most difficult year so far for our family. In two sentences: I fixed their problem but the resources to rebuild the program had vanished; they reneged on the agreement. This became the source of the first of Simone's Maxims, “Institutions don't love you back.”
In the meantime, Pat had an acute bowel obstruction requiring emergency surgery. She was very sick for many weeks, and I honestly thought she might die. But her surgeon, Dr. John Wilson—a senior, seasoned gentleman—pulled her through. He visited her daily and changed her dressings himself. The cause was endometriosis and a large part of her small bowel was removed. She eventually recovered but was left with a poorly functioning GI tract.
Not long after this episode, it became clear that I would get no resources for building the program no matter how long I stayed there. So once again, Pat and I had long discussions and agreed that I would resign after less than a year in the job because the institution could not be trusted. Our daughters were crushed. After getting a taste of California living, leaving was seen as a catastrophe for these pre-teen and teenage girls.
I looked at a couple of jobs, but eventually was recruited back to St. Jude in a higher position. It was painful for me to admit failure, and for the girls it was a major disappointment. Our oldest graduated from high school and went to college in California. The two others went back to their old school and got over the “catastrophe,” as did I. Despite her illness, for the girls and me Pat was our solid rock to lean on. She was cool and confident and resumed her role as the most important person in our family.
Nine years later we moved to New York City where I joined Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The girls were away at school so it was just the two of us. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay there until she acquired another serious illness, a pulmonary disease called BOOP, Bronchiolitis Obliterans Organizing Pneumonia, that was fatal in a substantial percent of patients (doctors use long Latin names for conditions of unknown origin). She had to take very large doses of corticosteroids that had annoying side effects, some of which never abated, like dramatic weight gain, trouble sleeping, etc.
At about that time I was in my fourth year at MSKCC and got a phone call from Mr. Jon Huntsman, a very successful businessman in the plastics industry. He asked if I would consider helping him build a top-notch cancer center at the University of Utah. Pat was improving but it took a long time to get her off the steroids. Also, Salt Lake City is at 5,000 feet above sea level, not the best place for someone with compromised respiratory function. However, I felt I had done about all I could at MSKCC by that time and I always wanted to live in the mountains. So we had more walks and talks and a couple of visits to test her breathing at altitude. She had no breathing problem and the University of Utah had an excellent pulmonary program, so we decided to move to Utah. I made a five-year commitment. Pat and I both settled into the environment quickly and found it friendly, and surrounded with natural beauty.
I retired from academia in Utah in 2001 and we had another series of walks and talks. We wanted to stay in Utah because we liked it so much. But we had two new grandchildren in Atlanta and you can guess what we decided.
This rather lengthy history is a tribute to the best wife, mother, and grandmother I have ever seen in action. And without her rock solid values and support, my life and that of my daughters might have been very different. A strong, unflagging, irrepressible love and her uncompromised values made our family and our marriage what it is.
What more can I say? Here we are, married just short of 55 years with a family we can be proud of because of Pat, love, and maybe a small dash of luck.
Watching My Wife Move
Watching her move is thrilling
Not because she is a stunning Hollywood beauty or publicly sensuous in any obvious way.
But she is so graceful and feminine, so open, loving and joyful, that she sparkles.
Is that sparkle in my own eye from seeing her deeply, her goodness and abundance of love?
Or can this be camouflaged infatuation or lust?
Dare I dissect this fragment of beauty and risk its destruction?
—Joseph V. Simone, MD