Debra and Avi fell in love at age 13. It was the start of a lifetime for this unlikely couple. Avi was tall and gangly, with a rapid-fire mouth, endless energy, and always a "scheme." At 17, he started a scuba diving business which he tested – in New York’s East River – to find out if the pollution would eat through the gear. If he lived, he'd go public.
For every Clyde, there's a Bonnie. His was Debra. A tiny, feisty, totally adorable bundle with flashing blue eyes, a gazillion freckles, crowned with a glorious flame-red mane, she carried up the rear like a zany and proud partner in crime.
It was my late mother who determined they should "stop futzing already" and get married. So, they did. They studied, worked, and had fun. They bought a huge home in a terrific neighborhood, had a daughter, then a son, and when Avi graduated from business school, Deb ran his office.
Over the years, their home became Family Central for a myriad of in-laws, cousins (like me) and friends. The busier they were, the more they did. All the while, they continued to "date." Two nights a week was "their" night. Then, after 20 years, they decided to increase their bounty, and had two more children. Little boys! Their life cycle was renewed yet again.
It was October when I got a call. It was Avi. Debra needed a heart bypass. His young, vibrant wife needed heart surgery? Unthinkable! She was the calm eye in his storm. She'd be fine. It was routine.
After the surgery, when Avi was told that all went well, he went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. He returned to a blood-curdling sound. An alarm ran through him.
Debra's heart had stopped.
The surgeon re-opened her chest and massaged her heart back to life with his hands.
After what seemed like an eternity, it finally started beating again. But she'd suffered several strokes. Her condition, now unstable and critical, forced them to induce a coma. Her heart simply couldn't withstand the pressure.
She remained in a coma as the weeks passed. Avi never once left her side. He had a bed moved into her room.
But the unthinkable happened again. Medication had reduced her blood flow, causing gangrene in her leg. Avi had to make the decision to amputate to save her life, as she lay in a coma.
Two weeks later, the other leg failed. This too was amputated.
Every night we'd brace ourselves to make that call. Hear that message. We'd hear Avi’s voice, laden with disbelief, grief, exhaustion.
Over time, he left daily updates on his answering machine. But the news grew ever grim: Her heart was underperforming... massive infection... strokes. His message always ended with, "Your calls mean so much. Please, pray for Devorah.” He'd taken to using her Hebrew name.
As she remained in the coma, her body failing, Avi kept up his vigil. He was her partner in this, as they were all of their lives. He massaged her. Talked of every memory they'd shared over the years. He showed her photos that she couldn't see. He shut down his business. His life was focused solely on saving hers, even as some family members gently suggested it might be time to "let her go."
Every night we'd brace ourselves to make that call. Hear that message. And every night we'd hear Avi's voice, laden with disbelief, grief, exhaustion. Days turned to weeks, Indian summer to Fall.
It was a Thursday. I picked up the phone and dialed. But this time Avi's voice was quiet, barely audible.
"No update today. There's... somebody here... who will do it for me."
And then we heard it. Seven words. In a small rasp. With a twinkle. A tiny-feisty-flashing-blue-eyed-freckled-flame-red twinkle.
"Hi, guys... It's me, Debra... I'm back."
The moment I saw her again, in a wheelchair, laughing, planning, whispering a mile a minute, with Avi as always by her side, I knew that I had never before seen anything so beautiful.
Debra told me that while she was in the coma, she felt Avi's touch. And when she awoke, they both knew they wouldn't let a moment go by, wasted.
They became, in that instant, my heroes.
I saw them recently. Debra walks a mile a day on "the most fashionable legs known to plastic." She is back at the helm of Avi's office, tends to her children, and has thrown major family celebrations. The only remnant of the strokes is "a weird giggle.” That's not to say she doesn't have moments of mourning for the independence compromised.
When I look at Avi and Debra, I don't see what's been lost. I see that tiny, feisty, totally adorable 20-year-old with the flashing blue eyes, a gazillion freckles, crowned with a glorious bright-red mane. And that gangly, zany, wild boy who fell in love at 13.
I see a radiance that only time can bestow.
I see what can be borne from monumental love, connection to one another.
But more, I see the will, the persistence, the faith to create miracles.