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Notebook Lifestyle

In sickness and in health

(Illustration by MLC)

Marriage

In sickness and in health

Life was going according to plan for Brad and Kris Bemis. Then a dangerous disease turned everything upside down

(Tenth in a series on long marriages.)

Brad and Kris Bemis grew up in Seattle and met during their junior year of high school. In college, they stayed in touch as Brad studied to become a dentist and Kris a dental hygienist. During seven years of dating, they planned out their lives together, and in 1973 they married. Two decades in, things were going more or less according to plan: They had three kids, their own dentistry practice, and a home near their parents. Brad was researching places to visit for their upcoming 25th wedding anniversary. 

In 1994, at their oldest daughter’s high-school graduation party, all their plans fell apart. 

Kris, then 44 years old, felt a strange paralysis grip her body. The next morning, she could not move at all. Over the next six weeks, doctors ran tests and performed a spinal tap. Finally, the diagnosis: Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s nerves. Doctors gave Kris eight infusions, replacing her blood with sterilized plasma. Two weeks after the last treatment, the disease returned, this time shutting down everything except her breathing. She dropped to 70 pounds and felt needles of pain. She couldn’t swallow, move, or get out of bed.

Meanwhile, Brad struggled to maintain the dental practice and to care for their 13-year-old twins alone. When Kris came home from the hospital, he helped dress and feed her and took her to the bathroom. He cleaned the house, made the kids’ school lunches, and never missed a day of work. “I was doing my best to hang on day by day,” he said. But he remembers nights when Kris would shake uncontrollably, and all he could do was hold her, caress her, and pray, “God, please don’t take her.” He had no idea whether his wife would improve or even survive.

In early 1995, he lost hope: One evening, Kris wept at the dinner table and told Brad, “You have never loved me the way I needed to be loved, and you never will.” (Kris does not remember this: “A lot of the things I said were not me at all. My brain was very, very garbled.”) Brad broke down and walked outside, despite the rain, to pray: “I told [God], ‘I can’t take this anymore. I can’t do anything more for her. ... This woman is not lovable.’” He felt God replying, Do you think my disciples were lovable? Brad said, “The question pierced my heart and humbled my being to its core. I knew I am to love my wife as Christ loved the Church. I resolved to persevere a day at a time.” 

At that point in their marriage, Kris said, “there wasn’t any communication. We were absolutely in survival mode.” But the disease did not return a third time. As months passed, the symptoms gradually eased. Slowly, the marriage healed too. On New Year’s Eve 1997, they crossed the Canadian border for a concert. “That was the watershed moment of our relationship, getting back to being able to do some fun things together,” Brad said.  

Now the Bemises, both 70, enjoy visiting Cannon Beach and taking their dog for walks on the trails near their home in Woodinville, Wash. Kris volunteers at a pregnancy resource center, and Brad participates in men’s Bible studies at their church. Kris still has lingering effects from the disease—she still has no feeling in the bottoms of her feet, for example—but she and Brad are thankful for their 46 years of marriage together. 

“My wife has recovered and been renewed to her wonderful ‘dynamo’ self,” Brad said. “There are few, if any, things in our culture that bless more people than a Christ-centered marriage.”