Love renewedNovember 17, 2020
By CHRISTINE STEPHENSON
FRENCH LICK — Meredith (Greulich) Tucker sits slightly reclined in her wheelchair at the base of the altar. She's wearing a white lace dress, and a patchwork quilt with phrases about the U.S. Postal Service is draped over her atrophied calves.
A few family members and friends line up to take pictures before the ceremony, where Meredith and her husband Chris will renew their vows at Victory Baptist Church, a few miles from their home in French Lick, after 22 years of marriage.
Before every photo, her loved ones remove their face masks and Meredith’s mask connected to a breathing machine. It’s just enough time to make everything seem normal — as if this was how it was supposed to be.
Even a few moments without her mask is a lot for Meredith.
A former coworker from the post office steps up for a picture. Ten seconds without her mask. Next person. Eight seconds. Next person. Twelve seconds. The machine whirrs in the background.
“Need a minute?” Chris asks.
That’s enough photos for now, they decide. It’s about time, anyway.
Meredith and Chris decided a few weeks ago they’d need to renew their vows sooner than later. They don’t know if she’ll make it to 25 years, when they'd originally planned to do it.
On Dec. 10, 2019, Meredith was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and given about two years to live. ALS affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and causes the muscles to lose control. No one knows what causes the disease, and there is no cure.
“Your brain tells your muscles basically to die,” Meredith said.
The couple planned on renewing their vows, or at least having some sort of celebration, for their 20th wedding anniversary. Life got busy, though, and time slipped away.
But time moves differently for them now.
It started with charley horses that jolted Meredith out of bed at night. Then her back started bruising for no reason. One day at work, she realized her arms were almost too weak to lift a tray into the mail truck — Meredith had worked as a mail carrier in Jasper for 15 years, and it was never a problem until then.
She started physical therapy. She went to a hematologist and several orthopedic specialists. She went to an alternative medicine doctor. None had answers.
When she visited a neurologist in Indianapolis, she received electromyography, a test that measures muscle health and motor neurons, and was diagnosed.
Right away, Meredith decided she wasn’t going to give up.
“I’m going to fight it tooth and nail,” she told herself.
By the next month, she couldn’t get around much, even with a walker. One day, Chris was helping her out of their recliner and her legs buckled. He tried to hold her up, but she was “as limp as a dishrag,” she remembers. She fell and hit her head on the wooden part of the couch and ended up in a nursing home.
Now, Meredith is permanently in a wheelchair and can’t move her arms or neck. She’s living back at home with help from hospice. Friends come by to visit and offer help, but she doesn’t want to be a burden.
Chris sometimes takes off work from Peak Toolworks in Jasper to care for her, but he doesn’t want to take off too often because they still have several thousands of dollars of medical debt. Their 19-year-old son Logan often gets up in the middle of the night to grab her a drink or reposition her in bed.
In her mind, Meredith can still get up out of bed in the morning on her own. Sometimes she has dreams she’s still working as a mail carrier.
“It’s like I’m trapped in my own body,” she said.
About 20 guests spread out in the pews, every other one closed off as a COVID-19 safety precaution. Chris faces Meredith at the altar while Logan and Chris' daughter, Amber, and grandson, Tobias, gather around them.
“We pray that in the years to come that their love grows stronger and brighter,” the pastor says after reading from 1 Corinthians. “We pray for Meredith to be healed … Lord, I know you’re able … Lord, I’m going to keep praying that prayer until you change my mind.”
But Meredith knows that isn’t going to happen. She’s not going to get better. She’s going to die.
This day — Nov. 14, their actual wedding anniversary — was the first time she’d been out in public in a long time. She didn’t want people to see her like this. She wanted people to remember her as how she was before: a bubbly, loving mother and caring friend, and a hard-working mail carrier.
She knows she’s still those things on the inside, but her body will never be the same.
Before it invaded their lives, the Tuckers barely knew anything about ALS. They never heard about it on the radio, or on TV commercials, or from their friends, or at the doctor.
Yet about 5,000 people are diagnosed with ALS every year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In rare cases, it affects young adults or even children.
“I’m 51 and I don’t want to die,” Meredith said. “I can’t imagine being 22 years old.”
Maybe a miracle will happen, she thinks. But she’s not expecting that. She doesn’t want a feeding tube or respirator down the line, either — when it’s her time to go to heaven, then it’s her time.
It might be too late for her, but it isn’t too late for someone else. There’s still time for doctors to continue research and for everyone to educate themselves on the disease.
“I know God has a reason, and maybe it is to get the word out there, but we need to start doing something,” she said. “If it doesn’t save me, maybe it’ll save somebody.”
So little of Meredith’s life looks the same as it did a year ago. It’s not all bad, though.
Her family is closer than they’ve ever been, she and Chris agree. Most of her friends have shown up in ways she never expected — they even built a sanctuary out on her front porch. One time, a stranger wrote the family a check.
ALS could have turned Meredith bitter after all it’s taken from her. But she won’t let it win.
“There’s so much good out in this world,” she said.
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