From Kinder­garten To Can­cer: A Love Story

The sol­dier never for­got his child­hood crush, and once they re­united, nei­ther war nor ill­ness would keep them apart

Reader's Digest - - Contents - TAMMY LA GORCE FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES

JAMES GAR­ISH IS NO spelling bee champ—in fact, he dropped out of school at 14 and spent more than half a decade in dead-end jobs be­fore en­list­ing in the Army in 2008. But Gar­ish never for­got the tricky string of let­ters that added up to the last name of his kinder­garten crush, El­iz­a­beth Stip­kovits. He also never for­got the girl be­hind the name, which is why he typed it into his lap­top one lonely night in 2010 while serv­ing in Iraq.

“I started won­der­ing how life had turned out for her,” said Gar­ish, 34. He found her still liv­ing in Mc­k­eesport, Penn­syl­va­nia, the work­ing-class city where they had grown up. So he sent a friend re­quest on Face­book.

Stip­kovits had no idea who he was. She was half a world away, a sin­gle mother rais­ing her six-year-old daugh­ter, Maleena. But her mother did re­call a James Gar­ish.

“She told me I was in kinder­garten with him. Then I re­mem­bered,” Stip­kovits said. “He was ‘Lit­tle Bad Jimmy,’ the class clown, the one al­ways get­ting yelled at by the teacher.” That the one­time five-year-old hand­ful re­mem­bered her and her hard-tospell name stopped her in her tracks.

That was eight years ago. The re­la­tion­ship that un­spooled from that friend re­quest has bound to­gether Gar­ish and Stip­kovits in a fox­hole of bro­ken­ness, de­ter­mi­na­tion, and love.

In 2014, four years af­ter they re­con­nected, 31-year-old Stip­kovits re­ceived her first breast can­cer di­ag­no­sis. The can­cer re­turned twice and metas­ta­sized. At the end of 2017, she was be­ing treated for can­cer in her fe­mur and lung. In Jan­uary, it had spread to her brain. “Lit­tle Bad Jimmy,” now a su­per­vi­sor at a Mc­k­eesport Rite-aid, never left her side.

“Chemo has taken a lot of my mem­ory,” said Stip­kovits. “But he al­ways re­minds me he’s been

in love with me since kinder­garten.”

Gar­ish had only six months left in his three years of ac­tive duty when he friended Stip­kovits on Face­book. Her calls brought re­lief from his high-stakes job as an es­cort for ex­plo­sive ord­nance dis­posal spe­cial­ists, the mil­i­tary ex­perts who get rid of ex­plo­sive weapons.

“We would go out on up to seven mis­sions a day. It was stress­ful, and I was sleep-de­prived. One of the things I looked for­ward to most was talk­ing on the phone with Liz,” said Gar­ish, who was de­ployed with the third in­fantry di­vi­sion out of Fort Ste­wart, Ge­or­gia.

Stip­kovits knew how he felt, far away from friends and fam­ily. Her dad is a re­tired chief in the Navy and served in Kuwait. “Some­times you just re­ally need some­one to vent to,” she said.

Stip­kovits was de­lighted to be his some­one. When Gar­ish im­pul­sively bought a plane ticket home for Christ­mas in 2010, she was even more de­lighted by the sur­prise of him on her front porch.

“It was dark out and he pulled me close, and it felt good,” Stip­kovits said.

By the fol­low­ing sum­mer, Gar­ish had com­pleted his ser­vice and moved back to Mc­k­eesport. He spent most of his time at Stip­kovits’s house, col­or­ing and play­ing games with Maleena while Stip­kovits, then still healthy, worked as a med­i­cal sec­re­tary.

Rein­te­gra­tion to civil­ian life took time. “The neigh­bor­hood I lived in wasn’t the safest, and I had to give my­self time to read­just to the point where I could be in groups of peo­ple and not freak out,” Gar­ish said.

He had never been mar­ried and had no chil­dren, but Gar­ish had shown an in­cli­na­tion to care for them. Be­fore he and Stip­kovits re­united in 2010, he’d do­nated much of his first Army pay­check, around $600, to Jamie’s Dream Team, a lo­cal char­ity. The money helped a sixyear-old boy suf­fer­ing from the ge­netic dis­or­der Mar­fan syn­drome go on a long-wished-for camp­ing trip.

On Au­gust 20, 2017, three years af­ter her first can­cer di­ag­no­sis, Stip­kovits was be­ing fit­ted with a portable de­fib­ril­la­tor at UPMC Shady­side Hos­pi­tal in Pitts­burgh. “I think we de­serve some­thing good to hap­pen,” Gar­ish said out of the blue. “Will you marry me?”

Stip­kovits laughed. “It was just so funny,” she said. “I was in a hos­pi­tal bed, dy­ing. I looked at him and said, ‘You just want the in­sur­ance money.’”

But be­hind the laugh­ter was ela­tion. “I had the same wish ev­ery lit­tle girl does of a fairy-tale wed­ding, the crys­tals and the Cin­derella ball gown. And I al­ways told my­self that if I found some­one who bonded with my daugh­ter in the man­ner he did, I would marry him.”

She said yes.

The fairy-tale fan­tasy, though, was far out of reach. The hos­pi­tal bills were adding up, and Stip­kovits had long been too sick to work.

But there are those around Mc­k­eesport who be­lieve in mak­ing dreams come true. Doc­tors had not told Stip­kovits how long she could ex­pect to keep fight­ing. But in late

2017, Lori Mck­own, an on­col­ogy so­cial worker at the hos­pi­tal, started con­tact­ing char­i­ties. A col­league told her about Jamie’s Dream Team. “Lit­tle did I know her fi­ancé had do­nated his first pay­check there,” she said.

Jamie Holmes, the founder of Jamie’s Dream Team, hadn’t for­got­ten Gar­ish. “I was like, ab­so­lutely we’re go­ing to put on a wed­ding for them,” she said.

On Fe­bru­ary 17, two months af­ter Jamie’s Dream Team ral­lied more than a dozen Pitts­burgh-area ven­dors to do­nate things such as flow­ers, a wed­ding cake, and a photo booth, Gar­ish and Stip­kovits were mar­ried be­fore 200 guests at Old Stone Church in Mon­roeville, Penn­syl­va­nia.

Stip­kovits, flanked by four brides­maids and Maleena, her maid of honor, wore a full-length white

“I had the same wish ev­ery lit­tle girl does of a fairy­tale wed­ding.”

dress sewn with Swarovski crys­tals pro­vided by the Ex­quis­ite Bride in Mur­rysville, Penn­syl­va­nia. Her hair, full de­spite years of chemo­ther­apy, was swept into a side pony­tail. Gar­ish, in a black tuxedo in­stead of his Army uni­form, still wore a buzz cut.

The cer­e­mony was punc­tu­ated by pauses so Stip­kovits, who was on dial­y­sis, could catch her breath and dab at her tears.

Guests didn’t seem wor­ried at the re­cep­tion when Stip­kovits fell af­ter Gar­ish play­fully pushed a piece of red vel­vet cake to­ward his new wife’s face. She quickly got up. Her fa­ther said, “This is the most en­er­getic I’ve seen her in quite some time.”

Stip­kovits and Gar­ish had al­ready en­dured more than most mar­ried cou­ples. Be­fore the wed­ding, Stip­kovits told Gar­ish, “When we say our vows, the only thing we’ll have left to ac­com­plish is till death do us part.”

A DJ played “Be­cause You Loved Me” by Ce­line Dion for the first dance. The lyric “You were my strength when I was weak / You were my voice when I couldn’t speak” had on­look­ers in tears while Stip­kovits and Gar­ish held each other.

ED­I­TOR’S NOTE: A day be­fore the cou­ple’s two-month wed­ding an­niver­sary, Stip­kovits died at home, sur­rounded by her fam­ily, with Gar­ish hold­ing her hand.

Gar­ish and Stip­kovits’s wed­ding was or­ga­nized by the non­profit Jamie’s Dream Team.

The cou­ple’s first dance brought some wed­ding guests to tears.

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