PROSSER — This is an unconventional love story — one born of pain and loss but one that reveals the resilience of the human heart and its capacity for love — and if ever there is a day for such a story it is today, Valentine’s Day.
The story starts in 2005, the year that Cheryl Oten died. She and her husband, Tim, both knew she was dying. And she wanted him to know it was OK if he re-married. But Tim refused to even have the conversation. He had heard that people, faced with the inevitable loss of a loved one, often begin cutting emotional ties and thinking ahead. It softens the loss. But he didn’t want to do that.
“She tried several times,” Tim said. “I’d just say, ‘Stop.’ I didn’t want to leave her, emotionally. I wanted to go right down to the grave with her. And then I’d come back up.”
Cheryl died that June, after a 10-year fight with breast cancer. She and Tim had been married for 26 years and raised three children together. She tried to hang on until after their youngest, Megan, graduated from high school — and she made it, dying two weeks later.
They never had that conversation about him re-marrying. But Cheryl, a well-regarded kindergarten teacher in the close-knit Lower Valley town of Prosser, did tell a lot of her friends that. And after she died, they told Tim.
He knew he had her blessing. Still, he’d been married for more than a quarter century and wasn’t exactly ready to start looking for someone else. And, even if he had wanted to start a relationship, he didn’t have the slightest idea of how to go about it.
“Women, at that point, just scared me to death,” he said.
More than a year went by without Tim even thinking about dating. Then, in the fall of 2006, his second son, Caleb, called home from school at Washington State University with harrowing news.
“He said, ‘Dad, I went to the doctor, and I’ve got a lump. They think it’s cancer,’” Tim said.
Looking for treatment options in the Tri-Cities area, it occurred to Tim to call his late wife’s chemotherapy nurse, Nancy Bray. Cheryl’s relationship with Bray had transcended that of nurse and patient. They had cried together and bonded during lengthy discussions about their faith. Bray had become a trusted confidante and a friend, someone Cheryl could turn to when she had a question or a complication.
“I’d say, ‘You want me to call a doctor?’” Tim said. “She’d say, ‘No, just call Nancy.’”
So, when Caleb was diagnosed with cancer, Tim looked her up in the phone book. They talked. Bray gave Tim some advice, and they left it at that. They didn’t see each other again until Christmas Day 2006, when Caleb’s regular doctor wasn’t available for a scheduled chemotherapy treatment. They went to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland and there was Nancy Bray.
While Caleb underwent a five-hour treatment, Tim and Nancy caught up like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. They talked about Cheryl. The conversation was easy. It was fun.
“She was the first woman I had talked to who didn’t make me want to run for my life,” Tim said.
Nancy was 42 then. She had never been married and figured she never would be. When she’d met Tim years earlier, they didn’t talk much, because both of them were focused on Cheryl. But now she found herself enjoying a long conversation with him.
“There was no one I was really interested in,” Nancy said. “I had a career. I didn’t need anyone. But Tim was someone I really liked.”
She had his email address from an old Christmas card, so after that Christmas Day meeting she followed up.
“I said, ‘If you’re ever in Richland and you want to get coffee, give me a call,” Nancy said.
They began dating shortly thereafter. But first, Tim wanted to make sure it was OK with his three children.
“I spoke with each of them individually and told them I’d met somebody,” he said. “I wanted their OK to carry on the relationship, and they all said, ‘Of course, daddy.’”
Cheryl’s friends and extended family were also fine with it. They knew that’s what Cheryl wanted. And they knew the high esteem in which Cheryl held Nancy. It could have been awkward, dating his late wife’s chemotherapy nurse, a close friend of hers. But to Tim and Nancy — and everyone Tim asked who was close to Cheryl — it just seemed natural.
“I think it actually helped,” Nancy said. “I really loved Cheryl. She was a wonderful Christian woman I really respected. So think that made it easier. That Cheryl accepted me and liked me was huge. She approved.”
They were married in June 2008 in a small ceremony in a church. Tim and Cheryl’s children stood up with him as his wedding party. Megan even wore a tux. From there it didn’t take long for the kids to start seeing Nancy as part of the family. They’ve given her six grandchildren, all of whom know her as “Nana.”
It’s an unconventional love story, but they’re both certain that it is what Cheryl would have wanted. Her generosity of spirit, in explicitly wishing that her husband would re-marry, still causes Tim to marvel.
“I still don’t have my head around it now, how I can love Cheryl so much and love Nancy so much,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like there should be that much capacity for love,” he said.
It is a tribute to Cheryl’s spirit, he said. It’s a gift that she gave him.
“She loved big,” he said.