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Couple Married 50 Years Dances Across Nebraska Despite Wife’s Debilitating Illness: ‘Our Life Is a Dance’

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He wore a blue striped cardigan. She wore a borrowed red dress. He also wore glasses, and although she usually did too, on that night in 1965 at the University of Nebraska Student Union, she fibbed and told him she wore contacts.

Years later, when she confessed the truth to the man she first met at that freshman dance, Tom Phalen said to his wife, Gwen, “So our whole marriage is based on a lie?”

It didn’t matter. “She was cute,” Tom says. “She had just come in and she wasn’t dancing with anybody else. She was fair game, so I walked over and took advantage of her immediate presence.”

In a Valentine’s Day video she filmed much later for him, Gwen, now 69, recalled that dancing cheek-to-cheek as Tom, now 70, broke out in a light sweat and her sticky hairspray acted as adhesive, “we stuck.”

“I didn’t leave the dance thinking I had a new boyfriend,” she said. Nor did she give him her phone number. He found it on his own. “Tom?” she said when he called, pretending indifference. “I remembered right away,” she said, “but he didn’t know that, because I was playing hard to get.”

“Tom was smart and clever and funny all wrapped into one,” she said. “I found that attractive.”

Gwen and Tom Phalen
Courtesy Susan Phalen

They married 50 years ago last week — June 24, 1967 — in the University of Nebraska campus chapel in Lincoln.

Tom graduated with an Air Force ROTC commission as a 2nd lieutenant. They had a daughter, then another, as his 30-year military career moved the family to Illinois, Washington State, Hawaii, Alabama, Georgia and Washington D.C., where Tom retired in 1999 after a 12-year Pentagon assignment.

Gwen eventually earned an associate’s degree as a medical lab technician, but “working was not in the cards,” Tom says. “Her life was devoted to taking care of us.”

Then, about four years ago, Gwen started to struggle with her memory.

A doctor first thought it was early onset Alzheimer’s. There quickly followed an unrelated diagnosis of stage 4 uterine cancer. That took precedence, but surgery, chemo and radiation beat the cancer back. She is now cancer-free. When doctors returned to look for Alzheimer’s, they learned Gwen didn’t have Alzheimer’s at all.

They instead diagnosed Richardson’s syndrome, an accelerated degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s. Gwen’s mobility, balance, ability to process information and her speech all were in rapid decline. The relative rarity of the condition — something like six in every 100,000 people — made Gwen feel special. “I’m blessed!” she declared.

Left to right during April 2016 visit to Johns Hopkins: Susan Phalen, her dad Tom Phalen, sister Kathy Mosier, and mom Gwen Phalen
Courtesy Susan Phalen

Tom remained Gwen’s rock. “She can’t stand anymore on her own,” says their daughter Susan, 47, who works in Washington, D.C., as communications director for the House Homeland Security Committee. “She can’t even walk to the restroom on her own. She needs help in every aspect, and my dad is her 24/7 caretaker. He’s tired but he loves her, and he’s going to do anything it takes.” ”

As Gwen started slipping, Susan made more frequent trips to spend time with her parents at their home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Tom and Gwen also live part of the year in Panama.) “The only thing we can do other than watch her deteriorate is to try and keep her engaged and as active as we possibly can,” Susan says.

Early on Susan devised a series of videos — “Cooking with Gwen,” she called them — and filmed Gwen in the kitchen using favorite family recipes. “I just pull up the YouTube video and watch it in the store and I’ll still hear her voice telling me what to buy,” says Susan. Gwen willingly played her part, donning a costume for Halloween, and dressing as a turkey for Thanksgiving. “The outtakes are the better videos, because they’re so funny,” says Susan. “It was all just dumb fun. It could be 2 in the morning, and she’d sit right up and want to watch the video. She would always get such a big grin on her face. She still does.”

They filmed the last video — “Grandma’s Date Balls, Gansta Style” — in March 2015, after Gwen’s diminishing energy and diction brought an end to the exercise. But Susan pressed on.

Last summer, on a flight with her parents to revisit their roots back in Nebraska, Susan had an idea. “We really should make a video of you guys seeing the places that are important to you,” she said. “Why don’t you just do a little slow dancing at each place and I’ll set it to music?”

Courtesy Susan Phalen

With tolerant affection, Tom says of his daughter, “she is fairly creative in finding opportunities for us to do things we hadn’t necessarily thought of. I just kind of rolled my eyes and thought, ‘Oh my, what have you gotten us into this time?'”

But he went along with it. And in small bursts — outside a restaurant with old friends; on the rural backroads that once connected their lives — Tom raised his wife into his arms and once again held Gwen tightly, 20 to 30 seconds at a time, as long as she could stand, and they moved to the silent music that they alone could hear.

They danced outside of the Student Union in Lincoln where they first danced.

They danced in the cornfields outside Orleans where Gwen had lived on a family farm.

They danced at roadside rest stops between Lincoln and Grand Island where Tom had worked in college spaying concrete materials.

They danced near the campus columns where as teenagers they kissed.

They danced outside of the chapel where they exchanged their I Do’s.

Susan afterward set it all to the song they’d long ago adopted as their own, Anne Murray’s “Could I Have This Dance?”

I’ll always remember the song they were playing
The first time we danced, and I knew.
As we swayed to the music and held to each other,
I fell in love with you.

“It’s really hard to put it into words,” Tom said ahead of their golden wedding anniversary. “We’ve been doing this dance for 49 years. It’s what we do. It’s kind of who we are. It was special in that we were doing it in places that we don’t normally do it, but we do everything together. Our life is a dance.”

Gwen and Tom Phalen celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, June 2017
Courtesy Susan Phalen

Long-lost friends who’ve since spotted the video posted on YouTube have reached out after decades, including the female classmate who initially accompanied Gwen to that freshman dance. But more important to the couple, the video is a living archive of their affection. “It’s very special for my grandkids to watch for years to come,” says Gwen, recently sharing her words haltingly in a separate video interview conducted by Susan.

Adds Tom: “It helps them relate to who she is, and who we are.”

“I watch it over and over again, and Tom is the love of my life,” says Gwen. “It makes me tear up to watch it.”

In a restaurant outing this month, according to Susan, a young woman, her mother and her grandmother were seated near Tom and Gwen, “noticing him push her wheelchair close enough to the table, watching him put the napkin on her shirt to catch any spills, seeing him crack her lobster tail and cut up her food into bite-sized pieces. They didn’t say anything to my folks, but they apparently watched my dad lovingly help my mom all through dinner.” After the ladies left and Tom and Gwen themselves prepared to go, the waitress delivered their bill marked “paid in full” with this note:

Courtesy Susan Phalen

“Dear loving husband, I sit here with my daughter who will be getting married soon. Sorry for staring, but I kept looking at you praying that my daughter’s future husband loves her the same way you clearly love your beautiful wife. God Bless.”

On their 50th, Tom gave Gwen a gift of a small carved dancing couple. “She likes to say, ‘I might not have been the only one he danced with, but I was the last one he danced with,'” says Susan. “Now they dance in their hearts more than on the dance floor.”

In the video interview, she asks her mom how she’d rate her husband’s moves now. “Still good,” says Gwen.

“Does he have mad dancing skillz?” Susan asks.

“He does have mad dancing skills.”

“With a ‘Z'”?

“With a ‘Z.'”

Gwen adds: “It’s so important to hold on tightly to the people you love, in sickness and health.”

“Is dad good at that?” Susan wants to know.

“Dad is good at that,” Gwen says. “Tom is good at that.”