January 10, 2011 12:00 PM

Bret Michaels almost had to add carpal tunnel syndrome to his litany of medical problems after all the messages he got on Dec. 20-otherwise known as the day he rocked everyone’s world. “My phone went text-insane,” says Michaels. “My dad was like, ‘What?’ And every other text was, ‘Are you f—ing kidding me? What happened to the guy who vowed to never be married?'”

That guy is a changed man. After 16 years with his on-off girlfriend Kristi Gibson, the rocker and reality-TV star finally proposed on Dec. 2 with the cameras rolling; the big moment aired on last week’s finale of his VH1 show Bret Michaels: Life As I Know It. Kneeling on the porch of their Arizona home, he told Gibson, “I love you, and you’ve been unbelievably a big part of my life, and we have two beautiful girls together. And I want you to be my wife.” Michaels, 47, tells PEOPLE, “We’ve been through a whole lot together. You want to do it because you really feel it, and hope to add to each other’s lives, not subtract from. We’ve done a good job of that, and I feel absolutely great.”

If it was ever going to happen, the time was now: 2010 was a harrowing, bucket-list-making year for Michaels, who survived an emergency appendectomy, then a near-fatal brain hemorrhage and a stroke-and he credits Gibson with the fact that he’s still here. By staying calm and driving him to the hospital during his brush with death in April, he says, “Kristi saved my life.” But the light didn’t go off until after she returned the cushion-cut promise ring he had given her for Christmas in 2009, saying she thought it put too much pressure on him to make things official. “When she said I love you no matter what, I felt completely at ease,” says Michaels, who proposed immediately afterward. Her response: “Are you sure?” and then “Of course I will!” But Gibson was tempted to say no as a joke. “I wanted to so bad,” she says, “just to see his face! But I couldn’t-it’s taken him this long!”

That joke might have been understandable payback for his three seasons of reality-show dating on Rock of Love, shot during one of their breaks. But the rocker says his marital mental block wasn’t about some bachelor lifestyle. “I say I’m a free spirit, but I don’t want people to misconceive that as meaning I have to be a player,” says Michaels. “That’s not my style-most of my relationships have been long term. My personal demons about marriage have always been from my mom and dad divorcing when I was 15.” Adds Gibson: “I think deep down, he’s like, ‘What if this doesn’t work?’-and Bret does not like to fail at anything.”

So far it’s an unqualified success to Kristi, who turned 40 on Dec. 25 and calls their engagement “the best Christmas and birthday present ever.” Their daughters, though, are less impressed. “[10-year-old] Raine said, ‘Uh, that’s cool, whatever. Does that mean I can get a pretty dress?’ ” says Gibson. “And [5-year-old] Jorja’s too young to get it. She doesn’t like change, so she’s like, ‘No! I don’t want you to get married!’ So I stopped trying to explain it.”

Why Mom and Dad get along is much simpler: The two met in 1993 in L.A., where Gibson, a model from Vancouver, was pursuing acting. Their first date included a motorcycle ride. “I made her get on a Harley,” jokes Michaels, “so even if she didn’t like me, she still had to hold me.” They enjoy target shooting and taking the kids to their sandy volleyball court for pretend trips to the beach. And they use offbeat tactics like dodgeball therapy to work out conflicts. Says Michaels: “She’ll say, ‘You don’t go to the movies with me,’ and throw the ball at me. Then I’ll say, ‘Chick flicks suck,’ and throw it back. You get out aggression, and your endorphins kick in, so you have great make-up sex!”

Romance will be top priority for their long-awaited wedding. Gibson would like to tie the knot on a tropical beach, and Michaels says he’ll play his country hit, “All I Ever Needed”-if only they could pick a date. “We could be engaged another 16 years,” says Gibson. “But I’m most excited that he’s here, alive, and I’m able to love him.” Over the next few weeks, Michaels will prep for surgery on a hole in his heart (which was found after his stroke), so he’s in no rush either. “It may be the longest engagement in history,” he says with a laugh, “but I have good intentions.”

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