Married for almost 63 years, longtime Carol Stream couple Ronald and Mary Lou McCurdy did everything together. They both worked at Wheaton College. They helped each other through tragedies and hard times. They held hands across their twin beds in their Naperville retirement home. When Mary Lou died Feb. 2 at age 83, Ron had to catch up.
"Your mom is by my bed," the grieving 84-year-old widower told their daughter, Lori McCurdy Janicke, in the days after his wife's death. "She wants me to come with her."
He died on Feb. 12, and the couple's ashes shared the "companion urn" during Saturday's joint memorial service at Wheaton Bible Church in West Chicago.
"He held on so he could help her go first," Lori, 58, says of her dad, who had a bad heart and diabetes and was in poor health. "He had to see her through this."
Often called the "widower effect," stories of long-married couples dying within months, weeks, days or hours of each other pop up from time to time.
"There is this broken-heart piece," says Dr. Tim McCurry, medical director for Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care, which serves patients and their families throughout Chicago and the suburbs.
Some of that can be attributed to married couples having similar diets, lifestyles and economic situations, concluded a 2006 study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania. But the depression and stress of losing a loved one can lead to health problems for survivors, especially if they were caregivers.
Death is unavoidable, but sick people sometimes do seem to be able to hold onto life for a little longer. "We think they should have died, and they are waiting for a family member to come into town, sort of like we have some kind of control," McCurry says.
Mary Lou had a broken hip, and Ron had multiple health issues, but family members said they both willed themselves to stick around for each other.
Mary Lou Ghelfi was the youngest of 12 children born to poor, Italian immigrants, with a dad who often disappeared for chunks of time. She was the first in her family to finish high school. Ron was the youngest of three kids in a family with Irish roots. They were in the same high school class in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's West Side.
"He was a very popular guy. He was a cheerleader in high school," Lori says, noting how the high school newspaper even did a story about the good-looking "Lothario" after he and one of his girlfriends broke up.
"Since he works alphabetically, it is assumed Ronald will be looking into the letter M," the paper joked. "Those of Italian descent should be especially wary."
Mary Lou and Ron started dating right after high school, and remained smitten, writing letters back and forth when Ron joined the Navy and went to sea on the USS Newport News.
"Oh, my gosh, hundreds," their daughter says of the letters. "I haven't even begun to go through them because I pulled up the first one and it made me cry."
Married on Aug. 11, 1951, the couple shed many tears as they started their family. Their first daughter, Barbara, died at birth, as did their second daughter, Debra. Both suffered from a rare neuromuscular disorder.
The McCurdys adopted Lori shortly after she was born in 1956, adopted Robert two years later, and moved into one of the first houses built in Carol Stream in 1963. Many parents during that era wouldn't show affection in public or in front of their children.
"I did not have those kind of parents. I had embarrassing parents," Lori says with a laugh.
In 1964, the couple conceived a girl they named Jennifer, who suffered from a form of arthrogryposis that left her with short, twisted limbs and other health problems. Unable to walk, Jenny and her older sister, Lori, talked often and became close friends.
"She was everything to me," Lori recalls. "My parents both had to work and work very hard, so I came home from school and had to baby-sit."
Ron found work as a carpenter after state guidelines changed and he didn't have the education required to keep his pharmacy job. Mary Lou was a telephone operator, running the switchboard at Central DuPage Hospital.
When Jenny died at age 6, Lori says she couldn't handle the loss and would run away and cause problems for her parents. She married at 16 and became a teenage mom. But she always could rely on her parents.
"They were never not there for me," Lori says, explaining how grateful she is for the parents she had. "They never had anybody but each other. Everything they got through, they got through together."
They worked together at, and later retired from, Wheaton College. Ron did carpentry and Mary Lou was a secretary. Taking classes on the side, Mary Lou earned a bachelor's degree in literature in 1989 at age 59.
"She was extremely proud of this accomplishment," says granddaughter Heather Chizzo, 40, of Batavia.
More heartache came from their son in Arizona, who became estranged from most of the family.
"I think because of their faith in God, they managed to get through everything," Lori says. "They had each other. That's what matters."
As Nana and Papa to their seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, the couple remained a living testament to the value of love, regardless of what life threw them, says Heather, who spent lots of time with them during her childhood.
"Their license plate for their last years read, 'Just We 2,' which kind of says it all," adds Heather, who, with her sisters, threw them a party for their 60th anniversary. She made them a bound book with photographs from their lives and completed the last page by writing, "Your marriage is a true testament to love, devotion, patience and strength. We have all learned the true meaning of commitment from you and strive for that in our own lives. Thank you both for being a constant source of love and acceptance in our lives. Thank you for every sacrifice you have made for us. Thank you for everything you have taught us. We love you so much."
Mary Lou and Ron spent almost their entire lives at each other's side, "and were strong and together right up until the end," Heather says.
"You just don't see this kind of thing," Lori says. "And if you have seen this kind of thing, you're really lucky."