This I Believe

randy - buffalo grove, Illinois
Entered on February 21, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I won the lottery of love

February 14, 2007

BY RANDY GOLLAY Sun-Times Love Correspondent (Today Only)

Earlier this month, the Sun-Times asked readers to send in their best real-life love stories in which ordinary couples face extraordinary challenges and overcome them to live happily ever after. Buffalo Grove residents Randy and Bridget Gollay are that couple. Married for nearly 23 years, they’ve been through the mill and survived to tell their tale.

This is their story, as told primarily by Randy to Sun-Times staff reporter Mike Thomas.

They’ve endured her MS, his cancer, their trouble starting a family — but if they had to, Randy and Bridget Gollay (pictured with their daughter, Mandy, 9) would do it all over again.

Do you believe in miracles?

We met in 1980 at a company we both worked for called Door-O-Matic in Harwood Heights. I was a 28-year-old production scheduler and Bridget, then 20, was the plant manager’s secretary. It was love at first sight.

We had little rituals where every morning we’d go into the stockroom and embrace. One time we got caught by the owner. He was more embarrassed than we were. (Bridget: It was just a kiss. Nothing bad.) But we had lots of allies there, people who looked out for us, so instead of going into the stockroom, we’d go into the women’s washroom.

Still, we broke up a lot. There were three times we had to start all over again. I had to practically beg her. She just wouldn’t get out of my heart. And I used to do some crazy things. One time I recruited some other employees to put crumpled-up newspapers in her car — so many that she couldn’t get in. That didn’t go over well with her boss. (Bridget: He’s a nut.) You gotta go for the gusto, right?

And we had heart-to-heart talks. (Bridget: Oh, and he would write me love notes.) She still has some of them. (Bridget: I have all of them. He would walk by and hand them to me, or leave them on my desk.) You’ve got to know where your priorities are. Eventually, though, the plant manager said, “One of you has to go.” We decided it would be Bridget. (Bridget: No, he wanted me to go.)

I’m Jewish and Bridget was raised Roman Catholic, so our parents were kind of shocked when I made my marriage intentions known. But they ultimately gave their blessings, and I proposed on her birthday, Dec. 22, 1983. My father — whose death earlier that summer following a car accident sent me into a deep funk — wasn’t around to attend. Before he died, we talked and I told him I wished I was half the man he was. He whispered back — you could hardly hear it — that I already was.

‘Why do I have MS?’

Bridget and I wed on Sept. 16, 1984. It was a traditional Jewish ceremony with lots of dancing and drinking and family-style eating (Bridget is Sicilian-American) followed by a honeymoon in Kauai and Maui.

Three dreamlike years passed, and then it happened. Bridget was diagnosed with the relapse-and-remission form of multiple sclerosis. She kept losing her balance and fell down a flight of steps. When the doctors told me what MS was, I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Until you experience it, there’s no way you can even comprehend it. (Bridget: I felt like, “God, what did I do? Why do I have MS? I don’t want it.” Thank God I married someone who’s understanding. I told him, “If you feel like you have to leave me, go ahead.” And he goes, “No. Till death do us part.” I knew he wouldn’t do it, but I just had to be sure.)

That’s a ridiculous statement to me. It went in one ear and out the other. I don’t need to hear something like that. I’m not that type of person. We know a lot of people through an MS support group we once went to whose marriages just dissolved. They couldn’t handle it. There’s a lot of pressures. Your life just takes a 180. And we didn’t know what to expect. At the time we thought maybe Bridget would use a cane. She went from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair to an electric wheelchair. Her legs were always affected, but now her hand is too. (Bridget: In the beginning it was really hard. But you kind of get used to it. Try to, at least.)

My wife, she’s a rock. I don’t know how I would be able to deal with it, but she does. Her strength is why our daughter Mandy is such a nice, loving person.

Surgery, fertility treatment

Parenthood, by the way, almost didn’t happen. When I envisioned my life, I didn’t see myself adopting. I was going to be a father the traditional way. Unfortunately, when we started trying in the early ’90s, there were fertility complications on both ends. I had three unsuccessful surgeries while Bridget endured numerous fertility injections, took medications and had countless ultrasounds. We even tried in vitro fertilization, each time with negative results. After a doctor told me I’d never have kids, I actually punched a brick wall in frustration, breaking my hand. The whole painful process was a drain on our time, our nerves and our financial resources. We’re still in financial ruins.

But we don’t give up easily and decided adoption was the next step. When newspaper ads yielded no responses and even DCFS turned us down, I contacted a couple of prominent Chicago adoption lawyers. As both of them were jailed for deceiving their clients, that didn’t really work out. We next tried international adoption, appealing to Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar. He responded to a letter I wrote, set us up with reputable agency and the intense process began.

After three long and sometimes spiritually crushing years, mounds of paperwork, lie detector tests, fingerprinting, home studies and going through every last cent we had and then some, it finally happened. China granted us special permission to visit the country and possibly adopt an orphan. Because of my wife’s condition, however, she couldn’t go. So I went solo. As far as I know, that typically isn’t allowed.

The gift of Mandy

There was red tape at every turn and the regulations were extremely, sometimes absurdly, rigid. This wasn’t cheap, either. The adoption alone cost $25,000. Somehow, though, things worked out. Several weeks later I returned home with a beautiful 10-month-old daughter. She’s all we could ask for and then some. Odd as it sounds, we needed everything that did occur in our lives to occur for Mandy to happen.

That includes this: Around the time we started making headway on the adoption front, I noticed a rash on my hand. I’m a man, so I didn’t think anything of it. “I’m not going to go to the doctor,” I thought. “It’ll go away.” Well, it didn’t, and Bridget made me go. So the doctor did a biopsy and determined it was a certain kind of lymphoma. I read in a medical journal that I had up to five years to live. Bridget was probably in shock. I remember when we were in the thick of dealing with it, she completely lost it. She was like a zombie, crying all the time. And I had to realistically look at the prospect that my life was over. What’s going to happen? We’d climbed over all these hurdles and then all of a sudden we’re just stopped right in the middle of the road. (Bridget: It was bad.)

‘The lymphoma went away’

The first doctor wanted me to see another specialist, who did another biopsy that determined it was yet another form of lymphoma. Eventually, I saw Dr. Steve Rosen at Northwestern. They did a biopsy there and came up with another decision. In the Jewish faith, the number 18 means life. And for whatever reason, my oncologist at Lutheran General had me do 18 radiation treatments. The lymphoma went away. The hospitals want to do research on me to understand how I survived.

Do you believe in serendipity? Believe it, because things happen for a reason. After all we’ve been through, Bridget and I are inseparable as always, we’re a team and we’re best friends. I’ve won the love lottery. All the money in the world is no match for what we have. Somehow we just reinvented ourselves. We found the strength to be persistent and achieve our goals.

And if we had to do it all over again, we would.