- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

ULYSSES, Kan. (AP) - “I know that while your physical and vocal abilities are limited, still the things you can do say, ‘I love you.’ When I enter your room, your eyes light up and you smile - you say ‘I love you.’ ” - John Hamelin’s wedding vows

On a recent December afternoon, John Hamelin and Beth Brandt vowed to love and cherish each other in sickness and in health.

However, it was more than just words spoken for this bride and groom.

Beth’s parents wheeled her down the aisle because she is disabled by neurofibromatosis 1, a genetic condition of the nervous system. John also suffers from NF1, but not as extreme.

Despite the challenges of daily living, in front of a congregation of more than a hundred friends and family, John, 56, and Beth, 54, promised to live as one.

In the beginning

When Beth was born in 1962, her mother, Janet Damon, noticed several brownish spots and splotches on her skin. The doctor assured her they were nothing but birthmarks. However, they learned later the spots signaled the presence of neurofibromatosis 1, also known as NF1, a rare disease that usually appears in childhood.

Several years ago, Beth asked her mother to write a story about her life with NF1. Janet Damon wrote “Rising Above: Facing the Dragon of Neurofibromatosis,” with contributions by Beth. The book tells Beth’s story, including how by the time she was 4 the first soft tumor appeared. By the time she was in grade school, more tumors appeared and the kids on the playground were taunting her with names like “Lumpy.” She endured her childhood not only struggling with the condition but also with dyslexia. She went on to Fort Hays State University, majoring in special education.

She wanted to work with children who had learning or physical disabilities because she could relate to them. After all, she knew what it felt like to be different than others. But her dyslexia made it impossible to master algebra. After three tries, she gave up.

Instead of graduating from college, she went to work as a nanny in Dallas. It was there she found an NF support group. Not only did she discover she wasn’t alone, she met doctors and researchers who taught her more about the disorder.

Beth went on to become a nanny in Virginia and even helped at a day care. She became certified to scuba dive and traveled to Cozumel and Honduras, where she explored the clear waters. But her health problems continued to grow. She moved home to Ulysses and after a variety of jobs and went to work with baby pigs at nearby Seaboard Farms.

One day, as she was driving home from work, her car was T-boned at an intersection. She ended up in critical condition. From there, her health condition deteriorated.

There was severe damage to her leg, followed by blood clots, according to Damon. The stress of the car crash caused tumors to begin growing on her spinal cord. Over the years her health continued to decline and eventually she could no longer work. Her ability to speak and even see were affected by the tumors, which continue to grow.

Not only physically, but emotionally, it became more difficult for Beth, who had to accept the normal things people strive for - a career, romance, marriage, raising a family - were out of her reach.

“I know this day was long in coming, but it is here today, and I am happy to take you as my wife.” - John Hamelin’s wedding vows

Like any anxious groom, John Hamelin watched for his bride to arrive at the church.

When he saw the van from the assisted living home approach, he rushed to open the glass door at Country View Baptist Church to help as Beth was wheeled into the foyer.

He knelt down to kiss and hug her. On the wall above them was a Bible verse, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible.” Mark 9:23.

Finally, they were just minutes away from being married.

“Beth, our meeting was improbable without the intervention of God. I resisted entering the chat room where we met. It was not a normal thing for me to travel 1,500 miles to meet someone I only chatted with online, but He pushed me to do both and I regret neither!” - John Hamelin’s wedding vows

It was back in 2002 that Beth met John in an online NF chat room. It was an opportunity to share with others how the condition affected them. A friendship developed.

“He sent her a picture, and she was so excited,” said Damon.

They began taking turns calling each other on Friday nights.

“He was such a romantic. He would send her flowers and T-shirts,” said Damon.

It wasn’t long before Beth, her family and friends could see how loyal and attentive John could be.

More than a year later, John arrived in Kansas from Utica, New York. Though he has NF, his case was much milder. In fact, he didn’t even know he had it until he tried to enlist in the Army.

“It was a bold move for me to come,” John said about his trip west. Beth took a chance as well, inviting him to stay with her.

“I could have been another Charles Manson,” John said jokingly.

He spent two weeks with Beth and her family. Over the years they took turns traveling back and forth from Kansas and New York for visits.

Then this summer, despite the fact that Beth no longer can do anything for herself, John proposed in June. He was offered early retirement from Mohawk Valley Community College, where he worked in the maintenance department. John found an apartment in Ulysses and moved there in August so they could plan together their Dec. 5 wedding day.

As Beth waited in a room while the guests continued to arrive at the church, John took a moment to talk about the impending nuptials.

“Beth and I believe God brought us together,” John said. “If you love someone, and they have problems, you help them deal with it. Marriage is about being loyal and faithful to Beth forever. She is a wonderful woman. She doesn’t have a bad bone in her body.”

“You are the answer to my fondest hopes and prayers. I thank God for you and the way you treat me. I pledge to you my continual love and loyalty for as long as we both shall live.” - Beth Brandt’s wedding vows to John

“The neurofibromatosis has continued its relentless toll on her body, but never once has John wavered in his love and loyalty to her,” Damon said.

Some days are better than others. On good days Beth can speak, but her words come slowly, barely above a whisper. On their wedding day John thought she was having a good day and was confident she would be able to say “I do.”

The best man, Dr. Forrest Saxon, knew he was participating in a very special marriage ceremony.

“They probably have more love than most married couples when they start out,” Saxon said. “They have triumphed through adversity.”

The service included a string of flower girls, four brides maids and groomsmen, special music and many tearful observers. Everyone present knew something very rare was happening.

Beth’s sister, Kerri Brandt, the matron of honor, knelt next to the wheelchair to read the vows Beth had written.

Officiating the union, Pastor Sam Bynum acknowledged they were marrying for the most important reason, they had been led by the will of God. Bynum leaned in close to Beth to hear her response to the marriage vows. Then he gave a thumbs-up, telling the congregation, “She said ‘I do.’ “

There was no honeymoon. Following a reception, she went back to the nursing home. He would live in the apartment - spending the days by her side, helping her to eat and play bingo and taking her on outings.

Marriage won’t be a panacea for this couple. There will be more hardships, more exhausting days of pain for Beth. But they are confident their feelings for each other will only continue to grow.

“Well, darling, I will be a faithful husband to you, and I will always be by your side. I do not know how long God will grant us together, as no one is promised tomorrow, but I promise that I will make whatever time we have together the best days, weeks, months and years of your life.” - John Hamelin’s wedding vows


Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com

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