September-October 2021 | Health

The unexpected

Everyone who joins a bereavement group at Hope Connections for Cancer Support has lost a loved one. One couple found each other.

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Joe McKee and Ruth Lehman outside the Hope Connections building in Bethesda. Photo by Lisa Helfert

On a sunny afternoon in early April, Ruth Lehman and Joe McKee are sitting on the patio of their new home in Silver Spring, reminiscing about past heartaches and the unusual circumstances that brought them together. The pleasant spring weather matches the newlyweds’ moods, and they occasionally clutch each other’s hand under the table as they talk. Inside, Lehman’s cats, Simba and Buddy, lounge on kitchen chairs.

“I was not a cat person,” McKee, 66, says. “If either one of us is in a recliner, Simba will stretch out and roll to his side or even on his back and reach a paw up and touch your chin. It’s incredibly cute. I [still] don’t know if I’d say I’m a cat person. I’m a Simba and Buddy person.”

The couple met at a cancer bereavement group three years ago when both were in the throes of grief. McKee went to his first meeting at Hope Connections for Cancer Support—a Bethesda-based nonprofit that provides education and emotional support for people with cancer, survivors, caregivers, family members and friends—a week after the memorial service for his beloved wife of 35 years, Mary Jane, who died of colon cancer. Lehman already was a regular at the Tuesday night sessions, having started going after a close friend succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

McKee, whose daughter affectionately describes him as an introvert, was never one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but after his wife’s death he felt he needed an outlet. “I wasn’t comfortable blubbering in front of my daughter,” he says. “She was going through the loss of her mother. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to other people when you’re going through a loss like that. Considering the circumstances and the subject matter, Hope Connections was a very comfortable situation.”

At those first sessions together, Lehman, who was divorced and had little interest in dating, was moved by McKee’s story about retiring early to spend his wife’s final days with her. “It was clear to me that there was a lot going on for him that was not so easy to talk about,” she recalls. “It was really good to see him crying in the group occasionally because I knew it was so fresh. He talked about his daughter and his grandbaby with such love.”

Over time, Lehman’s presence at the meetings made it easier for McKee to share his feelings. He noticed the empathy she extended to other members of the group, and when she asked him if he had anyone to talk to, he felt she genuinely cared about his answer. One other thing about her caught his attention. “I thought, ‘Wow, she’s pretty cute,’ ” he says sheepishly. “I felt a little guilty.”

McKee, who worked at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing for 25 years, and Lehman, a geriatric care manager turned real estate agent, weren’t looking for love when they found Hope Connections. Single for 11 years, Lehman was perfectly content living an active life with her friends and two adult daughters. McKee had just lost the woman with whom he’d spent more than half his life. “It was a real surprise to me that it was easy to be in a relationship again,” Lehman says. “I was not a very trusting person of men, but I found him to be extremely trustworthy and kind, and easy to get along with. If it hadn’t been for all of those qualities, I never would have said yes to the marriage proposal.”

After quarantining together and getting engaged the day of the presidential inauguration in January, Lehman and McKee married this March in a friend’s yard in Silver Spring. Only their immediate family attended; McKee’s granddaughters were flower girls and Lehman’s grandson was the ring bearer. Photo by Nora Prindle

Mary McCusker, the president and CEO of Hope Connections, says she’s never heard of a romantic relationship blooming from a bereavement group, but she understands how it could happen. “Having been a caregiver and experiencing the loss of a loved one was one of the most challenging experiences of my life,” she says. “It changes you forever. When you meet someone that has gone through a similar situation, you connect on a different level.”

Co-founded by Montgomery County residents Bernie and Bonnie Kogod to honor their daughter, who died of cancer when she was 18, Hope Connections opened in March 2007 in Bethesda as The Wellness Community-Greater Washington, DC. (It changed its name in 2011.) Attorney Liza Marshall, who is married to renowned oncologist Dr. John Marshall, chief of hematology/oncology at Georgetown University Hospital’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, was a founding member of the Hope Connections Board of Directors. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and attended some of the first support groups.

“No matter how hard you try, it’s very hard to understand what people are going through and how they are feeling until you have actually experienced the same thing yourself,” she says. “There are so many things that are very distinctive to both the treatment of cancer and ongoing survivorship. You get itchy skin, or it can be hard to eat because of mouth sores. It’s so important to have other people to talk to. The joke is you have a place not only where you can let your hair down, but you can take your wig off.”

The organization offers cancer-specific and general cancer support groups, as well as groups for caregivers. Cancer care is a costly proposition, even for those with decent health insurance in normal times, McCusker says. “About 30% of our participants pay between $10,000 and $30,000 in out-of-pocket costs. These people become temporarily poor, and many will declare bankruptcy or experience lasting negative financial consequences due to their disease.” That’s one reason all of Hope Connections’ programs, which also include mind-body classes such as yoga, Pilates and meditation, as well as financial literacy, are free. The nonprofit raises roughly $1 million a year, primarily through private donations, and all of the services it provides are run by licensed professionals. The group serves about 3,200 participants annually; more than 60% live in Montgomery County.

“Support groups break down isolation when somebody is in the grieving process,” says Tom Sumser, a clinical social worker who has been a group facilitator at Hope Connections for 12 years. “They afford people an environment where they can be understood.”

Photo by Nora Prindle

Lehman met Beth Sullivan when they lived near each other in their 20s, and their friendship strengthened when Sullivan was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-2010s. Lehman, who has a master’s degree in counseling and spent six years working at Aging Network Services in Bethesda, would drive her to doctor’s appointments and take her out almost every weekend. When Sullivan became too sick to leave her house, Lehman would cook her dinner and they’d watch Pride and Prejudice movies on the couch.

“She said to me, ‘I want you to be with me when I die,’ ” Lehman says. “I felt very privileged, like she had let me into her world in a way that she didn’t do to many people. It was a really sweet moment for me, but it freaked me out at the same time.”

Needing some guidance, Lehman began attending a caregivers support group at Hope Connections. She shared tidbits about Sullivan, who worked for 37 years as a gardener at the vice president’s residence in D.C., including a story about the time Jill Biden came to visit her. “It just helped to feel like there was a community,” Lehman says. “I didn’t feel so alone dealing with this friend who was dying.”

When Sullivan died in 2017, Lehman was bedside for her final moments. “I held her hand as she struggled to breathe,” she says. “Her cousin and her power of attorney were there. By that time she had a 24-hour caregiver who was wonderful. She coached us. She said, ‘She just needs to know that you love her and you’re with her.’ We told her that over and over again. It felt like I lost my sister.” Shortly after, Lehman switched to a bereavement group.

Around the same time, McKee’s wife, Mary Jane, was in the midst of her battle with cancer, which had been diagnosed in 2012. They’d met at a mutual friend’s Halloween party, where she showed up dressed as a kangaroo and he went as John Belushi’s samurai warrior. “I asked the guy throwing the party, ‘What’s the girl’s name in the kangaroo suit?’ ” McKee says. “He said, ‘She’s been handing out Mary Jane candies all night, how could you not know?’ ”

When their only child, Molly, was just a year old, Mary Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered fully, but years later everyone knew the outcome would be different when the colon cancer metastasized to her liver.

Mary Jane’s doctor was John Marshall, who recommended that she seek the services of Hope Connections. “Cancer has its own flavor emotionally,” says Marshall, a member of the organization’s medical board. “It’s very hard for us to say what’s going to happen next to a patient. Are you going to survive or not? The work of treating it is often all consuming. Your life’s going along fine, and then all of a sudden, wham—your whole life changes. Hope Connections does a big piece of caring for patients and caregivers that no medical center delivers well. I always say to our patients that we’re making sure your body is doing OK, but we also need to make sure that your heart and your mind and your soul are doing OK. That’s where Hope Connections comes in.”

Throughout her illness, Mary Jane never lost her sense of humor, McKee says. Once, her car was totaled in the parking lot while she was at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney for a chemo infusion. She said she had to laugh, and after her hourslong appointment she posed cheerily for a photo next to her smashed up sedan as it was hauled away on the bed of a truck.

As the end drew near in November 2018, McKee retired, and 10 days later his 64-year-old wife died. “My mom had passed in February of ’18. She was 98, so you kind of expect it. Sixty-four is pretty young,” McKee says as his voice trails off. He started attending the bereavement group almost immediately.

“When he told me that he started going there, I was pleasantly surprised,” says his 33-year-old daughter, Molly McKee-Seabrook. “But he got a lot out of it.”

The bereavement groups of roughly six to 12 people meet for 90 minutes. Everyone has the opportunity to talk about the person they’ve lost and the circumstances that brought them there. Most do; a few just listen. “There was one woman I remember who talked about how she and her husband traveled all the time,” Lehman says. “He died, and they had this trip planned. She was so torn; she didn’t know if she could stand to go without him.”

Occasionally people bring in photos. Some speak about an upcoming anniversary of a loved one’s death, or how they’re coping that particular week; others discuss their kids or whatever is going on in their lives. “Our [group] leader, Tom, always said, ‘You’re going to laugh and you’re going to cry,’ ” McKee says. “And I did both. Grieving was a big part of it, but it wasn’t the only thing.”

Before COVID-19, they would all stand up and hold hands at the end of every meeting, reflecting on something positive they took away from that night’s experience. The groups are usually made up of mostly women who have lost their spouse, but McKee was surprised to see younger people who were grieving the loss of a parent, sibling or friend. Although McKee was a newcomer and Lehman had been in the group for more than a year, the two started chatting after sessions. When Lehman’s uncle died, McKee sent her a condolence text and flowers. Touched by the gesture, she invited him to a Christmas party at her townhouse. Busy with her hosting duties, they didn’t get to talk a lot, so they decided to meet for lunch at Il Pizzico in Rockville a few weeks later.

“We both felt so awkward,” Lehman says.

“I hadn’t dated in 35 years,” says McKee.

They each acknowledged their discomfort and soldiered on, discussing their families and places they wanted to travel. “There was a connection that I can’t explain,” McKee says.

That lunch turned into another, which led to dinner. Soon the couple needed to tell their adult children that they were dating. “She was on the phone with me and my sister and she said, ‘Well, there’s this man and he’s been texting me quite a lot,’ ” says Emma Prindle, 33, the younger of Lehman’s two daughters. “I said, ‘Really?’ It sounded like what a teenager might say.”

McKee’s situation was more delicate. His daughter, Molly, had just lost her mother, and she was pregnant with her second daughter. “He started talking about this quote-unquote friend a lot,” she says. “I could just tell that this was clearly a little bit more than a friend. He came over for dinner one night and told me, and I think I said, ‘No s—,’ because I just knew. So I asked questions about her, and my dad said that in the bereavement group she really stood out as helping people to open up. My dad felt she was very special because of that.”

The extended families hit it off, which was a good thing because McKee and Lehman decided when the pandemic arrived that he would move into her house. The decision, they admit, was accelerated by the circumstances of the world.

At the beginning of the quarantine, they hunkered down like everyone else, loading up on cans of soup and bingeing Netflix shows like The Kominsky Method and Grace and Frankie. He spent much of his time getting the house he’d lived in since 1983 ready to hit the market. At Lehman’s place in Leisure World, he hung cabinets in the bathroom and fixed her broken dishwasher and a leaky sink. She cooked, and he ate. He loves her Guinness stew.

The day of the presidential inauguration in January, they ordered a catered lunch, got dressed up, and popped a bottle of Champagne. After Joe Biden took the oath, McKee asked Lehman to dance.

“That should have been my clue,” she says. “There was a little drawer in the side table that was open. Joe said, ‘Come over here and look in this drawer.’ He had spelled out ‘will you marry me’ with Scrabble letters.”

She turned around to find McKee on one knee holding a ring. Stunned, Lehman, who never intended to remarry, took a moment before she answered him. “I was surprised by how happy I was about that,” she says. “It just felt right.”

They were married on March 20 in a friend’s yard in Silver Spring. Only their immediate families attended. McKee’s granddaughters were the flower girls. Lehman’s 11-year-old grandson was the ring bearer, and her daughter Nora took photos. The groom sported a gray suit with a pink tie that matched the bride’s dress. Lehman wore pink shoes that a friend from Hope Connections helped her pick out. Before playing with their grandkids, the couple danced to their wedding song, Stacey Kent’s version of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.