Bride- & Groom-to-be Denise Oliveira & Jeremy Sierra told us how they helped each other through medical and career challenges, while always strengthening their bond. Now they will honeymoon at Grand Lucayan, Bahamas.
First meeting: On Super Bowl Sunday, at a weekly group cooking and church service around the dinner table.
The Proposal: After her medical diagnosis, about three years into their relationship.
Backgrounds: She is a legal aid lawyer on medical leave. He is a writer.
“We met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Super Bowl Sunday in 2009,” says Denise. “We were at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church. It’s a group that meets on Sunday evenings to cook together and have a church service around the dinner table.” When she arrived, Jeremy was the first person she saw.
“I thought he was so handsome and so sweet, in a very shy, reserved way. I quickly learned that he had a girlfriend and that he was a few years younger than me, so I figured we’d never date. I was wrong! He and the girlfriend broke up soon after. We became good friends and about nine months later he asked me out on a date. We had sushi uptown and then went to a reading by one of our favorite authors. He walked me home and kissed me, and soon we were inseparable.
“We got to know each other and discovered we both love reading and talking about politics and history. We also love playing board games and going for aimless walks. Most of all, we put our relationship before our individual needs and learned how to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.” Their relationship was soon to be tested.
“We’d been dating just under a year when I became ill and had to go on medical leave,” says Denise. “At first we didn’t have a diagnosis. I felt so much throbbing and stabbing pain in my lower back and mid-section that I couldn’t even sit down. Our active, romantic lifestyle of dinners out, movies, and hiking came to a screeching halt. Suddenly all Jeremy and I talked about was medical appointments, prescriptions, and my level of pain. I knew he loved me, but I also knew that most people would bow out of a relationship at that point.”
She describes herself as “completely panicked” about her health and dysfunctional due to her pain. “But Jeremy stuck with me. He stroked my head as my body slid into MRI machine after MRI machine. He took time off work to fly across the country with me to visit a specialist. He spent a week in the hospital with me when the pre-operation procedures backfired and landed me on a morphine machine. He brought playing cards and my favorite books and held my hand.
“When the doctor said it would take two years to recover from the pre-op mishap, my heart sank, and I figured Jeremy would not stick around waiting for me to get better. Yet he did. Later, he said, ‘Leaving simply never crossed my mind,’ and that he knew better days would come.”
She was finally diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome and slowly began to recover. “The joy of the marriage proposal about three years into our relationship was mixed with physical pain and fear of never getting better. The fun of wedding gown shopping was accompanied by knowing it was time to go home and ice. The catering tastings were mixed with the dread of trying to sit through an entire meal.”
A crucial part of their relationship is how they take care of each other. “Although my medical needs have required a lot of specific attention, we tried to not let my illness define us. I’ve helped Jeremy make important decisions about jobs and careers.” “I lost my job about a year after we started dating,” says Jeremy, “and without Denise’s love and her conviction that I would find a fulfilling and challenging new job, that time in my life would have been much more stressful. Even now, if I am anxious or worried, talking to Denise always makes me feel better or see a problem in a new light. She believes in me and my talents, perhaps even more than I do, and I feel capable of doing just about anything because of her.”
“I think my constant love and encouragement also has helped Jeremy open up. He has a new sense of confidence and self-assurance, and though he grew up being somewhat reserved, he’s become an assertive person who easily speaks up for himself. “We’ve both learned that life is full of surprises and contradictions, but that together we can build a life with room for both joy and sadness. I smile as much as I can all the time, especially when thinking about our wedding!”