Two Hearts, 51 Years, Through Sickness And Health

“I told her if you ever decide to leave me, I’m going with you.”  -- Mike Byrd, 70 years old.

They were high school sweethearts, actually junior high for Wanda Byrd. She was in the eighth grade and Mike Byrd was in ninth. They saw each other and they liked what they saw.

Their home was New Castle, Ind., in the early 1960s -- a booming factory town, the hub of Indiana high school basketball, a bustling downtown all kinds of shops and a movie theater.

Boy, did Mike want to take Wanda to one of those movies at that theater.

But Wanda’s dad had very strict rules. No dating until age 16. No matter how she pleaded, the answer was no. Her dad stuck to that rule.

“We passed a lot of notes in the halls of school,” says Wanda, 69. “We passed notes like crazy.”

It didn’t matter that two years passed before they were allowed to officially date. They waited.

These two hearts? They were meant to be.

And in the summer of 1965, after Mike had graduated high school and as he worked in a steel factory, he got an idea. That factory job made good money and, if he left for college in Chicago, he’d have to leave Wanda behind.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re stuck here for another year of high school. I don’t want to go to college,’” Wanda says. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t I just stay home and keep working and making big money and let’s get married.’ So, that’s what we did.”

The two were married in a small candlelight ceremony on a Saturday in September of 1965. And on the Monday morning after, Mike got up and went to the factory. Wanda got up and went to high school. 

They had a tiny apartment in town “big enough for a hole in the road,” Wanda says. “A lot of people at the time thought, ‘Oh these dumb kids.’”

Well, those dumb kids and their hearts have now been married 51 years.

***

The thing about hearts, though, is you can’t see them from the outside, says Mike, 70.

And so, as they sit on the couch, a loveseat actually, in the home they’ve lived in since 1970, there’s no way to tell that both Mike and Wanda have sick hearts.

They sit there holding hands. It’s where they spend a lot of evenings, watching the Hallmark Channel. Wanda loves romance and comedy movies and Mike, by default, does too.

“God’s just not done with us yet,” Wanda says. “That’s what we say.”

Mike has coronary artery disease. He’s had open-heart surgery, three bypasses. And he’s had stents put in. Wanda, who has had heart trouble since she was a little girl, was diagnosed at age 45 with a condition called Prinzmetal’s angina, which causes spasms of the heart and severe chest pains.

The two go to the same cardiologist at IU Health and, yes, they make their appointments at the same time. They are a darling couple, says Elisabeth von der Lohe, M.D., head of the interventional cardiology and interventional fellowship programs at IU Health and the Byrds’ cardiologist.

In Mike’s case, the goal is to slow down the progression of his disease and do everything possible to prevent heart attacks, Dr. von der Lohe says. Mike does 30 minutes a day on the treadmill and tries to stick to a heart healthy diet; he is also diabetic.

For Wanda, decreasing stress is key to preventing onsets of her angina, says Dr. von der Lohe. So, she has encouraged Wanda to play the piano and read and to journal. But there is another critical component that keeps Wanda calm and de-stressed.

“Her husband is very helpful. He is very nice and helpful to her,” says Dr. von der Lohe. “I see it in him. He is so good to her.”

***

Take the vacuuming. Mike started doing all the vacuuming at the house.

“He said, ‘I’m going to do that for you because I don’t want that to make it worse,’” Wanda says. “And he’s been doing that ever since.”

Of course, Wanda does plenty for Mike, too. He loves her chicken and dumplings.

“She makes the best pies in the world,” Mike says. “Her crusts that she makes? It’s a dessert by itself.” Wanda will take the leftover dough from the crust, roll it out, sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar and bake it.

The couple has three grown children, Brent, Tami and Karen and a 13-year-old granddaughter, Sydney.

Both Mike and Wanda are retired now, after going back to school later in life and launching successful careers. After the factory work, Mike got a license to be an EMT, volunteered teaching CPR and then went on to get his real estate broker’s license. He just retired from that.

Wanda went back to college to get her nursing degree when their youngest daughter was in seventh grade. She worked as a nurse, then ran a home health care agency, then taught as a nursing professor, which she retired from in 2010. As Wanda worked, she always was getting more education, including a master’s degree in theology. So after retiring, Wanda traveled (with Mike) pastoring churches that were in crisis.

She still plays music and conducts funerals when needed. She and Mike both volunteer for their church visiting sick and bereaved people. Wanda bakes mini loaves of banana, pumpkin and zucchini breads to hand out.

And that’s the thing Mike loves most about Wanda, he says, her kindness and love for people.

“And the way she treats me,” he says. “She meets my needs, definitely, in every way.”

Mike shows his appreciation of that. Almost every morning, for the last 51 years, Mike has greeted Wanda the same way: “Hello beautiful. How are you today?”

“And I might feel like crud, but he compliments me all the time,” she says. “And I know it’s sincere. I know he means that. What I love most about Mike is he is consistent and you can count on him. He is always there. And he is wise. If I’m having a tough day, he’s the one that can lift me up.”

In the past 51 years, they’ve lifted each other up more times than they can count.

***

Advice. Couples, young and old, often ask the Byrds what wisdom they have, what advice to make a marriage last. And not just last, but thrive.

“Giving is better than receiving,” Mike says. “If your spouse is happy you’re going to be happy.”

“Don’t go to bed angry. That’s scriptural. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” Wanda says. “Because if you don’t take care of it, if you allow it to brew and stew and don’t talk it out right away then the hurt can go deeper.”

Marriage is about give and take. And realizing that you’re not always right, Wanda says.

“No one is always right,” she says.

“She’s not always right,” Mike says, implying, perhaps, he is. Wanda giggles down to her core.

“It’s important to be each other’s best friends. That’s important,” Wanda says. “There has to be nothing you can’t talk about. You have to be honest.”

“The thing is I can’t control her feelings,” Mike says. “If she feels that way. I just have to accept how she feels. You can’t be mad at her for how she feels.”

The couple feels blessed.

“We have gotten to do so many neat things in spite of our health issues,” Wanda says. “We have just not let that run our lives. It is important to live your life as full as you can.”

The Byrds say they realized long ago that quality of life is more important than quantity of life.

“If we live to be old? Great because we want to be together as long as we can,” Wanda says. “But we also have a deep faith and know that this is not the end. Life is good. We enjoy it.”

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
 Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow


Comment On This Article

Post your comment using the form below… All fields must be populated to post.

There are no comments for this article.