“We tell people I was his rock when he was in Iraq, and he’s been my rock through the crazy roller-coaster ride of the last four years,” said Ms. Stipkovits, 34. “Chemo has taken a lot of my memory. But he always reminds me he’s been in love with me since kindergarten.”
Mr. Garish had only six months left in his three years of active duty when he and Ms. Stipkovits reunited through Facebook. Within weeks, they were phone friends, then long-distance girlfriend and boyfriend. Her calls brought relief from his high-stakes job as an escort for explosive ordnance disposal specialists, the military experts who get rid of explosive weapons.
“We would go out on up to seven missions a day. Things get a little crazy over there. It was stressful and I was sleep deprived. One of the things I looked forward to most was talking on the phone with Liz,” said Mr. Garish, who was with the third infantry division based at Fort Stewart, Ga.
Ms. Stipkovits remembers conversations cut painfully short because of poor reception, and the swell of anticipation mixed with compassion and admiration that would kick in when a call from Iraq reached her in McKeesport.
“My dad served in Kuwait and is a retired chief in the Navy,” she said. “I knew how Jim felt being away from his friends and family, and that sometimes you just really need someone to vent to.” She was delighted to be his someone. When Mr. Garish impulsively bought a plane ticket home for Christmas in 2010, she was even more delighted by the surprise of him on her front porch.
“It was dark out and he pulled me close, and it felt good,” Ms. Stipkovits said. “We hadn’t seen each other in a lot of years.” Mr. Garish and Ms. Stipkovits had attended the same schools until eighth grade, shortly before he dropped out. But beyond kindergarten, their classes and social circles never overlapped. “We didn’t miss a beat,” she said.
She hadn’t expected such a smooth in-person reunion. Not because she didn’t expect the former unruly schoolboy to be so thoroughly rehabilitated, but because she wasn’t sure how her life as a single mother would look to Mr. Garish from up close. Ms. Stipkovits has never been married and had Maleena at 19.
By the following summer, when Mr. Garish completed his service and moved back to McKeesport, he was weaving Maleena into his life, and vice versa. Just as she didn’t expect Mr. Garish to be sympathetic to her single-parent status, she didn’t expect her daughter to fall for the soft-spoken stranger-soldier whose personality had done a U-turn in the 22 years that had passed since kindergarten.
But her daughter did. Mr. Garish spent most of that summer at Ms. Stipkovits’s house, coloring and playing games with Maleena while Ms. Stipkovits, then still healthy, worked 9 to 5 as a medical receptionist.
Reintegration to civilian life, Mr. Garish was finding, was a process. “It was taking a while. One of the things I noticed was, I was really tense,” he said. “The neighborhood I lived in wasn’t the safest, and I had to give myself time to readjust to the point where I could be in groups of people and not freak out.” Long afternoons spent with Maleena helped. “She’s got her mama’s attitude. She’s a tough little kid.”
Mr. Garish had never been married and had no children, but he had previously shown an inclination, maybe fueled by his own difficult school days, to care for them. Before he reunited with Ms. Stipkovits in 2010, he donated much of his first Army paycheck, around $600, to Jamie’s Dream Team, a local charity. The money helped a 6-year-old boy suffering from the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome go on a long-wished-for camping trip.
He had nearly forgotten about Jamie’s Dream Team seven years later when the charity offered to throw him and Ms. Stipkovits a wedding. In the whirl of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation that had become his life with Ms. Stipkovits since they discovered her cancer in 2014, planning a wedding seemed as ridiculous as Ms. Stipkovits’s reaction when he proposed on Aug. 20, 2017.
On that day, Ms. Stipkovits, who had a heart condition (a side effect of the cancer treatments), was being fitted with a vest, which acts as a portable defibrillator, at UPMC Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh. Mr. Garish, sitting on her bedside, was moved in the moment to ask a question of the heart.
“He said, ‘I think we deserve something good to happen. Will you marry me?’” Ms. Stipkovits said. He had no ring and only part-time work at a local Rite-Aid. He had, though, a high school equivalency diploma and the G.I. Bill had helped him get into Penn State, where he graduated with a degree in business in 2015. He spends most of his time caring for Ms. Stipkovits and Maleena, now 14.
She laughed. “It was just so funny,” she said. “I was in a hospital bed, dying. I looked at him and said, ‘You just want the insurance money.’”
But behind the laughter was elation. “I had the same wish every little girl does of a fairy-tale wedding, the crystals and the Cinderella ball gown. And I always told myself that if I found someone who bonded with my daughter in the manner he did, I would marry him. Watching the two of them interact, and the way he’s stuck by me, I would be a fool not to marry him.”
She said yes.
The fairy-tale fantasy, complete with crystal ball gown, though, was far out of reach. Not only were the hospital stays adding up, so were the hospital bills. Ms. Stipkovits and Maleena are being supported by family and Mr. Garish; she has long been too sick to work.
But there are those around McKeesport who believe in making dreams come true.
“Liz is an amazing young woman. She’s always optimistic and she’s been fighting a long time now,” said Lori McKown, an oncology social worker at the hospital. Doctors have not told Ms. Stipkovits how long she can expect to keep fighting. But “time is of the essence, and I wanted to do something,” Ms. McKown said. In late 2017, she started contacting charities.
“It was a snowy day and I was sitting at my desk looking out at the window. I thought, ‘This couple wants to get married, and they’re putting their plans off because of her illness,’” she said. A colleague told her about Jamie’s Dream Team.
“Little did I know her fiancé had donated his first paycheck there,” she said.
Jamie Holmes, the founder of Jamie’s Dream Team, hadn’t forgotten Mr. Garish. “I was like, absolutely we’re going to put on a wedding for them,” she said.
On Feb. 17, only two months after Jamie’s Dream Team rallied more than a dozen Pittsburgh-area vendors to supply things like flowers, a wedding cake and a photo booth, Mr. Garish and Ms. Stipkovits were married before 200 guests at Old Stone Church in Monroeville, Pa.
Ms. Stipkovits, flanked by four bridesmaids and Maleena, her maid of honor, wore a full-length white dress sewn with Swarovski crystals provided by the Exquisite Bride in Murrysville, Pa.; her hair, full despite several years of on-and-off chemotherapy, was swept into a side ponytail. Her father, Joe Stipkovits, walked her down the aisle. Mr. Garish, in a black tuxedo with blue vest instead of his Army uniform, still wore a buzz cut. Capt. Tracy Lostaunau, an Army chaplain from Aspinwall, Pa., was secured by Jamie’s Dream Team to officiate.
After a short ceremony punctuated by pauses so Ms. Stipkovits, who is currently on dialysis, could catch her breath and dab at relentless tears, Ms. Stipkovits and Mr. Garish joined their friends and families for a reception at the Cathedral Room at St, Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh.
Guests, who feasted on fried chicken, baked ziti and macaroni and cheese provided by area restaurants, didn’t seem worried when Ms. Stipkovits fell after Mr. Garish playfully pushed a piece of red velvet cake, iced in pink, toward his new wife’s face. She quickly got up. As her father, Joe Stipkovits said, “This is the most energetic I’ve seen her in quite some time.”
“We’ve had more trials and tribulations than most married couples have in a lifetime,” Ms. Stipkovits said just before the wedding. “I told Jim, ‘When we say our vows, the only thing we’ll have left to accomplish is till death do us part.’”
Her daughter, Maleena, who has been present for all the worries, described her new stepfather succinctly: “He makes her happy and he’s a good dude.”
A D.J. provided by Jamie’s Dream Team played, “Because You Loved Me” by Celine Dion for the first dance.” A particular lyric — “You were my strength when I was weak/You were my voice when I couldn’t speak” — had several onlookers in tears while Ms. Stipkovits and Mr. Garish held each other.