Fifteen years earlier, he had stood in a church waiting for beautiful Beth to come down the aisle. Like before, she would be wearing the long-sleeved wedding dress that flattered her tiny frame, and again her bright blonde hair would shine beneath fingertip veil.
But this time, the couple would not stand alone.
They were joined by their 5 year-old daughter, Jordan, who served as her parents’ imperfect ring bearer, dropping the rings off the little pillow more than once. Although the ceremony was intense, he couldn’t help but laugh at the scene.
“We just kept laughing at her, and it made Jordan drop the ring more and more,” said. “Our second wedding was very small, only eight people. But it was much more intense than the first. I couldn’t believe I had to do it again. Then I thought, thank God I get to do it again.”
For Hal, this wedding was his second to wife Beth. But for Beth, it was her first.
“I didn’t remember our first wedding,” she said. “So it was all brand new.”
A few years earlier, the couple had been enjoying a new house in a new town, Loudon, Tenn., when Beth got a headache. She retreated to the bedroom as Hal welcomed and entertained two guests there to watch the newly released “Jurassic Park” and celebrate his birthday. Twenty minutes later, she had not returned. When her husband went to check on her, he found a scene which devastated him.
“She was lying on the bed clutching her head,” he said. “She was in the fetal position. I tried to pull her hands down, but she wouldn’t bring them off her head. She was screaming in pain. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t even remember deciding to take her to the hospital.”
After a spinal tap and culture, doctors determined that Beth had encephalitis, a swelling of the brain caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox and shingles. The virus was ravaging her brain, raising her temperature to 106 degrees and wracking Beth with pain. The swelling soon overcame Beth, and she went into seizures.
“I remember her looking at me with fear in her eyes as she started shaking,” Hal said quietly. “Then she just slipped into the coma. We didn’t know if she would wake up. The doctors said at that point they don’t usually make it.”
Beth was placed on life support, and the family prepared for the worst. But to their amazement, Beth stabilized and slowly awoke.
But she was far from whole.
Beth suffered severe brain damage which caused amnesia. She had no memory of her life prior to the illness — no memory of the recent move to Tennessee, no memory of her teaching and coaching career, and no memory of her husband and their 2-year-old daughter.
“You can’t imagine the shock of waking up one day in a strange hospital and then learning that you were married and had a baby,” she said. “It didn’t seem fair. I had no choice in the matter.”
“She was being told that she had a daughter and a family,” Hal said. “We had photos, and people told her stories to prove it, but she didn’t really like that.”
“I resented it,” Beth added.
“In the movies, it all works out by the end,” he said. “She gets her memory back, and everything’s fine. Well, that’s not how it is. She didn’t get her memory back, and there was a time when she had no feelings but resentment.”
After six months of intensive therapy, Beth went home to a house she said was not her own. Hal spent another six months courting his wife as she continued to heal. As her warmth toward their daughter and Hal returned, he became even more determined to win his wife’s hand again.
“I was trying to woo her, but at first it was like talking to a picture,” he said. “But then she started warming up to our daughter. So I really started working at it. I could see the emotions start to come back.”
Two years after the illness took Beth’s memories, she had fallen in love with her husband again. But there was a problem: To her, he wasn’t her husband.
“I wanted to feel like I was married,” she said. “So I asked him to remarry me.”
The couple renewed their vows in 1995, 15 years to the day after their first wedding in Bella Vista. Although she has no memory of their first meeting in the aisles of a Bentonville Walmart, of eating barbecue on their honeymoon in Kansas City or even the birth of their daughter, Jordan, Beth embraced her “new” family.
Seventeen years later, the Walkers have recently celebrated their 32nd and 17th wedding anniversaries. But Beth has never regained all her memories and in fact has difficulties making new ones.
“I’m a bona fide blonde,” she said with a laugh. “The encephalitis causes swelling of the brain and like shingles, the virus causes scars. But these are scars on the brain. The virus ate holes in it. But now I can say I am ‘holy!'”
Beth copes with her ongoing memory loss by journaling, relying heavily on maps and GPS and reminders from family and friends. But it is her reliance on her faith and the “Great Physician” that she says has brought the couple through this near-tragedy.
“The first thing I remembered when I woke up was my salvation,” she said. “I don’t remember much else, but I remember the choice I made when I was 8 years old to accept Jesus into my heart. I knew right then that I was still in my Father God’s loving care.”
“When we were first dating, I didn’t have faith,” said Hal. “I have always known there was a God, but when I was young I had no heart. I watched Beth real close, met her friends and saw how God was in her heart. I prayed with her, and the power started flowing.”
The couple has twice accepted God as the third person in their marriage, and for them, their faith has made all the difference. Although she does not remember the birth of her daughter, Beth remembers her spiritual birth in 1996 and her baptism in 2007. And although she does not remember the marital problems the couple faced seven years into their “first” marriage, the lessons in forgiveness learned from spiritual counseling continue to help the couple this time around.
“We’ve had real problems since the illness,” said Hal. “We’ve lost cell phones and keys … And having to repeat myself, it’s hard to keep patience. But I think now I have a great deal of empathy. I get mad, but it’s not her fault. That applies to any marriage. Nobody is ever going to make you happy all the time. So you have to forgive them.”
“We’re close friends,” Beth said. “Our marriage is based on a deep friendship. I think that, and God, has held us together.”
“If you have a really great friend you can get mad at them, but you can always work through it,” Hal said. “She’s not going to get better, but I am happy with what we have and what God has given me.”
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