The heart of the matter

Published 11:10 am Saturday, February 13, 2010

A steak dinner will probably be on the table this Valentine’s Day at Dennis and Michaell Bednar’s Austin home.

It’s a nice change for the couple who are going on 39 years of marriage. Until several years ago, the duo shared meatloaf every Feb. 14, an homage to their first Valentine’s dinner when they could not afford fancier fare.

“When we were first married, Dennis was still in college,” Michaell explained. “So, meatloaf became a tradition, until one year when Denny said, ‘Hey, don’t you think we can afford a T-bone now?’”

In between that first holiday meatloaf and tonight’s fine dining, the Bednars have raised four children, welcomed six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They have developed their own interests, lived part-time in different cities, fostered evolving political ideologies, and faced health scares both founded and unfounded — all the while, holding onto one constant.

Thanks to their sense of humor, tolerance for differences and mutual respect for each other, their love just “keeps on keepin’ on,” as Michaell puts it.

While Dennis and Michaell also credit their long marriage to having lived “a charmed life,” without the trials that some encounter, their daughter Brigitte Campbell reflects on their relationship as something to be admired this Valentine’s Day.

While the Bednars maintain that their lives are nothing more than ordinary, Campbell might be onto something as between 40 and 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, according to The National Center for Health Statistics.

The Bednars say they’d advise engaged couples to make sure that they have respect for each other. This value was evident early on in their relationship.

Dennis, now a retiree, and Michaell, who works for KSMQ TV, met in the cafeteria at Austin Junior College.

“I had just set down my bowl of chili and went back to the line to grab something else,” Dennis recalled.

When he got back to his seat, Michaell was there, mistakenly eating his lunch.

“I told her, ‘If you want some chili, I’ll buy you your own, but get away from mine!’ ”

The tale still makes Michaell blush, but she got her revenge about a year later when they married, and Dennis became the cook of the household.

Their first rocky encounter in the cafeteria was, of course, not their only difficult moment. One challenge in their marriage was raising children while the two had opposite parenting styles.

Michaell calls herself overprotective, joking that in the winter she would have preferred to keep the kids inside all day, bundled up, snuggled in a blanket — you know, just in case.

Dennis was the opposite, tending to give them more freedom, letting the kids learn from their mistakes.

“Somehow we made it through it. Most things aren’t worth fighting over,” Dennis recalled.

And, even though they have had a few arguments over the years, which may be natural when you are interested in completely different things, “when it has mattered most, they are always there for each other,” Campbell said.

This November, Michaell had to leave Dennis alone for a few days, including a Saturday morning, the time of week they always spend together.

Michaell had to go to the Mayo Clinic to have a tumor biopseyed. Her doctors were nearly certain that it was lung cancer, and had even told them that Michaell had only a 75 percent chance of surviving the next five years.

Before leaving for the hospital, Michaell made sure to leave Dennis gift certificates to Jim’s SuperFresh and shopping bags so he could go about a normal Saturday morning without her.

Dennis reluctantly went through some of their morning routine alone, which begins early with coffee, paying bills, creating a menu and a shopping list, followed by trips to the grocery store, post office, library and the bank.

“I could hardly do anything that day,” said the former Marine and veteran of the Vietnam War.

Michaell left the hospital with the terrific news that the tumor was benign, a finding that she pins to nothing other than the power of prayer.

Now, they have been able to resume their Saturdays together, and Michaell has been able to continue caring for Dennis who was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia in 2006, attributed to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War.

Dennis has no symptoms at this point, and was unexpectedly diagnosed following routine bloodwork.

Michaell has accompanied him to the VA Medical Center for frequent follow-up visits ever since.

“The love that my parents have for each other is inspiring to me,” Campbell said. “As a divorcee myself, I think that a true, dedicated love like this is hard to find anymore.”

The Bednars laugh and call their daughter imaginative, still choosing to see their lives together as nothing especially interesting.

But, Brigitte explained, perhaps that achieved sense of simplicity — in the face of every struggle, little and small — is what has allowed their love to thrive, day in and day out, year after year.