“I take thee to be my wedded spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…
There’s a very important reason that “in sickness and in health” is included in traditional wedding vows. Sickness can rip a relationship apart or it can bond a couple more tightly than ever. That’s what Helen White and Andy Leighton found themselves faced with over 10 years ago when Andy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
“It didn’t just put me on my heels, it knocked me on another part of my anatomy,” Leighton recalls. “It stopped me dead in my tracks from confusion, depression and fear. It took a long time to come to terms with a new reality.”
He was able to come to terms thanks to his wife. “Parkinson’s is something you definitely don’t want to try and face by yourself, so Helen became my coach. I wanted to give up, but she made me step up and found ways for me to stay active.”
They learned to play pickleball and loved it. The fast thinking, rapid movements, small courts and camaraderie made it the perfect activity.
“I was told the best thing I could do to slow the progression of my disease was to exercise,” says Andy. “Because exercise is not like medicine, exercise is medicine.”
But keeping him motivated would not be easy. Still, Helen was up to the challenge. “I’m just not going to baby him. I don’t allow him to wallow in sorrow or pity. He is capable of more than he believes and I’m going to push him to be the best he can, and to have the most fun possible.”
“Do you see what I’m up against?” laughs Andy. “She won’t allow me to mope!”
“I take thee to be my wedded spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”
The Leightons were on the right course until life threw them another completely unexpected, devastating challenge. In 2018 Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now it was Andy’s turn to step up, which he did, learning from how she rallied him. “We stay motivated through pickleball,” Andy says. “There aren’t too many husband-and-wife teams out there, but we’ve been able to do it quite well. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”
It should be no surprise that athletics keeps them going because it is what brought them together. Helen was the first female to play on a boy’s high school tennis team in Syracuse, New York. Andy was helping coach a rival team when they met, and they’ve been inseparable ever since. “I don’t know that I can put into words how much she means to me,” he says. “But she is a special kind of person, that’s the best way to put it. She’s wonderful.”
“You see, our illnesses have brought us even closer together,” says Helen. “He won’t let cancer beat me and I’m not letting Parkinson’s steal his joy. In the process it’s opened up a whole new world for us both helping cancer and Parkinson’s patients stay strong through pickleball.”
“And yes, my Parkinson’s is progressing, but so much slower than expected,” Andy says. “I owe it all to Helen for constantly encouraging me. She is my cheerleader, drill sergeant and life partner.”
“We are living for the present and planning for the future,” says Helen. “Every day is a blessing, so we take it as they come. So, embrace the moment and embrace each other. Every day together is priceless.”
This article is featured in the August 2022 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest. Click to read the whole issue.