Nearly 65 years later, love strengthens couple from Richland



One June afternoon in 1949, Sally Metz was sitting on the front stoop of her house on the North Side's Madison Street watching the world go by.

At 16, she was a little thing, in the world but not yet of it -- "too skinny and shy," she'd say today -- hazel-eyed, with a frizz of blond hair, good at sports and, ever so tentatively, "seeing a fella." But when her new next-door neighbor Bob Keener sauntered by, tall, tanned and two years older, on a sudden impulse, she called out. "Hey, where're you going?"

Bob was a pretty popular guy, and she assumed he'd shrug her off, but he grinned and said, "We're going to the North Park swimming pool. Want to come?"

Sally and Bob: A love story

Sally and Bob Keener talk about their 64 years of marriage. (Video by Andrew Rush; 2/14/2014)

That was how their romance began, on a hot summer day scented with chlorine. Nearly 65 years later, on this Valentine's Day, the Keeners are celebrating a long, happy marriage, although don't ask them how to explain the mystery of such a rare and beautiful thing.

"We thought we were in love when we got married, but we had no idea what love was, no idea at all," said Sally, now 80.

Today, looking back, she no longer wonders. She knows.

"Love is the ups and downs, the good and the bad ... the love just grew stronger, in my opinion, because of the needs we both had and shared.

"Sometimes I needed him more, and now he needs me more."

Bob is able to talk a little bit and he understands everything, but he is partially paralyzed from a traumatic brain injury he experienced 19 months ago after a fall in a Target store in Cranberry. They had just stopped at the store after a leisurely Saturday lunch, and in a flash, their life changed. Bob, now 82, went from being an independent person, able to function on his own, to drive to the store, to take a walk, to someone totally dependent on his wife to dress, shower, go to the bathroom -- everything.

No one knows how Bob happened to fall, although doctors have ruled out an aneurism. Sally was in another aisle when she heard someone over the speakers urging a call to 911.

While he was in relatively good health in recent years, he walked with a cane because of knee surgery a decade ago, "and somehow when I heard that announcement I knew it was him."

Now, every day, she wakes up in their carriage home at St. Barnabus in Richland before he does, has a cup of coffee and putters around with the "Today" show on, until he stirs at around 7 or 7:30. She gets him out of bed, gives him coffee, helps him put on his socks, his shoes and his bathrobe, and gives him breakfast. He has a sponge bath every day and twice a week she helps him into the shower.

After breakfast, she helps him into the sunroom -- he has a walker and a brace on his right leg -- and at 10:30 she gets him out of his chair for a walk around the house so his muscles don't atrophy, and then he will work on his writing or reading exercises until noon, when she brings him lunch. At 2 p.m., she takes him through the rehabilitation exercises she was taught by his physical therapists -- "I've upped his repetitions from 20 to 30," she says proudly -- and then it's back to the sunroom to read or watch television until dinner time, with bedtime at 9.

Sometimes she goes out grocery shopping, but doesn't leave him for long, and doesn't mind it. "He is getting better each day," Sally said. "But I suppose I could use some respite care."

She isn't the type, however, to ask for help, says her daughter Christine Keener Garrett, 61, of Charlotte, N.C.

"She has never, ever complained to me about anything, although recently she did express how isolated she feels sometimes," her daughter said. "She's been taking care of my father for a year now, something she never imagined she would or could be able to do."

Added to the mix is Bob, "who is very stubborn," his daughter says. "He thinks he can do so much on his own and hates to rely on anyone. He feels so badly about putting someone out, especially my mother."

But on a recent winter afternoon, the Keeners both basked in the warmth of recalling their lives together.

They grew up working class on the North Side. Both went to the Sarah Heinz House, a neighborhood community center, after school, swimming, playing baseball, basketball. Sally took tap dancing lessons. "Every year they had a little operetta, and I played the lead in one," she said.

Bob?

"I always thought he was a wolf," she says playfully, as he grins.

They said their wedding vows in the priest's office at the old St. Cyprian Church on the North Side, despite pleas by his parents and hers to wait. She was 17 and he was 19.

She married him, she thinks, because she missed him after he moved out of their North Side neighborhood to Unity in Westmoreland County. Bob married her, he said, because he knew she was the one after their first date at the swimming pool.

"She was beautiful," he said.

Like so many women of her generation, Sally stayed at home and had babies -- besides Christine, there is Robert, 63, of Dallas, and Daniel, 55, of Sewickley -- while her husband worked as a laborer in a construction company, then, as an electrician, and later an expert at repairing large institutional furnaces and boilers. Eventually, they moved from the North Side to Bethel Park, where a lot of young families had bought houses.

There were some bumps in the road, job changes or losses, "but we never suffered, no matter what their money situation was," Christine recalled. "They never told us. There was no change in what was being prepared for dinner or Christmas or anything. It was always consistent."

Not to mention their public displays of affection, she added.

"They've always been really close, to the point, when you're a kid, you go, 'Oh, stop it.' "

In 1964, Bob was diagnosed with lung cancer, perhaps a result of working in construction. He then had a stroke an hour after coming out of the operating room. And while his children remember his lengthy hospitalization, his daughter, then 12, didn't learn about the lung cancer until she was in her 30s.

"My mom never talked about it, because I think she was trying to protect us."

Bob recovered and went back to work. When the children were mostly grown, Sally become a cashier at Trax Farms, where she worked for 18 years. Six years ago they moved to Richland.

Today, Sally's biggest worry is staying healthy. She looks amazingly trim and fit for her age, "but there are some days when I don't feel well." Their three children are in touch constantly. When Daniel Keener went through a bad bout with pancreatic cancer a few years ago, he got through it, he says, because "my parents have always been strong people and I like to hope that I have inherited their strength to handle anything that comes my way."

Recently, Sally went to a viewing at a funeral home, and a friend approached her. "This one gal says to me, 'Is Bob at home?' and I said yes, and she said, 'He's not in a nursing home? You're taking care of him?' and I said, 'Of course.' "

Putting him in a nursing home never entered her mind. She wanted him there with her, not with somebody else.

For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Those endless daily routines of caregiving for a partner can be onerous and isolating, but as Bob heals and improves, there is satisfaction, gratitude and some of the same giddy feelings they discovered during the summer days of 1949.

"You know, he said something to me the other day, " Sally said, her eyes tearing up, as her husband, in the other chair, quietly watched her face.

"He said to me, 'Every time you help me, I fall in love with you all over again.' "


Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com.

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