Both Sheila and Chris grew up in Glenside, but they didn't really know each other until they landed in the same group of friends at Abington High School in the late 1970s.
Chris, then a junior, found himself wanting to be more than friends with sophomore Sheila. The gang was gathering at his house for Super Bowl XIII, and he was determined to ask her out before the party ended.
When Sheila, who had just had foot surgery, called to say her crutches were no match for the wintry mix and she couldn't make it, Chris took a sled to her house and pulled her over the ice and snow. They were soon a couple.
Chris remembers the miserable summer of '79, when his family house-sat for California relatives. Instead of enjoying the sun, he was missing his girlfriend. In one of the frequent, long letters they exchanged, Sheila wrote: "If you contacted me in 30 years . . . I would drop everything and see you that night."
The romance continued for the 1 1/2 years that Chris studied at community college, and even after he moved to Daytona Beach, Fla., to train as a pilot in preparation for the Navy and his astronaut dream. Chris had no phone in his student apartment. Between rare visits, Sheila would wait up in her Glenside bedroom for late-night calls from a pay phone.
But in Chris' third year at school, he started getting sick. He had ulcers. And years of untreated heartburn had left sores in his esophagus. Any sudden change in cabin pressure would leave him doubled over in pain. "I couldn't be a commercial pilot. It ruled out the Navy, too. And back then, it was strictly test pilots who got picked to be an astronaut," he said.
Chris dropped out of school and into a depression. He sought comfort with another woman. She became pregnant.
Chris called Sheila to tell her he was getting married to someone else.
"I didn't even know how to begin to say it - that I'd screwed up like that, and that I hid it from her. To let her down that way, it was just devastating," he said.
It was devastating for Sheila, too. "It was a short conversation," she remembered. "He was going to be a father. What could I say to that?"
For the better part of three decades, she dated here and there. "But someone would have had to come through with a jackhammer to get to me," she said.
Chris grew to love his wife. His sons, Christopher Jr., now 23, and Nicholas, 21, became the center of his life. Chris took a second job as a manager at Wynn Dixie. Then, five years after they wed, Chris' wife left him for someone else.
Chris' father, Alvin, urged him to move his family back home to Glenside. Chris thought almost immediately of Sheila. He figured she would never give him a second chance after what he had done. And that considering the pain he already caused her, he shouldn't make her watch his children grow up.
Sheila, who had heard what was happening through the town grapevine, was hoping Chris would move back. She was even surprised how much it hurt when, a few years later, she heard Chris had fallen in love with someone new.
For most of the 1990s, Chris was happy. He established himself in the construction business, and he and his girlfriend added a third son to the family, Sean, who is now 17. But Sean's mother was diagnosed with an illness that she thought was fatal. Her depression led her to make choices she would not have otherwise made, Chris said, and their relationship fell apart.
Chris and his three sons were on their own.
In June 2009, Christopher Jr. got married in Virginia. After the ceremony, Chris was at the hotel, having ice cream with his mother and siblings. "It was so nice to have joy . . . and to see my son so happy," he told his mother, Carol. Then he confessed: "My biggest fear in life is that I'll never fall in love again. I have a lot of love to give somebody."
Carol told her son, "Sheila might still be waiting for you. You don't know."
To Chris, the thought was implausible. They hadn't even spoken since August 1987, when Chris' brother got married.
"I figured she got married, had found someone, and was happy," he said.
But when Chris returned home to Edgewater, he immediately began Googling Sheila. After a few weeks, he saw her name on Classmates.com.
He began to type. "I made the biggest mistake of my life 23 years ago. I still think of you," he said.
In July 2009, Sheila saw an e-mail from Classmates that said Christopher S. had sent her a message.
She hit reply.
"You floored me!" she wrote. "I still think of you, too." Back in high school, Sheila had written Chris a letter promising she would drop everything to see him, even if 30 years had passed. It was two days shy of 30 years since she wrote that letter.
About six weeks later, Sheila leaped into Chris' arms at Philadelphia International Airport.
How does forever sound?
The economy had not been kind to construction in Florida, and Chris had been planning to relocate. Shortly after he and Sheila were reunited, he moved back to the area and was living with his sister in Warminster. He landed a job managing a cleaning-supplies warehouse.
On Jan. 21, 2010 - the 31st anniversary of the day Chris asked Sheila for their first date - he had another question for her.
Returning from her insurance agent job, Sheila pulled into the driveway of the Hatboro home where she lived with her sister.
She found a poem, spread out in phrases in different locations, eventually leading her to the backyard. There was Chris, on one knee, holding a bouquet of flowers and a ring that was fashioned from his great-grandmother's.
It was so them
The couple, who now live in Horsham, were married at the Joseph Ambler Inn.
"Not being 20, we did not have a normal wedding reception," Sheila said. "There was no dance floor, no DJ. We had hors d'oeuvres and cocktails, and a cake."
The Grateful Dead's "Eyes of the World" played as people were seated. Sheila walked in on the arm of her nephew and godson Kevin to "Ode to Joy." The couple recessed to Etta James' "At Last."
Chris' parents - mother Carol, father Alvin, and stepmother Margaret - joined in the celebration. A wedding-day photo of Sheila's parents, Josephine and William, both deceased, was displayed at the reception.
When they were dating the first time, "we made up our own word that meant an incredible feeling that the word love doesn't even come close to explaining," Chris said. That made-up word - larsaloopa - is inscribed in their wedding rings.
This was a surprise
Sticking with their goal of keeping things simple, the couple chose not to have a bridal party. All through the planning, Sheila's best friend, Beth, teased that she had waited 47 years to be her bridesmaid, and faux-threatened revenge. During the reception, Beth devilishly pulled down her jacket to reveal a fake tattoo. "Sheila's a (BLEEP!) 'cause I'm not her bridesmaid," it said.
Sheila couldn't believe she was finally marrying Chris. "Walking up the aisle, I couldn't get to him quick enough," she said. "I think I dragged Kevin behind me!"
Chris shared those feelings. "It was just incredible seeing her in that ivory dress, and knowing it was finally going to happen," he said.
A bargain: The fiance of one of Sheila's friends works at a printing shop. He did the programs in exchange for a copy of some rare Grateful Dead recordings.
The splurge: The florist. "We wanted everybody to have flowers," Sheila said. In addition to Sheila's bouquet, the couple ordered 15 boutonnieres, nine corsages, and two wrist corsages, blowing their budget by 50 percent.
A week in Bermuda; St. Thomas; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Love: BEHIND THE SCENES
Rev. John T. Hank, Plumsteadville, Pa.
Joseph Ambler Inn, North Wales
Joseph Ambler Inn
K&S Wedding Videos & Photography, Lansdale
Beth's Flower Boutique, Horsham
David's Bridal, Plymouth Meeting
One Stop Wedding Shoppe, Willow GroveEndText
Love: DO YOU HAVE THE DATE?
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