Lou Verdi ran a numbers racket for the mob out of his cafe, La Strada, on South Eighth Street, and had a nice house in Cherry Hill, where he was a stranger.

He may have been a wiseguy, but he was pretty dumb about his home life.

"My son's birthday, I'd spend $2,000 on a party with a pony and everything," he said. But when it was time to cut the cake, Lou Verdi was nowhere to be found. "Who wants to be around a bunch of screaming kids?" he asked.

"I never for one time stopped and thought about their feelings. It was always about me. My wife would be, 'Lou, please come home, I miss you.' "

He paused. "I hate myself for that."

He was describing the Lou Verdi of a quarter century ago. The one arrested in 1984 for gambling and loan-sharking. The one who spent three years in prison. The one who got divorced.

He settled his debt to society. But his rehabilitation was not nearly begun. Maybe that's what accounts for all the time he has put in lately in the one-room apartment he rents at Ninth and Dickinson, in a sort of self-imposed house arrest, waiting hand and foot on the dying Mary Capell. Or maybe it's just love.

The two had known each other a decade when she went into the hospital with pneumonia in 2007 and came out with a diagnosis of lung cancer. Her boyfriend threw her out of his place. Lou asked her to stay with him.

"We had been best friends. I said, 'Let me take care of you.' Then I fell in love with her," he said.

Mary, 44, had been quite the looker, he said. Blue eyes, hair like Farrah Fawcett, "a body that wouldn't quit." When she moved in more than two years ago, those locks were lost to the chemo. Doctors gave her a year at the most.

Lou, who is 60, became her cook, housekeeper, and caregiver. When she could no longer climb stairs, he gave up the three-bedroom apartment he rented and fixed up the tiny place on the first floor.

The past month has been the hardest, the cancer spreading to her brain. Her lucidity comes and goes. She sleeps 16 hours a day.

Three weeks ago, the pain grew so unbearable that she rode by ambulance to Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.

Something else was bothering her.

She'd raised four kids, but had never been married. She'd mentioned this to Lou from time to time. But another wedding was the last thing Lou needed.

At the hospice, she told the chaplain, the Rev. David Wenker, that her one regret was not getting married. Then her health deteriorated to the point she could barely talk.

"We thought perhaps the opportunity had passed," Wenker said.

Somehow, she rallied, and the chaplain asked what she thought about having a wedding at the hospice on the day she was to be discharged.

"She was more clear as the day got closer that this was what she really wanted to do," Wenker said. "I think it was her clarity that really moved Lou to go along with her."

Lou showed up at 10 a.m. Thursday. The chaplain told him he would be getting married in three hours.

The bridegroom bought a bouquet of flowers around the corner, called everyone he could think of, drove to Termini Bros. for some cakes, cannoli, and cream puffs.

Meanwhile, the hospice staff was preparing for its first wedding in the year it had been open. Nurses made up Mary, pinning a crisp white sheet over her green hospital gown. Lou was still in his long-sleeved T-shirt and jeans at 1 p.m. when, before 60 staffers, friends, and family in the hospice living room, Lou Verdi and Mary Capell became husband and wife.

Back in South Philly that afternoon, he helped her back into bed and hung a poster given to them by another chaplain, Kathy Egan, who had served as matron of honor. It reads: "Live life passionately. Laugh out loud. Love unconditionally."

"We're taking everything day by day," Lou said on Monday, watching from the end of the bed as Mary slept. "Who knows how many days we have left?"

He talked of how, when the streets were cleared of snow, he hoped to bundle Mary into a cab, with her wheelchair, and they'd pick out gifts for each other, two simple wedding bands.

"That," he said, "is going to be our Christmas."

But yesterday morning, when he brought her coffee and pills, she didn't respond. He called for an ambulance. She went back into hospice.

Three times she has walked out of such places. Surely, he said, she could rally a fourth time. They could get the rings, go to her brother's for Christmas dinner.

"I'm just crossing my fingers," he said, "and hoping to God."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.