ST. LOUIS – On Oct. 14, 2011, Rich Luenemann awoke to a blessed life. He was a successful volleyball coach at Washington University, having won three Division III national championships in the last eight years. He was a proud husband to his jewel, Joan, and a father of three kids, a man admired at home and among peers for a storied head-coaching career that spanned three decades.
On Oct. 14, 2011, Luenemann awoke to normalcy. He prepared in Rochester, N.Y., to lead the Bears against the University of Chicago, another test in what would be a 34-2 campaign. To that point, they were undefeated without dropping a set in the season’s first six weeks. They had won at least 31 games each year since he arrived on the St. Louis campus in 1999. This was his comfort. This was what he knew.
It all changed with one phone call.
Luenemann says he knows what Hell is like. He says he understands, because it can’t be worse than some of what he has lived the last 13 months.
On Oct. 14, 2011, Joan, Luenemann’s wife of 42 years, sustained a brain hemorrhage at the couple’s home in Edwardsville, Ill. She remained in a coma for five months at a St. Louis hospital. Some doctors didn’t expect her to survive.
Since, time has been spent celebrating small gains. Her laughs. Her short responses in conversation such as, “Oh, that’s nice,” or “Yeah, that would be a lot of fun.” Her written messages like, “Let’s go fishing.”
“There are no adjectives that you can write … that describe how overwhelming it is, how helpless it is,” says Luenemann, 62. “In my position as a coach, sometimes you are in a position where you like to have control. And we have absolutely none here. Yet having been with her almost every day since this has happened, I see every incremental improvement.”
There’s a fine difference between joy and pain, a normal life and one that’s turned inside out for reasons unknown. Luenemann calls Joan’s episode, diagnosed as a stroke from a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a “whack on the face.” To him, many aspects of life that once seemed important are no longer so.
As a result, Luenemann values small gifts. Before, he and Joan walked, talked and held hands on bike paths, letting the world pass by. Now, he pushes her in a wheelchair during those same walks and says, “Look at the leaves,” or “Look at the grass,” or “Look at the shape of that tree.” Each detail is a treasure.
“All the times that I had things that I would let bother me, they’re not that important anymore,” Luenemann says. “They’re not that important. It’s an entirely different level of appreciation and understanding of everything around me.”
Joan’s future is still unknown, her condition severe. She’s paralyzed on her left side, and she eats pureed food. But when Luenemann sees her now – “It has been 42 years of a honeymoon,” he says – he observes more than his life’s love. He sees a miracle.
“We’ve loved each other tremendously before this, but now it is like, ‘I can’t wait to hold her hand. I can’t wait to give her a hug,'” he says with a smile. “There are probably 25 kisses a night. She’s still a great kisser.”
The power of human caring can be a mystery. Too often, we take for granted those closest to us. Too often, we say a rushed, “Love you,” to our kids or partners in the morning’s blur before work or school, as if it’s a box to strike off before we march through our routines. Too often, we should slow down.
It’s hard not to listen to Luenemann and wonder if most of us can have a similar bond. He has lost count of Joan’s surgeries. She has been moved from an area hospital to nursing homes to the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis, where she undergoes multiple hours of therapy each day. He spends as much time with her as possible, despite his grueling job at the university, where sometimes he leaves after 1 a.m. Most of his meals consist of salami and sub sandwiches from Wal-Mart.
Luenemann has trained himself to survive on about four hours of sleep. At night, before Joan, 63, closes her eyes, he lies in bed with her, holds her hand and talks about the day. They give each other life.
“It’s like a man starving, and she feeds me,” he says. “Just being there, she feeds me.” There’s some sadness in those words. Luenemann wonders why it took this hardship to gain a deeper respect for what the world can offer. He spends more time trying to find the good in others than before. After years of his career as the couple’s focus, Joan has become their center, their soul.
“My motivation is Joan,” Luenemann says. “Whatever I do, all I have to do is reflect on my motivation and things are easy. I can’t describe it. It’s more than a first love. It’s way past a first love.”
There was peace in his eyes. Recently, Holly Luenemann, one of Rich’s daughters, visited her mom. When she arrived, her parents were laying together, Rich’s arm wrapped around his wife without saying a word. The world had slowed. There was solace in the silence.
“I think it has no limits,” Holly says of human caring. “I think this has been an extraordinary testimony that love and human contact can really heal. I would imagine that if my dad had not been so present, that my mom might not be alive or be where she is right now. … I don’t think it has limits. I don’t think it is measurable.”
There are light moments, times that push away tomorrow’s uncertainty. Emily Luenemann, another of Rich’s daughters, likes when Mom teases Dad. He’s a constant presence; Emily says the family has jokingly called him a “super hero” because of his untiring devotion. Never waste a second. Never let go.
“You don’t ever want to get to a point where you ever regret something,” says Emily, a student assistant for Washington University’s volleyball team. “My mom and I have such a close relationship. I was so grateful for how close we were. There was never a point where after this happened when I was like, ‘Oh, I wish I would have spent more time with my mom. I wish I would have told her I loved her more.’ That’s really important for everyone to say, ‘I love you’ and never to have any remorse or guilt that you never expressed your feelings for each other.”
Rich’s feelings for Joan have grown through this trying year. Brian Luenemann, Rich’s son, heard a nurse tell him that she went home and told her husband, “If you even loved me half as much as this guy I have met over at the hospital, I’ll be a happy woman the rest of my life.” Compassion has no bounds.
“He’s always been close to her,” says Brian, who flew from Alaska to join his family. “Before this happened, I told people that I’d never seen somebody so in love with and devoted to his wife even after 40 years. … Since this happened, since this aneurysm, it has multiplied.”
Rich Luenemann knows life will never be the same for them. Plans to visit the Rocky Mountains for a week are gone. The couple’s future trips will be regional getaways, perhaps to Chicago or Kansas City or to the forests of southern Illinois, because of Joan’s health.
But Luenemann believes will power overcomes all. It explains why he has faith in Joan, whom he greets by saying, “How’s my girlfriend?” It explains why he holds optimism uncommon for his situation. It explains why he continues to believe.
“Everybody should have what we have had from the very beginning, from the time they date,” Luenemann says. “And they don’t. In the world today, we try to find why we’re not working out with our partners. Rather than try to make things work in our life, we don’t try.”
On Oct. 14, 2011, Luenemann awoke to normalcy. If he could go back and speak to his former self, he would say this: Focus on your family. Tell them you love them every day, and mean it with sincerity. Value everything in your life, because each piece is part of you.
“We find reasons to do for the other rather than do for ourselves,” Luenemann says of his relationship with Joan. “That’s been the template of our life.”
More than 13 months ago, Rich Luenemann awoke to a blessed existence. He still lives it to this day.