After the vows, life’s sweetness and sorrow

(Raye Gillette-Whaley / Gillette Portrait Arts ) - Deborah Fleischaker and Aram Schvey with son Evan.

(Raye Gillette-Whaley / Gillette Portrait Arts ) - Deborah Fleischaker and Aram Schvey with son Evan.

Every Sunday, this column tells the story of a Washington area couple’s path to the altar. This week, as a new year begins, we decided to check in with some of those couples to see what married life has held for them. If you’d like your wedding to be profiled in On Love, visit www.washingtonpost.com/
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Nikki Milton knew there were “a thousand reasons” Dan Milton might not want to be with her. “And there’s a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t want to be with him — on paper,” she said before their wedding Oct. 23, 2010.

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But it didn’t matter that they were of different races and religions, or that he was a little person and she was of average height. “Every time he walks into a room, I’m happy to see him.”

For nearly four years before they wed, Nikki and Dan were preoccupied by his unpredictable seizures, which caused cognitive issues that threatened his job as a medical researcher. His treatment had to be adjusted.

A year after they were married, life seemed to calm down. Dan’s health improved, and his career went back on the upswing. Their newfound stability “let us get back into getting to know each other,” Nikki says, and with that, “came some learning curves and adjustment.”

In some ways, she thinks, crises such as Dan’s health are easier to deal with than the mundane annoyances of everyday life. “There’s no checking things off in marriage — okay, we solved this, we can move on,” she says. “Things reoccur and you have to deal with them and not make a mountain out of a molehill. It makes me more patient.”

Dan, now 42, wasn’t sure he wanted children, but after getting to know Nikki’s niece, he came around to the idea of fatherhood. Still, the D.C. couple had seen friends struggle with fertility and weren’t sure how easy it would be to conceive. After several rounds of genetic counseling, then decided to go for it.

In the fall, after a year of trying, Nikki, 39, found out she was pregnant. Their baby boy is due May 12. “I was prepared to have problems, but I’ve had a pretty smooth pregnancy,” she says. “I feel lucky.”

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Until the day before they left, Lori Powell didn’t know where she and Dan were going on their honeymoon. Dan surprised her with a five-week trek around Europe — London, Paris, Rome, Greece and Turkey.

“It was definitely a trip of a lifetime,” she says. “We just never thought it would be the trip of a lifetime.”

When Lori met Dan through EHarmony, dating a guy in a wheelchair hadn’t been in her “realm of possibilities.” But she fell in love with his smarts and wit and enthusiasm for life. It didn’t matter that Dan, lead nanotechnologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, had been paralyzed in a flag football game in high school.

After a year and a half of dating, they married in August 2009. They were still settling into married life two years later, when Dan went to an emergency room to check out a pain in his side. Doctors found pneumonia. Dan’s body would have a much harder time than most fighting off the illness, so he was hospitalized.

Even as his body weakened, Dan, who had defied expectations throughout his life, was determined to g et well. “He’d say to his doctors, ‘Come on, you guys are smart guys. You can do this — be positive. Don’t give up on me. I’m not giving up,’ ” Lori recalls. “They were blown away by it.”

But in September 2011, Dan’s organs failed. He was 36 when he died; it was the day before Lori’s 39th birthday.

“He taught me what’s really important in life, and how precious time really is,” Lori says. “So how you spend it and who you spend it with is what matters.”

Dan had fought for disability rights, but made the biggest impression with his own approach to life. “He had his injury at the age of 16, so he lived with it for about 20 years. And he did a lot in those 20 years, more than a lot of people do in a lifetime,” Lori says. “He liked doing things big. It’s like, ‘If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right ’ ”

And that included their relationship: “He was my biggest fan and would have done anything for me,” says Lori, who lives in Columbia. Friends often remark on what a great team they made, and how contagious their affection was. “They say, ‘We saw how much he loved you and how he treated you.’ He set the bar high.”

Lori still grapples with grief every day. And, every day, she counts her blessings for having met him. Loving Dan, she says, “was a gift — a very good gift.”

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Before Kerilyn and Peter Russo married in 2009, their relationship was a break-up-and-make-up roller coaster. But since the wedding, their lives have been stable.

“I think when you’re not married — single or even engaged — there’s this ‘I can get out of this,’ feeling,” she says. “And when you get married, there's this settling in. I know it can be seen as ‘You’re trapped,’ but there’s also this really nice, comfy, loving feeling of, ‘Whatever happens, I’m not doing this alone.’”

Independently and as a couple, they’ve thrived in the past three years. Peter was promoted to executive chef at Chef Geoff's in Tysons Corner. Kerilyn launched a Web site, Married to a Chef, that is a virtual gathering place for the significant others of people in the restaurant industry. While continuing to work as a designer, she also became a certified life coach, her true calling, she says.

In most ways, marriage is better than Kerilyn expected, but she is long past believing it’s a cure-all. “As my dad says, ‘Perfect only exists in the dictionary.’ I think that’s true. Marriage is work. There’s high tide and low tide. There are times when you feel really close to them and times when you feel like you’re apart.”

But the commitment between the Springfield couple makes the waves easier to ride. Kerilyn turned 38 on New Year’s Eve, and Peter is 41. They’re hoping to start a family this year and to figure out where to settle long term — in Washington or elsewhere. Regardless, they’re enjoying the ad­ven­ture.

“I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life,” she says.

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Less than two months after Deborah Fleischaker and Aram Schvey became engaged, she found a lump in her breast: cancer. Because chemo was likely to send her into early menopause, she underwent fertility preservation that produced a single fertilized embryo. The couple named it “Frosty.”

Deborah’s hair hadn’t grown in when she and Aram married in June 2010, but the wedding was a celebration of life. And a tribute to their relationship, which had grown immeasurably stronger through their trials.

After the wedding, Deborah began radiation therapy. Doctors urged the couple to wait to have children until she had been cancer-free for two years.

Early last year ,the couple found a fertility doctor in New York and drove “Frosty” there in a special tank in the back seat. “It was our first family road trip,” Aram says with a laugh. The couple were also able to produce one more fertilized embryo; they named it “Frostina.”

The chances of a successful pregnancy were slim. “I had to really grapple with and come to terms with the idea that biological parenthood might not be in our future,” says Deborah, now 40.

Trying to have a baby “was the ultimate act of optimism,” she says. So, last March, she had both embryos implanted. A little more than a week later, they stared at a home pregnancy test. It was positive. They didn’t believe it, so they tried four our five more. All were positive.

“It was this combination of disbelief, excitement and a realization that ‘Oh my gosh, we really could be parents!’ ” Deborah says. But even as the pregnancy progressed, the couple kept their guard up, fearful of something going wrong.

On Nov. 17, Evan, was born, perfectly healthy, the spitting image of his father.

“It was just so awe-inspiring. This moment of, ‘I couldn’t have imagined it would work out this well,” Deborah says.

Neither she nor Aram, who live on Capitol Hill, can imagine having gone through the past three years without one another.

“When Deb was diagnosed it was ‘Why her?’ And ‘Why us?’ ” Aram, 37, says. “And now this is sort of the opposite. Life is like that — there’s bad stuff and good stuff.”

“It’s important to remember that in the end, we’re really blessed,” Deborah says. “We have so much more good stuff than bad — and the bad had helped us appreciate the good.”

 
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