'It was the way he carried himself'

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010; E08

None of Tonya Sanders's friends understood why she invited Stanley Ronald "Chuck" Wills to move into her Silver Spring apartment back in 1997.

Wills was, in his own words, "a player, a ladies' man. Every time she'd see me, she'd see me with a different woman."

But Sanders had been infatuated with Wills, 10 years her senior, since she was a teenager in the 1980s. Her mom and stepfather would have Wills over to hang out, and Sanders would spend the whole night staring at a man who cracked himself up and took anyone within earshot along for the good time.

"It was the way he carried himself," says Sanders, now 40.

Wills hadn't seen Sanders in several years when he stopped by to visit her parents in 1994. Sanders, by then a single mom of two young boys, walked into the room looking different than he'd remembered, very much a grown-up. She gave Wills her pager number and told him to come over for breakfast sometime.

He took her up on the offer a few weeks later, and as she laid a plate before him, Sanders started to talk.

"She was like, 'I know you probably never experienced love . . . for somebody to really love you for who you are,' " Wills recalls. "Evidently she must've known that I never took the time to really sit down and get to know a woman. So she said, 'Just give me a chance. And I'm going to show you love.' "

Wills was touched, though not ready for the kind of relationship Sanders had in mind. They kept in contact and "really got to know each other," Wills says, but he also continued to see other women, including the mother of his third child. Things had gone south in that relationship by the time Sanders called Wills in 1997 to say that she'd gotten a new apartment and -- despite her friends' objections -- wanted him to come live with her.

"A lot of people didn't understand how I felt," she says. "I said, 'That man -- he's a good man. And I just have to be patient and get it out of him.' "

Domesticity suited Wills, an iron worker, more than he expected. They began raising their five kids as siblings, taking bike rides and picnics and trips to the beach. Wills fantasized out loud about the days when the children would be grown so he and Sanders could buy a motor home and travel the country. He deflected talk of marriage but routinely told Sanders he wanted to grow old with her.

They'd been happy together for a decade when Wills came home to find Sanders crying. She told him to sit down. Earlier in the day her doctor had explained that the cause of her occasional falls and muscle weakness was ALS.

"I was like, 'What is ALS?' " he remembers. "And she explained it to me -- the Lou Gehrig's disease.' "

"If you're going to leave me, leave me now," she told him. "Don't wait."

"And I looked at her and looked at her tears and I said to myself, 'This woman gave me all the best years of my life,' " he says. "There's no way in the hell I would leave her."

Over the next few years Sanders, who had worked as a nurse and beautician, increasingly lost control of her muscles, forcing her to use a motorized wheelchair. Wills quit his job to care for her full-time. During the one week Sanders spent in a nursing home for therapy, he visited three or four times a day, unsatisfied with the way aides cleaned and assisted her. On a night when he went out for a bit, leaving her with a friend and their grown children, he called home to check on her four times in two hours.

"That's my everything right there," he says. "She means more to me than the Earth itself."

Sanders's longtime friend Michell Jackson was one of Wills's harshest critics when they first got together. But last year she asked if he had a minute to talk. "I said, 'You know, for years I didn't like you. I couldn't stand the ground you walked on," she recalls. "And I said, 'But I can honestly tell you, the respect I have for you, for taking care of her, for not leaving her, not abandoning her, it goes without saying.' He didn't waiver. . . . He transformed himself to be what she needed."

Sanders attends regular support groups and has become an activist, lobbying for ALS research on Capitol Hill. Most people with ALS die within three to five years of diagnosis, though some live significantly longer. Wills accompanies Sanders to all of her doctor appointments, but he asks not to be told about her prognosis.

"I deal with it as it comes. Don't tell me what's going to happen to her -- I don't want to hear that," he says. "Because there's only one man that I know that can help her and that's the man upstairs. And I pray every day -- even sometimes that I can take the pain that she has."

In January, Sanders and Wills attended a 40th birthday party for Jackson. Her husband gave a toast in her honor, talking about what marriage meant in his life. "And it kinda hit home plate for me," Wills says.

For the first time in his life, he started to think he might want to be married. "I was scared of getting married, I guess. But everybody looked at me and said, 'Chuck, you're already doing everything,' " he says. "And I've tried everything in life, almost. What's wrong with trying one more thing?"

In February, he got down on his knees and asked Sanders to be his wife.

"I was so happy," says Sanders, who speaks on her own, though sometimes uses the assistance of a computer when her vocal cords get tired.

On May 7, Wills's 50th birthday, they wed at New Revival Kingdom Church in Capitol Heights, with their five children serving as attendants. Throughout the lunchtime reception that followed, Sanders stared adoringly at Wills, just as she had as a teenager.

Wills is content with married life. But there's something else he's looking forward to: Within a few years, their youngest two children should be out of the house.

Then, as he often tells them, "me and mom are gonna sell everything and get that bus. And we gonna travel."

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