On Love

'It was the way he carried himself'

Tonya Sanders helped Chuck Wills change his smooth-talking ways. And when adversity suddenly hit the couple, their love and respect for each other has stood up to the test.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2010

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.' "

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