If it wasn’t for a blowup with one of her three children, Kirsten Wazalis might never have called a friend to come over and commiserate one July evening in 2012. And if the friend hadn’t suggested that the two go out and listen to music, she might have never met Glenn Leader.
Ms. Wazalis, 50, shook off her gloom at Stevenson’s Place, a bar with a jukebox, up the street from her Philadelphia apartment. There, the two friends listened to Lionel Richie, Hall & Oates and other pop artists. “I have such good taste in music that people actually pay me to play the jukebox,” she said jokingly.
By the time the bartender, Mr. Leader, offered to buy her a drink, her bad day was looking much brighter.
Ms. Wazalis has had her share of challenging days since then. But never again has she had to recruit someone to help her through them. “Glenn’s been with me every step of the way, taking care of me and treating my kids like they’re his own,” she said.
Ms. Wazalis suffers from Cowden syndrome, a rare genetic disease that causes tumors to grow throughout the body. She was diagnosed four months before she met Mr. Leader when scans showed a brain tumor. A month later, she had a craniotomy. Doctors warned that she should expect living with the condition to be a lifetime battle.
She had been prepared to fight this battle alone. After her 2007 divorce, she said, “I had all but given up on relationships.” Her priority instead was her two daughters, Sara and Jaimie Wazalis, and her son, Matthew Ford.
The night Mr. Leader walked her home, after they met for the first time, she wouldn’t invite him in. “We were having a great time, but I didn’t want to bring a man into the house with the kids there,” she said. Sara and Jaimie were in their teens, Mr. Ford in his early 20s. “So we just sat on the steps outside for a long time talking.”
Ms. Wazalis and Mr. Leader, 46, are native Philadelphians. Ms. Wazalis grew up in the Feltonville neighborhood with her parents, Albert Ford Sr., and MaryJane Ford, both deceased, and four siblings. Mr. Leader grew up in Mayfair with his parents, Pat Dougherty and Glenn Leader, and a sister, Kelly Passio. Mr. Leader Sr., died in 2015. The younger Mr. Leader never left the Mayfield neighborhood. His 2012 shift behind the bar at Stevenson’s, also in Mayfield, had been a good will gesture to the managers there and a way to earn a few extra bucks.
“I was filling in,” he said. “I would go in there and help out once in a while if someone didn’t show up.” His day job was in landscaping. Mr. Leader, a member of the Teamsters union, maintains the 16-acre grounds of the U.S. Department of Agriculture building in Wyndmoor, Pa. Though he had long-term girlfriends in the past, he was never compelled to marry. The night he met Ms. Wazalis, he started feeling that this might change.
“Sometimes you just know,” he said. With Ms. Wazalis, “it was both her looks and her personality. She’s a warm, loving person.”
Ms. Wazalis sees herself differently. “I talk a lot, I’m loud, and sometimes I’m not the easiest person to handle,” she said. But after Mr. Leader called her a few times and started lingering around her front steps, she worried less about those qualities.
By the end of the summer of 2012, they had put two milestones behind them. First, Ms. Wazalis told him about her diagnosis. “And he kept coming back anyway,” she said. Second, Ms. Wazalis’s children invited him into their apartment. “Glenn would bring them breakfast sandwiches from the corner store. As soon as he started bringing those sandwiches, they loved him.” His Christmas gift scored him still more points. “He gave them cards with 20 bucks inside, and you would have thought it was a million,” she said. “They were like, ‘Take it back! It’s too nice.’ It was really sweet.”
In 2014, Mr. Leader moved in. He had by then become accustomed to Ms. Wazalis’s frequent doctor’s appointments — 25 a month, on average — and what she called her spells of being “laid up.” Working full time in insurance billing left her tired most days, but Mr. Leader’s presence was a balm. “He was so kind, and so good to my kids,” she said. By the end of 2017, he had helped her through surgeries for endometrial and thyroid cancer, plus a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy.
The mastectomy came with a post-surgery blow to her self esteem. “I had to have drains, and Glenn was great with all that,” she said. Later, she underwent skin grafts for reconstructive surgery, then found that the tissue to rebuild one of her breasts didn’t survive. “I was disfigured. I was so scarred and damaged.”
She told Mr. Leader she was never going to take her shirt off in front of him again. But when he convinced her to show him her scars, said a teary Ms. Wazalis, “He said, ‘You’re more beautiful than you were before.’”
Convincing her she deserved his round-the-clock care was another matter. “It felt like love, but it also made me feel like a burden,” she said. In addition to the care at her bedside, Mr. Leader had to become her family’s financial caretaker.
After her 2012 craniotomy, she willed herself back to work 19 days later. “I had kids to feed,” she said. But battling breast, thyroid and endometrial cancers in the space of a few years took a toll on her resilience. In 2016, she quit working and applied for Social Security disability.
“It was a no-brainer that she should have been eligible, but it took nearly two years,” Mr. Leader said. “It was frustrating. She couldn’t work. We did what we had to do.” A few months after she started receiving disability in 2018, she made a clerical error while filling out forms for Medicare. “I have a brain tumor,” she said. “Every once in a while, I make a mistake like that.” She started a letter-writing campaign to try to fix the error, but that led to a bureaucratic hall of mirrors.
By the summer of 2019, she was uninsured. Her family and longtime friends like Nancy Potalivo, owner of the Mayfield hair salon the Creative Zone, worried constantly. “Every time I know she’s feeling bad and she can’t go to the doctor, it’s like, I can’t believe this is happening,” Ms. Potalivo said. “She’s supposed to be getting all these screenings. She’s supposed to be being watched nonstop.”
If there was reason for hope, it was that Ms. Wazalis and Mr. Leader had been quietly planning to marry, a legal union that would allow Ms. Wazalis access to Mr. Leader’s health insurance. Neither remembers the date in 2015 when Mr. Leader proposed. But everything else about the engagement was memorable.
“He had been saying, ‘I want to be able to buy you a really nice ring,’” Ms. Wazalis said. She told him a ring didn’t matter. “I said, ‘I wouldn’t care if you tied a Stroehmann bread bag tie around my finger.’” Mr. Leader found one in the kitchen and wound it around her ring finger. “He said, ‘Will you marry me?’ And I said, ‘Oh, absolutely I will.’” Ms. Wazalis still has the bag tie.
Their initial plan was to be married in the spring of 2018, but Ms. Wazalis’s mother died of pancreatic cancer that year on April 30, Ms. Wazalis’s birthday. When they rescheduled for October 2019, life got in the way again. Ms. Wazalis was already a grandmother — Naela Mae Ford, Mr. Ford’s daughter, is 6. But in October, Jamie had just given birth to a son, Nolan Jeffrey Wazalis, now nine months old, and Sara was pregnant with her daughter, Malia Jane Paynter, now seven months. A wedding seemed like too much all at once, especially when a longtime friend Mike Darden announced he was getting married in October.
Their next choice was April 18, 2020, less than two weeks before Ms. Wazalis’s 50th birthday. Ms. Wazalis chose a dress from David’s Bridal; they booked the ballroom at a Philadelphia American Legion for a party of 150. Then the coronavirus hit.
“We had already sent out the invitations,” Ms. Wazalis said. “My dress is still locked up at David’s Bridal.” They didn’t have their marriage license. But Philadelphia was issuing emergency licenses, and Ms. Wazalis’s plea for one was accepted.
On April 24, Ms. Wazalis and Mr. Leader were married in front of the Mayfair brownstone they moved into in 2018 by Mr. Darden, who was ordained through the Universal Life Church for the occasion. Ms. Wazalis borrowed a short-sleeve, cream-colored wedding dress Ms. Potalivo had worn years earlier. Mr. Leader wore black pants and a black tie. Cars full of guests, including Mr. Leader’s mother and several friends in Philadelphia Flyers National Hockey League jerseys, pulled up outside and jockeyed for places to idle in viewing distance of their exchange of vows.
After a five-minute ceremony in which Ms. Wazalis promised to always play 1980s one-hit wonders for Mr. Leader and Mr. Leader promised to one day roller skate with Ms. Wazalis to the group Air Supply, Mr. Darden pronounced them married. Rain got in the way of what was to have been an intimate reception.
“When Glenn and I used to sit on the front steps, we would talk about our childhoods, and we realized that on Saturdays we would both go to the same roller-skating rink,” she said. “You had to pay a dollar or something to get in.” Ms. Wazalis is six feet tall. In skates, she is 6 foot 3. “So none of the boys would ask me to couple skate,” she said. Mr. Leader had planned to make up for that on their wedding night. “I thought we could skate off into the sunset to Air Supply.” Instead, they slow-danced in their kitchen to Mr. Ritchie’s “My Love.”
“Have you ever heard the lyrics to that song?” she asked. “It’s like they were written for us.”
On This Day
When April 24, 2020
Where The couple’s brownstone in Philadelphia
Rolling Along Mr. Leader took Ms. Wazalis couple-skating around their Philadelphia neighborhood on her 50th birthday, April 30, even though he had not laced up roller skates since he was in his early teens.
Something Old and New Stein’s, a neighborhood florist, offered to make Ms. Wazalis a bouquet of red roses for the wedding; she tucked the Stroehmann bread bag tie that had served as an engagement ring in the bouquet.
Looking Ahead Ms. Wazalis has already made a playlist for a larger reception they are planning for August. The couple will be introduced as “Hooked On a Feeling” by Blue Swede is played.