PHOTOS: Pat Jocelyn+Mike Busa+Wendy Verner
Mike Busa found himself visiting his parents, who live in The Villages, more often. Living alone in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, Mike’s life was quickly evolving into a solitary existence. He was lonely—very lonely.
One evening Mike decided to visit Spanish Springs Town Square to listen to the nightly entertainment while watching other people dance. As one of his feet rhythmically tapped the footrest of his wheelchair matching the beat of the music, Mike noticed three women who were obviously having a great time dancing together.
Each time they returned to their chairs they passed Mike. Then one of them stopped. Her name was Wendy Verner. She smiled at him and, pointing to his power wheelchair, commented, “If I could work those controls, I’d get you out there dancing.”
The attraction was immediate for both of them.
So began an unexpected adventure that neither one had anticipated. It was an adventure that brought the pair to a shared love so deep and strong, it transcended their fear of judgment, physical limitations, age, and circumstance. It became a true story of how love will find a way.
Mike explained how he ended up in a wheelchair.
“I worked in a metallurgical lab and really loved my work,” he said. “But I started having back problems that required several surgeries. The second one went really bad and I was pretty much stuck in bed for a year.
“I was living in New York at the time when we found another surgeon in Massachusetts. I traveled there to get my last two surgeries. They took three levels of my spine out, actually vertebras.”
Mike was in constant pain, and in February 2009, he became officially disabled. “That’s when I really started being a loner,” he said.
Years earlier, Mike’s wife died, leaving him to raise his 10-year-old son alone. The two became very close. Later, when his son married and moved to Tennessee, it seemed natural for Mike to follow him there. His move to the mountains proved disastrous. “That was a horrible move because I was so lonely. My home was two hours away from my son but I saw him about as much as I did when I was living 12 ½ hours away. That’s when I began visiting my parents a lot.”
And that’s when he met the love of his life.
Now back to that beautiful evening on Spanish Springs Town Square. Mike and Wendy managed to squeeze in a few short conversations before Mike decided it was time to leave. He asked one of the women if Wendy was single. When she said yes, he left his name and telephone number with Wendy’s friend, asking that she pass the information on to Wendy. Mike began saying his goodbyes and as Wendy tilted her head up to him to say goodbye he assumed she wanted a kiss, so he kissed her.
“It was the most perfect kiss you could ever imagine. It was just perfect,” Mike said. “We joke about it now because I say she kissed me and she says I kissed her.”
“Well, maybe it was our angels at work,” Wendy interjected. “You see why I love him? Do you see how he beams when he tells our story? He just comes alive again.”
Even though Wendy was smitten with Mike and couldn’t forget that perfect kiss, it took several weeks for her to garner enough courage to call him. One call followed another, and then another still. Hours on the phone went by like seconds. Wendy and Mike shared things they had never shared with another soul.
“The more we got connected, the more we liked,” she continued. “He touched my heart. He’s a good and caring man. He tries to hide it but I think that’s for his own protection. I have a lot of respect for Mike and what he’s accomplished. I’ve seen him blossom in front of me.”
Mike was as taken with Wendy as she was with him. “I could see how much Wendy loved life,” he explained. “She enjoys people; she’s someone who isn’t afraid to go out and do things. I’ve had a hesitation for a long time, and there was something about her that just took all the hesitation away.
“I don’t think I ever had true love in my life until I met Wendy. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. There was definitely something stronger at work than either one of us or anyone else could explain. It’s a time to be happy, not a time to be alone.”
Wendy smiles as she recalls one of their relationship hurdles.
“When I hear him say that, I go back to the day when we were going to split up,” Wendy said. She explained that the proposed split was due to the couple’s “significant” age difference, which was something that initially created some rough moments. “But Mike told me to just let my heart lead my life.”
“There is an age difference, a considerable age difference that was hard for both of us,” Mike added. “Was it the right thing to do? Being judged, we worried about that. We were judged and people asked us a lot of questions I thought they never should have asked, but love prevailed.”
Wendy assured him the relationship was an important step for both of them and something neither of them took lightly.
“I told him I’m not into this because he was a boy toy. I’m not a cougar,” Wendy said. “I really, really care…I’m in love with him. It had nothing to do with making me feel younger because I never felt older anyway. I don’t feel my age.”
Turning and looking at Mike with love clearly reflected in her eyes, she continued, “People may be curious about our age difference but this is a wonderful season that we’re in and it’s not going to end. He says it’s forever.”
That same rationale of leading with the heart was evident regarding Mike’s physical challenges.
“I never focused on the chair but rather the man. That chair doesn’t define the man. I really care for him and know we have something unique and special,” Wendy said. “Fear has no place in our lives. I’ve got family members who have challenges and it’s because of those challenges they are not allowing themselves to go out and enjoy their lives.”
Mike and Wendy chose to take a different route and live their lives to the fullest. One of Wendy’s favorite things is stargazing, with Mike of course. “We go out at night and I’ll sit on the edge of his seat in his scooter, and we’ll go around and look at the stars,” Wendy said. “It’s just awesome.”
Then there’s the evenings spent dancing at the town squares. “He does have limitations but he doesn’t let that stop him,” Wendy said. “He’ll suffer for a couple of days after going to the square.”
“I’m in constant pain,” Mike added matter-of-factly. “I pick and choose what I do because I’m going to suffer no matter what.”
“You never went out on the square [and danced] before, did you Mike?” Wendy asked.
“Never,” Mike answered. “I was content to just people watch, but Wendy got me up and moving a little. I can stand up on a slow dance but can’t make it through the whole thing and have to sit down. But it’s worth every bit of pain the next day to be able to dance with her.”
“He’ll hold me and we just move a little bit,” Wendy said. “We have a good time. (On the faster music) I dance my legs off and Mike dances his arms off.”
There’s also been a very rewarding benefit from dancing at the square. “People will say how they admire us dancing,” Mike said. “Some very touching moments happened out on that dance floor.”
One evening in particular really touched Mike’s heart. A man who suffered a stroke that confined him to a wheelchair was visiting the square with his wife. The couple used to dance all the time but since his stroke, they hadn’t attempted it.
“Seeing us out there gave him the courage to once again dance with his wife,” Mike said in a voice thickened with emotion. “Later, the wife came over and was in tears as she thanked me. That brought tears to my eyes.”
Mike and Wendy have been together for two years and became engaged a year ago. To even the casual observer, there’s a strong flow of love and energy that moves back and forth between the two that’s almost tangible. It’s an appreciation of what each freely gives the other: untethered love and gratitude, and a passion for life that only grows with time.