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Friday, February 10, 2012

Enjoying life after dealing with death

SML residents find happiness after loss of their first spouses.

Jon and Jean Wisniewski are a smiling, seemingly happy couple - the type of fun-loving people one would want to have around at a party.

You'd never suspect the tragedy behind their history; both Jon and Jean lost their first spouses to illness.

Don Dolezal, Jean's husband of 23 years, had been diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease in junior high. His parents took him to several specialists, including Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who was later noted for treating cyclist Lance Armstrong's cancer. Einhorn's treatment put Don's disease into remission for many years.

Don went to college, onto dental school and then married Jean. They moved to Charlotte where he practiced dentistry for 20 years.

In the 1980s, he had a relapse; eventually his lungs became weakened from chemotherapy, and he died of a cancer-related illness in 2002, leaving Jean a widow at 47 years old.

"Even though I knew about the disease, and we had dealt with it for years, his passing was still a shock. You can't really imagine what it's like til you come home and he's not there," she said.

Jon and his wife of 21 years, Diane, were living in Oakton in northern Virginia when Diane, who had always been healthy, active and never smoked, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Three months later, in February 2002, she died. Jon was 48.

"It all happened so fast; it was overwhelming," Jon recalled. "My biggest challenge was dealing with the kids. Our son was a freshman in college, and our daughter was a junior in high school. I guess I had been the fun parent who played softball with them, and my wife had been the disciplinarian. It was hard taking over that job."

Both Jon and Jean grew up in Michigan City, Ind., and attended the same high school. Jon and Don (Jean's first husband) were friends; Jean and Don were a year behind Jon in school. The three of them also had relatives in common: Don's grandmother was Jon's father's sister.

So it was not surprising that Jean's mother-in-law knew that Jon's wife had died. She encouraged Jean to send a sympathy card because, having lost her spouse a few months earlier, she could identify with Jon's loss.

On the card she wrote, "If you need to talk, call me."

Jon did call, and as Jean put it, "We just clicked. We had so much in common - especially growing up in the same place. And we're both of Polish descent."

During one of their phone conversations, Jon asked, "Can I come and visit you in Charlotte?"

Later, he invited her to a Jimmy Buffett concert in D.C., their first "official date," Jean said.

The couple was married July 31, 2004 in Michigan City at the same church with the same reception hall each had used for when they had married their former spouses.

"It was a traditional Polish wedding, with kielbasa, sauerkraut, green beans and a polka band, just like we each had in the '70's. Our relatives had seen it all before, but our new friends were astounded. Honestly, their mouths just dropped open," Jean said.

Both of Jon's children, James, 28, and Laura, 26, attended Virginia Tech and had visited the lake at various times. Laura had come with friends who were on the school's water ski team. When Jean and Jon were thinking about where to retire, Laura said, "Smith Mountain Lake is really cool."

In 2006, on their second visit, they bought a weekend house in Waverly.

The couple lived in Oakton until July 2009 when Jon retired from the FDIC after 33 1/2 years and they moved to SML. Jean, who had worked as a nurse for 30 years, had already retired.

They lived in the weekend house for two years while their new house in Waverly was being built. In November, they moved in after 18 months of construction

"We spent most of 2010 working inside the house," said Jon, who did the heavy work while Jean did much of the painting.

Both Jean and Jon said they feel fortunate to have a second love in their lives.

"We still cherish the spouses that we first had. It's just different because, at this point in life, you're more mature and sure of yourself. You don't have to date as long because part of dating is figuring out about yourself and what you want in a partner," Jean said.