Reunited by a Kidney

They were a typical American couple: They got married, raised two daughters, and then, finding themselves squabbling over money and other issues, had a typical American divorce. Then Jim Tobin fell desperately ill with kidney disease that only a transplant could cure. His ex-wife, Bernadette Tobin, asked to be tested and found she was a perfect match.

And so, she gave him her kidney and he gave her back his heart.

Thanks to that gift of life, the couple who had fallen out of love fell back in again. And on Sunday, they married each other again in their Hull, Mass., home — 17 years after their divorce and 10 years after the kidney transplant that saved Jim Tobin’s life.

On Wednesday, the couple sat down in New York with TODAY’s Ann Curry, who asked them what changed in their relationship and made them want to resume their marriage interrupted.

Older and wiser
“You grow wiser; you know a lot more,” Bernadette, 63, replied. “You’ve gone through a lot of things, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. You’ve already gone through ‘in sickness and in health,’ so you know each other a lot more.”

“And you don’t want to lose each other again,” her 64-year-old husband added, turning to her. “I’m here today because of your compassionate heart.”

The decision to remarry wasn’t made in a day; it’s been a process that began 10 years ago, when Jim Tobin was battling the polycystic kidney disease that had been destroying his heart and kidneys for years. He had gone through his first single bypass operation when he was 34 and went through five more operations over the years. By 1999, he had been on dialysis for three years and needed a kidney to survive.

Although both Jim and Bernadette had moved into separate homes and dated other people, they had remained on good terms. Bernadette said one of the reasons she volunteered a kidney was because she wanted Jim to live so he could enjoy their grandchildren. The couple had raised two daughters, who today have five daughters between them.

The couple recuperated together after the surgery in the home of one of their daughters. That’s when they began to realize they still liked each other. Two years later, to save money, Bernadette moved out of her apartment and back into Jim’s home in Hull.

Getting it right
They’ve had plenty of time to think about what went wrong during their first marriage, which lasted 27 years. A big problem, Jim said, was that he was working two and three jobs so that his wife could stay home with their daughters, and he never really got to know either his wife or his children.

“I think when you’re working so hard and trying to bring up a family, you sort of drift apart,” Jim told Curry. “You have arguments about money and things like that. I think once the children grow up, you don’t have much left.”

“We were young when we got married. We were right out of high school. You’re living with each other but you really don’t know each other,” Bernadette added. “You grow older, and you know more.”

“As the years go by, you get so much more respect for each other,” Jim said, picking up the thread. “You have to work so hard at marriage. It takes years to really get it right.”

He told a local newspaper that after eight years of living together and discovering that he had fallen back in love, he also wanted to provide security for Bernadette should he die before her. Getting married would ensure that she would get Social Security benefits. They are also able to share his health care benefits.

The second time around
Jim didn’t get down on a knee again to propose. The decision to remarry came spontaneously to both, the couple said. But he did buy new rings for Sunday’s ceremony, which was performed by a local justice of the peace.

“I wasn’t nervous. I just knew that this was it,” Bernadette said of her feelings as she walked again down the metaphorical aisle. “You get married and you’re nervous and you love each other. And then you get divorced. And I just never thought I’d have that feeling again that I loved him as much as I did before. And I do.”

“It really, really melts me. It really does,” Jim said as he listened to his wife’s words. “The whole experience of her being the donor, when I was taking my vows Sunday, I really, really listened to the justice, and the words that they were saying — ‘Through sickness and in health.’ When you’re 22, 23 years old, you don’t listen to those words. But this here, you really listen to the words and respect the words, and know that it’s forever in your heart. You really do.”

The best part for Jim and Bernadette was having their two daughters and five granddaughters there to share the moment.

“When he was working two and three jobs, he never really appreciated the girls, because he let me stay home and watch them,” Bernadette told Curry. “Now that he has the grandchildren, he’s the only living grandfather, and he’s really enjoying them. He just loves them to pieces.”

“I was almost apologizing to my two daughters for not being so close with them because I always had to work two jobs,” Jim added. “But now I can really make it up with my five granddaughters.”

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