While many couples go out for dinner or to a movie to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Tony and Tammy Corona don’t feel the need.

Their very existence is celebration enough.

“When Tony and I met we had so many challenges and adversities that we’d been through,” Tammy said. “We enjoy the beauty of the uneventful. Just being together is enough.”

They both survived traumatic brain injuries, Tony in 1982 and Tammy in 1997. Then, three years ago, Tony suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to care for himself.

Sitting in Tony’s Spectrum Health Neuro Rehabilitation Services – Residential room last week, where Tony has lived for the past two years, Tammy put her arm around her husband, her wedding band resting on top of his motorized wheelchair.

The surrounding walls are adorned with family photos, religious items and a truer-than-anyone-could-have-ever-imagined saying on the wall behind Tony’s bed: “Life takes you to unexpected places. Love brings you home.”

Tony and Tammy have not had an easy life. But they’ve made it a good life.

With the help of Spectrum Health music therapist Erin Wegener, they wrote a love song together, to the tune of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.”

Their lyrics reflect their personal love story, one that mirrors their tears and triumphs. Theirs is a union born of tragedy; a love story begotten of hope.

Tragedy, in the form of a car, strikes

Several weeks shy of graduating from Grand Valley State University in 1982, a drunk driver struck then-22-year-old Tony as he walked home along M-45 on an early April evening.

He spent six weeks in a coma and years in rehab.

The accident affected his speech, gait and balance and left him partially paralyzed on his right side.

While attending a Survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury group on Oct. 1, 1997, his life changed almost as much as it had the night of the accident. But in a good way. He met Tammy, a kindred soul who had also suffered a brain injury after being pushed down a flight of stairs.

“I still remember what he was wearing,” Tammy said of meeting Tony. “He had on a GVSU sweatshirt with tattered sleeves and moccasins. You had a hole in your right moccasin. I think you remember what I was wearing, too.”

Although the stroke robbed him of his ability to speak, and damaged most of the right side of his brain, Tony communicates through a computer device called an DynaVox. He types and the device speaks for him in single words and short sentences.

He did recall what Tammy had been wearing the night they met. And he couldn’t let this moment pass. He typed. The DynaVox spoke. “Go-go boots.”

Tammy burst into laughter. “They weren’t go-go boots, they were cowboy boots. Now look at me, do I look like the go-go type?”

She places her arm around the side of Tony’s head and gently positions it against the wheelchair headrest. It’s difficult, sometimes, for him to hold his head upright on his own.

She chats more about the day they met almost two decades ago. Tony could walk then. He could drive.

“He asked if he could drive me home that first night,” Tammy recalled. “I couldn’t drive yet because of the damage that had been done. I don’t think we were apart much after that.”

On Feb. 20, 1999, they married.

They raised Tony’s daughter, Lauren, and had two children of their own—Sophia, 15, and Francis, 13.

Despite his physical limitations from the accident, Tony obtained a master’s degree in business. He worked in the accounting department at Herman Miller for 23 years until downsizing swept his job away. He and Tammy home-schooled the children.

Tragedy revisits

On a horrendous winter weather day, Jan. 22, 2013, after Tony returned home from rehabilitation, he shoveled the driveway.

When he came inside, Tony complained of a mild headache and sat down in his lift chair while Tammy and the children played Monopoly at the kitchen table.

He placed a phone call to the bank. Tammy recalls that his speech didn’t sound quite right. The accident had affected his speech, but what she heard on this day sounded different somehow.

“The kids and I were debating if his speech sounded different,” Tammy said. “Tony asked if I would fix him something to eat. We talked about taking him to the emergency room, but the driving conditions were lethal. Shortly thereafter he had a massive stroke right where he sat.”

As Tammy spoke, a nurse entered the room and poured pink liquid into the feeding tube in Tony’s stomach.

The action must have jarred a memory.

Tony typed. The Dynavox reported that Tony had made his morning coffee the day of the stroke. An ambulance had rushed him to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital that day.

“They intubated him immediately because he was having trouble breathing,” Tammy said. “He was in a coma, but days later, he was already responding to me by squeezing my hand. I was quite aware of the dire situation we were in. But for Tony and I, you just keep persevering until the life God gave us comes to a close.”

Tony pulled through the trauma then spent time in subacute rehabilitation program at the Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center on Kalamazoo Avenue before moving to his current home, which houses five other patients.

Joy on earth

Tony and Tammy are living a love story many would not fantasize about in their own fairy tale, but one this couple holds dear. Because no matter how difficult life may seem, they have each other.

“Some people think that life is over when certain things happen,” Tammy said. “I keep trying to assure people it can actually be better. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s better in some ways.”

They have learned the art of true gratefulness. And not taking anything in life for granted—not speech, not mobility, not each other.

Tammy found a sign at a Goodwill store one day. It now hangs in Tony’s room: “What if today you woke up with only what you thanked God for yesterday.”

“I think of that so many nights as I go to bed,” said Tammy, who lives eight minutes away from her husband’s now-home. “I have so much to be thankful for.”

She points at another picture hanging on Tony’s wall—a tree growing up through a crevice toward the light. The trunk is devoid of growth, but the top of the tree, full of leaves.

“Our life has looked a lot like that trunk,” she said. “But there at the top, we are still flourishing. Life is good and we are very blessed. Faith doesn’t get us around adversity. It gets us through it.”

Tony is asked what he most appreciates about Tammy.

He immediately reaches for his keyboard. The computer voice speaks his sentiment: “Her heart.”

Wegener records many of the couple’s thoughts and memories, through song, on notepads, on the computer. She plans to compile a scrapbook.

Tears in heaven

On this cold winter day, Wegener cradles the acoustic guitar on her lap, and finger-picks “Tears in Heaven.” She hands a maraca to Tony. Tammy places her hand over Tony’s and they clasp the crimson percussion instrument together.

Wegener and Tammy sing the lyrics that the three of them personalized, about seeing each other through their darkest days, finding trust and comfort in each other.

Wegener points out a line that Tony wrote, something he saw in Tammy, the night they first met: “I saw the face of God in you.”

Tony’s lips purse upward in a gentle smile.

“I know I must be strong,” they duet. “And I know that I can be with my wife Tammy and my family. So carry on for me and the kids and I know that you’ll always be my heaven.”

The last notes from Wegener’s strings reverberate in the room. Tammy wipes away tears. Honest tears, the kind that spill from so deep within that they stir the soul.

“Most people believe that I’ve been there for Tony, but he was the one there for me,” she said through sobs. “I was so broken when he met me. He loves life, he loves God, he loves me and the children. How much better can it be? It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Tammy said she’s also thankful for Wegener and the way music therapy has helped them express their emotions.

“Erin has been such a blessing in our life,” Tammy said, to which Tony echoed a big thumbs up. “It’s so healing, even though I cry.”

Wegener said she’s amazed by Tammy and Tony, and their love.

“They are one of the most powerful love stories that I’ve ever seen,” Wegener said. “They are very dedicated to each other. Music has been a great avenue for them to express that.”