Ric & Ellie: A love story
MIDDLEBOROUGH -- It's Saturday night, but State Police Sergeant Ric Teves and Trooper Ellen Engelhardt are not going out to dinner. They're not snuggling in their Marion home to watch ''Law & Order," and he's not giving her one of the foot massages she loves.
Instead, he parks his 1990 Volvo with 288,000 miles on it, and he walks through the frigid night air and into the lobby of Middleborough Skilled Care Center, past the receptionist and past the bubbling fish tank. As he makes his way down the hall, the knot tightens again in his stomach, as it does every day when he visits the woman he calls his best friend.
''Hey, honey," he says, walking into Room 206, where the television is tuned to ''Everybody Loves Raymond," and there she is, sitting in a wheelchair, paralyzed, her head tilted back, her eyes to the ceiling, her mouth agape, her hands and feet encased in plastic to control spasms.
This is the prison to which Engelhardt and Teves have been sentenced as the result of one horrific moment shortly after 6 on the morning of Saturday, July 26, 2003. While Engelhardt was parked in the breakdown lane of Route 25 in Wareham, her cruiser was rear-ended by a car driven by a drunk teenager that was traveling in excess of 90 miles per hour. The impact thrust her vehicle forward at a speed of 50 miles per hour, and it thrust Engelhardt back, into a catatonic state in which she can no longer walk, talk, eat, or communicate in any way.
The crash fractured a cervical vertebra, her larynx, and her jaw. She required two craniotomies and one lobectomy. She lost part of her skull and part of her brain.
Seventeen miles to the east, at the Plymouth County House of Correction, William Senne is serving a 30-month sentence for driving the car that struck Englehardt, and while he may be in front of a television, too, he is probably unaware that Englehardt is being fed 66 cc's an hour through a gastrointestinal tube and being oxygenated through a hole in her trachea that affords access to the lungs and an avenue to clear phlegm.
''How are you, honey?" says Teves, leaning down to kiss her.
Using a tissue, he cleans her bib.
''Let's get the gunk out," he says. He grabs a tube, flips a switch, and begins to suction phlegm from her throat. ''It's a little thick, huh?"
It is impossible to know whether she's cognizant of everything he's doing, or nothing. No one knows whether she is aware of the wall that is lined with photographs, love notes, religious icons, and a sign, across from her bed, that says ''Believe in Miracles."
She is dressed in sweat pants and a T-shirt with animal figures, and her feet are encased in plastic sleeves to keep them straight. Because her own shoes are too small, she is wearing Teves's sneakers, size 11.
''That means a little bit of me is here with you every night, right, honey?"
An alarm goes off. Teves looks to the machine alongside her bed.
''That lets us know her temperature has dropped, and we need to make her warmer," he says, wrapping her ravaged body in a blanket. ''They say there's a reason for everything. I don't know what it is, but it sure gives you a more humble view of life."
This is a love story. It begins at the State Police barracks in Yarmouth, where they met.
From the beginning, he admired her. Sometimes they'd encounter each other at social engagements, always with their spouses. After their marriages failed, Teves was reluctant to express affection. He wanted to avoid even a hint of impropriety.
Then one night, in the winter of 1993, she was working the desk at Yarmouth.
''Hey," he said. ''I haven't seen you in a while. What's going on?"
They chatted and -- spontaneously -- he suggested they have dinner.
''Sure," she said.
The next day she telephoned.
''Are we still on for dinner?"
''Of course," he said. ''Why not?"
''Well, I thought maybe you were just being polite."
He was waiting for her at the Mattapoisett Inn. When she walked in, blond hair to her shoulders and her blue eyes scanning the room, he remembers thinking, ''Wow, she looks like a million bucks."
As days went by, they traded cellphone calls and then began to spend weekends together, afternoons at the beach, and nights at restaurants from Providence to Scituate.
''I always respected her work ethic," says Teves. ''About romance, I was cautiously optimistic."
They vacationed in Aruba, and then, in 1995, they had a house built in Marion, setting aside one bedroom for visits by her daughter, Lora, and another for visits by his daughter, Samantha. They bought an Akita and named him Inu, Japanese for ''big dog."
They learned from each other, too.
He taught her to love Japanese food. She restored his faith in God.
He'd been raised a Catholic. Every school he attended from kindergarten to graduate school had been affiliated with the church. As his first marriage unraveled, he prayed for God's help, and when his marriage dissolved, so did his faith in the church.
With Engelhardt, though, he attended Mass regularly at St. Patrick's in Wareham. On Sundays when she worked nights and he days, they'd attend Mass -- in uniform -- at St. Pius X in Yarmouth, she parking her cruiser at the side, he at the back.
Life was blissful. After a day at the beach or at work, they'd nestle in the home they loved and they'd listen to the British Invasion All-Stars or the Moody Blues, or they'd watch ''LA Law" or ''NYPD Blue."
Sometimes, when they held hands, he'd send her a signal. He'd squeeze her hand three times -- code for ''I love you." She'd respond by squeezing his hand twice, code for ''Me, too."
On Jan. 20, the day Senne appeared in Brockton Superior Court to plead guilty and to be sentenced, Teves appeared with Engelhardt in her wheelchair. In statements before the judge, Lora, seven months pregnant, recalled her mother's independence and the joy she took in her work as a state cop and in simple pleasures: concerts, a Bruins game, even walking her dog.
Standing alongside Engelhardt's wheelchair, Teves told the judge, ''I can't imagine someone better than Ellie. She's the kind of person you wait a lifetime for." Toward the Senne family, he said, he held no ill will, because whatever the sentence, 25 years or two, it would not bring back Ellie.
Afterward, an assistant district attorney approached and said, ''Listen, Mrs. Senne is upstairs. She'd like to talk to you guys."
Lora was not up to it, but Teves said he agreed to meet her.
''We'd been told she was a nice person," says Teves.
''I told her I was sorry Bill had to go away, that I understood how she felt, as a mom, but that Bill had to be responsible for his actions. She said she absolutely understood, and that there wasn't a day she didn't pray for Ellie.
''I came away liking her, and lately I've been giving some thought to visiting the kid in the can. I might get up the courage to do that."
'Coffee's on," says Teves, from the kitchen.
He sits at the table in his customary place, across from where Engelhardt always sat. On the cabinet in back of her chair, he has set a photograph so that at every meal he can see her image. It's the last photograph of her before the accident. She is seated next to him at a wedding reception, smiling, tanned, all blue eyes and blond hair, and leaning against him, her hand clinging to his upper arm.
''She was a beautiful woman," he says. ''She still is, but she looks a little different, that's all."
Twenty months after the accident, the reality has become painfully obvious.
''There may be a miracle," he says, ''but as days turn to months and months to years, the likelihood is less."
If there has been no miracle, it's not for lack of trying.
Having traveled to France with his mother four years ago, Teves came home with a bottle of water from Lourdes, and he used it daily last year to bless Engelhardt. Having seen a television documentary about a Venezuelan credited with miracle cures, he attempted to contact her, only to learn she'd died. Having been telephoned by a police officer in Seekonk who offered holy water from Bosnia, Teves drove 80 miles to Seekonk and back one Saturday morning, thinking, ''This could be it."
But nothing has worked.
''Well, maybe it has," he says. ''Maybe the reason Ellen is this healthy is because of the water from Lourdes or Bosnia. Maybe miracles are happening. But when you've had two craniotomies and a lobectomy and 20 months have gone by, a pragmatic person might say the path we're on is the path we're going to be on."
Still, he has not lost hope. The dining room table is littered with books and magazines about brain injuries. The first-floor bathtub is used to store a range of medical supplies given to him by hospitals -- nostrums, stethoscopes, and such, all in a hope that one day she'll come home.
''I like this house, but I don't like it, not without her," he says. ''Everything reminds me of her. I listen to her favorite Disney album and I get teary eyed. The old saying is true. You don't realize how much you love something till you lose it."
Lora, 30, who gave birth this month to Engelhardt's first grandchild, goes through the same remorse.
''I do see life differently," she says. ''I never take even one minute for granted. I know how precious life is, and I know it can disappear in a heartbeat."
In recent days, Teves has been riveted to the national debate about the removal of a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo in Florida, for Englehardt was taken off a respirator in September 2003, but without threat to her life.
The accident in Wareham was the second time that Engelhardt was rear-ended by a drunk driver. In the first crash, October 2002, she suffered a cervical sprain that sidelined her six months. She had been back to work only three weeks when the second drunk slammed into her cruiser.
Why, then, is Teves not angrier?
''I have to remain positive," he says. ''If the pope can forgive a jackass who tried to assassinate him, that's a good example for me.
''I'm just a Portuguese kid from Fall River, and I still believe God has some big plan that I don't know what the hell I'm a part of. I'm not trying to sound like a theologian, but we're all here to do His will, so, somehow this must be part of His plan. I'm not angry at God. Sometimes I wonder if it was something I've done that [ticked] Him off, but I've been told that, no, He doesn't operate that way. But when you sit down as human beings, the way we're talking, and you try to figure this out, you have to conclude it's all way above us."
On Easter Sunday, after Mass, Teves visited Ellen. He massaged her feet, as he often does, because sometimes, he says, it produces a reflex in her toes. ''As I was massaging her on Sunday, I noticed a reaction, and I said, 'Honey, that's your right foot. I want you to move your right foot.' " Nothing happened for 15 minutes, he says, but he continued to encourage her and continued to massage.
Holding the bottom of her foot in one hand, he rubbed the top and said, soothingly, ''Ellen, this is your right foot. I want you to move it. C'mon, honey, move your right foot."
And then he felt it.
''On her own, for the first time, Ellen Englehardt moved her whole foot."
At 4 a.m., two hours before the accident, Engelhardt called, and they spoke for the last time. They talked about a hit-and-run accident she was investigating, and they decided that after work they'd spend the day at the beach. ''My beach bag's in the bedroom, already packed," he recalls her saying.
It's still there where she left it, on the floor at the foot of her bed, alongside her flip-flops and a cooler for her Diet Pepsi.
''Here's what a good cop she was," says Teves. ''A lot of times, she'd write warnings. She thought a warning was as good as a summons. She'd say, why bag some poor guy for a fine plus an insurance surcharge? That's why someone described her as the Florence Nightingale of Route 6."
When the call came that she'd been in a serious accident, Teves raced to the scene.
''In 25 years as a cop, I've been to a bunch of wrecks, but words can't describe what I saw. I looked at her car and I thought: You've got to be kidding. I knew she was alive, because they were working on her, but I looked at her and said, this can't be Ellie. I mean, I knew it was her body, but it couldn't be Ellie. I just talked to her two hours ago."
As the helicopter was about to lift off for the dawn flight to Boston, a medic said, ''You can give her a kiss if you want to."
''I looked down at her, and it occurred to me it might be the last time I'd see her. So, I said thanks, and I leaned down and gave her a kiss."
At the hospital, the doctors were not optimistic Engelhardt would survive. Lora was stunned. ''You wouldn't know it was my mother, because her face was all swollen, black and blue, and bloody."
In the waiting room, Engelhardt's family and fellow state troopers held hands and, in unison, they began to pray aloud, ''Our Father, who art in heaven. . ."
Back in Engelhardt's room at the rehabilitation center, Teves approaches her wheelchair.
''Almost time for you to go back to bed, kiddo, what do you think?"
He kneels, undoes her laces, takes off her sneakers, detaches the feeder, cradles her body, hoists her, and lays her gently on the bed. He puts a stuffed monkey around the back of her neck as a cushion, and then a stuffed raccoon in her right hand, and a stuffed Scooby-Doo in her left.
He holds her hand and looks into her eyes. Sometimes he squeezes her hand three times -- I love you. There is no response.
A nurse arrives. ''Oh, she's in bed already?"
''Yes," says Teves. ''I like doing it. At least I get a hug out of the deal, you know?"
He reaches for the tube one more time, turns on the vacuum and suctions her throat.
''If it gets congested in there," he explains, ''her ability to get oxygen becomes degraded."
The task complete, he turns off the vacuum.
He leans over the bed.
''Time to say goodnight, kiddo."
He bends and kisses her brow, then heads for the door, saying over his shoulder, one last time, ''See you tomorrow, honey."
A few steps down the hall, he stops. He pauses, then he returns to her room. He reaches to the wall and flips a switch.
''I just realized," he says. ''The light was too bright for her."
Jack Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.