A true love story

There are love stories and then there are love stories. This is a love story unlike any other.

Mike, who is 16, is a star football player at Toronto’s De La Salle College. Bernadette, who is 15, is a student at St. Joseph’s. They meet at a church dance. Game over. She never once goes out with anyone else. It’s love at first sight — or perhaps first dance.

Mike is Michael Wadsworth, son of Bunny Wadsworth, a legendary lineman with the Toronto Argonauts in the good old days when the Argos were the arrogant giants of the Canadian Football League — unlike today, when they are the hand-me-down jokes of the league. But the genes must have dripped down from the vines because young Mike was so talented in the smash-me game that he was noticed by Notre Dame, the famous college football factory in the Excited States of America, and offered a full scholarship.

The kid from De La Salle returns after graduation to a distinguished career with the Argos and, on the side, gets a law degree. On retirement from the smash-me game, he does television commentary and is often touted as the best choice as CFL commissioner. He also, being no dummy, has a lot of high-level connections.

One othem happens to be one Brian Mulroney — who happens, one day, to become prime minister of almost all this land and appoints one Michael Wadsworth as Canadian ambassador to Ireland. Where he resided in a magnificent mansion outside Dublin and where we met and first became friends. Following that, his smart alma mater called him home and for five years, he was athletic director at Notre Dame – demanding new scholastic standards for his football folk and, as we understand it, perhaps leading to Notre Dame’s shrinkage in the national standards.

We now get around to late 2003. Mike is happy back in law practice in Toronto. But the vigorous athlete, as it turns out, has lived his life with one functioning kidney – the other downed by some childhood infection. It seems a transplant will be needed at some stage. Bernie Wadsworth, the wife of 39 years, is a rock. So are their three married daughters, who have been inflicted since tads with nicknames – Jane Flynn is Foofie, Carolan Lessaux is Punky and Mary Hamilton is Minnow (God save us all from the nicknames we endured).

It is soon detected that Mike at 60 has bladder cancer. With the SARS scare freezing Toronto hospitals, he goes to the famed Mayo Clinic out on the plains of Rochester, Minnesota, to undergo surgery. All is okay, but the transplant inevitability still awaits.

We have a party, and Bunny Wadworth’s son, almost bald now with his hair gone to chemotherapy, is as tough and funny as always. Bernie, his rock, is beautiful and gracious and upbeat. Only later do we find out why.

Finding a match for a kidney transplant is, to say the obvious, a tricky endeavour. Blood links, genes, all that. Bernie had another idea – ridiculous, of course, but an idea. She will be the donor. She’s a tough broad.

Medical statistics show her chances of being a match were somewhat like one million to one – donors are most usually blood relatives. Guess what? Bernie’s conviction (started at that church dance) beat all the statisticians.

They went back to the Mayo on the Minnesota plain and, after holding hands on hospital stretchers while waiting for a two-hour operation, everything went okay, just as Bernie had predicted.

Back in Toronto, fighting off seven grandchildren, Bernie has only one regret. “We had wonderful doctors at Mayo, you could not believe,” she says. “As we were going in for the operation, the lead doc said to me, ‘Don’t worry. It’s just like we’re going to take the engine out of a Volkswagen and put it in a Mack truck.’ I thought, ‘Well, I wish he’d said a Mercedes.'”

Now that’s a love story.