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Stoneham couple’s love story, in life and death

Neil and Tina Carruthers married in 2010, and nine months later, her cancer returned.

Carruthers family

Neil and Tina Carruthers married in 2010, and nine months later, her cancer returned.

When Neil Carruthers married Tina Nedelcu three years ago, he knew her funeral might arrive sooner than either wanted. She had already been treated for brain cancer, and had learned anew to talk and walk and coax her lovely voice to sing again in church.

For some, illness puts love on hold. Not Neil. “He said, ‘Mom, you don’t marry someone for their pedigree and you don’t marry them for their health history,’ ” his mother, Rosanne, recalled. “He told me, ‘Mom, whatever time we have, I want to spend with her.’ ”

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Nine months after they married in 2010, the cancer returned. Early this year they moved in with Neil’s parents in Stoneham, and he stopped working so he could tend to all Tina’s needs. When she could no longer speak, he sat by the bed and read from a Bible whose passages she had highlighted so brightly and frequently it was as if Scripture glowed from every page.

“I know he was helping to prepare her,” Rosanne said, “but for me as a mother, as a Christian, it was as if she was preparing him as well.”

No one, however, could anticipate what would unfold the morning of Aug. 11 when Neil walked out of Tina’s room and collapsed. Rosanne, a nurse at Winchester Hospital, performed CPR, but two hours of efforts by medical workers failed to revive Neil at home and at the hospital, where he died. As it happens, he had gone for a physical a few days earlier and his physician saw nothing amiss. His family is awaiting autopsy results.

Before leaving for the hospital, Rosanne had broken the news to Tina that something happened to Neil, “and I know she understood. When I came home, I went in and I held her hand and I told her, ‘Tina, he didn’t make it, he’s going to have to be there waiting for you,’ and tears ran right down her cheeks.”

Tina and Neil Carruthers kept living their lives despite her illness. They traveled when possible, and went to museums and plays, whale watches, and sporting events.

Forty six hours later, Tina died in hospice care. She was 29, he was 34, and their joint funeral will be held in Stoneham Saturday.

“God knew they were going to go at the same time,” Neil’s mother said.

The convergence of their lives and love that began when they met in 2008 was in many ways as improbable as their final two days.

Neil grew up in Stoneham, but Florentina Nedelcu, the youngest of four children, was born in Constanta, Romania, on the Black Sea, and was a toddler when the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred some 650 miles to the north. “We were told to stay indoors,” said her oldest brother, Dave Sorin Wilson of Georgia. “As kids, we didn’t know how harmful it was.”

Tina and her siblings helped out with the family business selling flowers. Drawn to the beauty of blossoms, young Tina could be found walking the aisles, plucking tops off flowers, said her sister, Larisa Nedelcu of Florida.

She was 7 when her family immigrated to the United States, and she lived in places such as New York City and Missouri before settling in the Atlanta area. “She loved to laugh and she loved to make other people laugh,” her sister said. “Not only that, but she had a way of making people feel comfortable around her.”

A couple of years out of high school, Tina started experiencing seizures. Initially misdiagnosed, a brain tumor showed up on an MRI, and she underwent surgery in 2006, her sister said. Having been temporarily paralyzed, Tina had relearned how to make her way in the world in her mid-20s. She was living in Georgia when she met Neil Mason Carruthers via an online Christian Adventist dating website.

The younger of two children, Neil “was always caring as a kid,” said his sister, Jill Hodson of Sterling. “He didn’t like confrontation, but he knew what he believed in. He wouldn’t give in to peer pressure.”

Inspired by visits to his grandparents in Maine, he became enamored of the outdoors, and would ask to be dropped off at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary for hikes.

“Nature was part of who he really was,” his mother said. “Material things weren’t important to him.’’

Tall and healthy, he also played basketball and “always looked young,” said his father, Bob. “He never aged.”

“He had cute dimples,” Neil’s sister said. “He was very handsome, and he was very health conscious.”

Neil graduated from Greater Boston Academy, a Christian school in Stoneham, and at a Seventh-day Adventist camp, he met Matthew Hiscock, who was a year behind him at school. They remained close and Hiscock was a groomsman in Neil’s wedding.

“In a nutshell, Neil was one of those guys you want as a friend,” said Hiscock, who now lives in Fall River. “And if you don’t have someone like that as a friend, you miss out on something great.”

At Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich., Neil studied environmental science and spent a couple of summers working in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nearby facility.

After graduating, he did landscaping and construction on Cape Cod, then returned to Stoneham. He took a job at Winchester Hospital as a patient safety associate and sat through nights with confused, elderly patients, or those at risk of falling, to keep them safe.

“You have to have the patience of a saint. Neil did,” said his supervisor, Mary Beth Strauss. “And he loved what he did. He worked overnight so he could take care of Tina during the day. When he talked about his wife, you could feel the love between them. There was something really remarkable with those two.”

When Tina and Neil first began talking online in 2008, their conversations about faith and friendship soon led them to meet in person and meet each other’s families. They married Sept. 5, 2010, in the Seventh-day Adventist church in Lawrenceville, Ga.

“Tina believed that a miracle had happened, that the tumor was taken away and she was going on with her life,” Neil’s mother said. “She just started living her life, and it amazed me how little she dwelled on that. Both of them they had such a strong faith about heaven and the hereafter, and that was going to be a better place.”

Faith faces few tests bigger than a terminal illness, but Tina and Neil kept living their lives in Stoneham, traveling when possible, or going to the Museum of Fine Arts and plays, whale watches, and sporting events.

“There’s a whole bucket here of tickets for all the places they went,” Neil’s father said.

In addition to his mother, father, and sister, Neil leaves his maternal grandmother, Virginia Mason of South Woodstock, Maine. In addition to her brother and sister, Tina leaves her father and mother, Aurel and Aurica Nedelcu of Missouri; and another brother, Adrian Nedelcu of Georgia.

A celebration of their lives will begin at 3 p.m. Saturday, in Stoneham Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church, with a half-hour of music followed by a service.

During Tina’s final months, taking care of her filled all of Neil’s hours.

“He never, never gave up,” his mother said. “When she lost her speech, I would have been so frustrated. He’d say, ‘Mom, she can tell me so much with her eyes.’ He’d say, ‘Mom, she can tell me more than most people can tell me with words.’ ”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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