As the CDA Big Band swung into an upbeat number May 19, Nathaniel Ludlow spun his wife, Judy, across the dance floor at the Eagles’ lodge in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
She smiled into his eyes as he held her hands and swayed with the rhythm. The newlyweds garnered plenty of attention.
“A lot of people have never seen wheelchair dancing,” said Judy when they paused for a break.
Judy, 63, was diagnosed with MS in 1999. She met Nathaniel, 59, five years ago when she needed someone to do yard work and snow removal. Though she was just looking for a handyman, she ended up with a husband.
However, her road to happily ever after has been a bumpy one.
The last time Judy was featured in The Spokesman-Review, her family and she were part of a 2003 series about domestic violence.
“It was a very unhappy marriage,” she said.
Indeed. The newspaper articles chronicle her bruises, broken bones and death threats at the hands of her then husband and the ensuing emotional and physical chaos for her four children.
In 2003, after her divorce, she bought a home and slowly began to rebuild her life. In 2017, her only son was killed in a car crash on his way to Lake City High School. He was 18.
Likewise, Nathaniel’s path to true love hasn’t exactly been strewn with roses.
“My life was a train wreck,” he admitted. “I took a lot of wrong paths. I was the prodigal son.”
Those wrong paths led him to be estranged from his family for many years.
When his sister tracked him down several years ago, he was ready for a fresh start. He discovered his mother was living in Coeur d’Alene, so he moved to be close to her.
He re-established his relationship with his mom, joined a church and in 2013, started a handyman business that quickly grew.
“My life is a do-over,” said Nathaniel.
When he heard Judy was looking for a handyman, he came over to assess what was needed. He told her he couldn’t start right away because he was going on a mission’s trip with his church. But it wasn’t the property he was immediately interested in helping with – it was Judy herself.
“I was concerned about her mobility,” he said. “She was using a walker, and it really limited her.”
“I didn’t want to give up the walker and move to a chair.”
When she told him she was shopping for a new mobility van, he was horrified by the one she’d chosen.
“There was no way it would fit in her garage,” he said.
He quickly showed her vans designed to work with power chairs.
“Getting a motorized chair immediately gave her more independence,” Nathaniel said.
By the time he left for his trip, they’d arrange that he’d move in, pay a small rent and do the outside chores Judy couldn’t manage.
Neither was interested in romance.
That began to change when Judy invited him to accompany her to “Night of the Stars,” an event Silverwood hosts for guests with disabilities.
“He insisted on being in the front seat of every rollercoaster,” she said. “The pictures show me screaming and him laughing.”
But it took a 6,000-mile road trip for them to realize their relationship was more than just a close friendship.
“I had family in Indiana, and he had family in Utah, Tennessee and Georgia,” she said. “We met each other’s families, and, at that point, I thought, ‘I think I like this guy.’ By the time we got back, it was pretty much a lock for me.”
“As time went on, we didn’t want to be separated. We just enjoyed each other’s company,” he said. “How do you define love? It just blossoms.”
He put both hands over his heart.
“The whole world changes.”
And then they started dancing.
When they went to dances at the Eagles’ lodge, Judy encouraged him to dance with other ladies, but Nathaniel wanted to dance with her.
“I thought there’s got to be a way to get her out on the dance floor,” he said.
Judy wasn’t sure.
“I’d danced as a normal person but never in a wheelchair,” she said.
But she had a friend who was a dance instructor, and he offered to give them lessons.
The next time they went to the Eagles, they were ready to take the floor.
“I kicked her chair out of gear and rolled her out on the floor,” said Nathaniel, grinning. “The whole house clapped and cheered.”
The couple married Dec. 15 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Coeur d’Alene, and afterward there was plenty of dancing at the reception at the Eagles.
This month, they’re taking a European cruise for their honeymoon.
Nathaniel, a lifelong bachelor, admitted he worried marriage would alter their relationship.
“I was so scared to begin with, but nothing’s changed. I’m blissfully serene and happy,” he said. “We have a good life together.”
Judy took his hand.
“He loved me where I’m at with my MS,” she said. “I appreciate his laughter through all life’s bumps.”