Love conquers all?
"Yes," said Michelle Rheal. "Love conquers all."
A little over five years ago, Michelle, 51, and her boyfriend Odis Rheal, 54, went for a walk in their 100-acre wood behind their Jasper, Tennessee, home. Michelle thought it was casual; Odis, his heart thump-pound-thumping in his chest, had other plans.
Earlier in the week, he'd snuck into those woods with a hammer and chisel and carved four most important words into the papery bark of a sycamore tree.
Secretly, Odis was leading her through the woods toward that tree.
He walked Michelle up to the top of a hill.
The sycamore was nearby.
"Look around," he said. "What do you see?"
Michelle looked and looked then saw it.
Carved into the sycamore, the four words:
For Michelle, this was her true love; there was no answer but yes.
For Odis, there was no life without Michelle.
For both, it was a culmination of one long journey.
You may know them. Michelle, who grew up in North Georgia, manages one of the most popular delis in town; Odis, who grew up in Jasper, co-owns Pro Mobile Detail on Cummings Highway.
They got married five years ago today, March 10, 2014. On their fifth anniversary, they want you to know a little bit more.
That life can be tough.
That people deserve second chances.
"That love conquers all," Michelle said.
In 2005, Michelle and Odis met through a mutual friend. At the time, both were dealing or using drugs. Three days after meeting, they got busted.
A single mother to three children, Michelle had been using drug money to pay bills.
On the verge of entering prison for many years, she was at rock bottom.
That's when a woman named Elaine Kelly loved her.
"She saved me," Michelle said.
Kelly is the coordinator for the Hamilton County Drug Court, which reroutes nonviolent offenders out of prison and into transformative rehab; she offered Michelle a second chance.
Then, Michelle met Drug Court Judge Rebecca Stern.
"I love that woman," said Michelle. "To be a judge, she was never judgmental. She was there for each one of us and cared about each individual."
Michelle entered rehab at CADAS. Surrendering to sobriety, she had to relearn how to live.
"It's the core issues," she said. "It's about healing on the inside."
It took 16 months.
Odis followed. Into drug court. Then CADAS. Then a new life.
Both have been sober for 12 years.
"Aug. 22, 2007," Michelle said. "That's my clean date."
They know this will surprise many of you, and possibly even shock or repel. Yet telling their honest story, which could give others hope and courage, is worth the risk.
"We are taking the risk to help and encourage others that one day at a time, it can and will get better," Michelle said. "It's hard work, but the payoff is your life and happiness, because love conquers all."
After CADAS, she needed a job and applied at River Street Deli, the popular North Shore restaurant.
That's when Michelle met Bruce Weiss, the well-known owner.
"She came in and said she was willing to work. I'm going to give somebody a shot," he said. "I can't hold that against somebody. That is the past. How are they now? What is the future?"
Michelle went from 20 hours a week to full time to manager, her current position. Plus, this Southern gal from Jasper became dear friends with Weiss, a native New Yorker.
"She's a loving family woman and the hardest worker you could possibly imagine," Weiss said. "She went from a broken-up family to now, she's the matriarch. She's got her son back. She's close with her daughters and granddaughters. Odis owns his own business. He's the sweetest guy in the world . The love affair between her and Odis and family is amazing."
Now, Michelle hires as many CADAS graduates as she can.
She and Odis renewed relationships with parents, children and grandchildren.
Michelle's son Ben — he's 29, with Down syndrome — lives with her and Odis.
"Ben has been the biggest blessing to our family," she said. "He has taught us how to love unconditionally and to care for a child with special needs."
Her own grown daughters have six children, including daughters with special needs.
Love conquers all.
"It conquers drugs," Michelle said. "It conquers bad situations. It conquers bad relationships. It conquers bad decisions. You can rebuild your life and family and have kids respect you again. I can't change the past, but I can make the future better."
From Weiss and his deli to Stern and drug court, Michelle and Odis changed because people believed in them.
That's the anniversary story they want to tell.
Life can be tough.
People can mess up.
But we all deserve a second chance.
"New growth. New beginnings. Roots going very deep," she said.
Kind of like a sycamore tree.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329.