Against many odds, a vow of togetherness

After money concerns become a roadblock to traditional marriage, a couple decides to take an alternate route

By Ted Gregory
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 14, 2007

They met at a bar in January 2004.

She was a single mom, working as a part-time bank teller, tending to a daughter with Down syndrome. He had just lost his job at a fast-food restaurant and was trying to salvage a life he nearly lost after being shot about nine years earlier.

Kimberly Kowalczyk and Bob Heed had their first official date on Valentine's Day 2004, fell in love and decided to get married. But complications arose.

They determined that their combined income, modest as it was, would endanger public medical care for Kowalczyk's daughter. "That's not fair," Kowalczyk said. "Why can't I celebrate the way everyone else I know who has gotten married, just because I have a handicapped child?"

They came up with a solution.

On Friday, Kowalczyk and Heed will have a ceremony and reception followed by a 10-day honeymoon in Las Vegas. But one element will be distinctly different. Instead of marriage vows, they will make their commitment formal through a service officiated by a wedding celebrant and minister, Toni Hassett, from Bourbonnais.

The ceremony is an example of a couple's resourcefulness and part of an emerging trend in love. But it's also without significant legal standing.

"We're sort of stuck," Kowalczyk said. "But, at least we can say we're stuck in love.'"

The National Marriage Project based at Rutgers University, which publishes an annual report, "The State of Our Unions," notes that marriage rates continue to decline in the U.S.

In 1960, about 70 percent of men and 66 percent of women were married, but that declined to 55 percent of men and 51.5 percent of women in 2005, according to the report.

Reasons for the decline include delaying first marriages, the growth of cohabitation and a small decrease in divorced people remarrying, the report said.

Kowalczyk, 30, of Glendale Heights and Heed, 36, of Algonquin wanted to avoid being part of the marriage problem.

Heed had asked Kowalczyk to marry him several times. After he took her to a jewelry store to pick out a ring, she knew he was serious. In June 2004, he asked her again, and she told him, "You know I'm not going to say `No."'

It was something of a tribute to what had been Heed's almost miraculous recovery.

An acknowledged "really, really mean" person, Heed was working as a bouncer in a Cicero bar in April 1993 when a fight erupted and he was shot in the head--that's what his family has told him. He cannot recall the brawl.

He was supposed to be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, his family told him. But he steadily recovered to lead a mostly conventional life. And he, Kowalczyk said, is a person who now cares a great deal about others.

Still, he struggles to speak complete sentences, is taking medication to eliminate seizures and has a spur-shaped scar on his left temple.

He has been working part time at a grocery in Algonquin.

He welcomed Kowalczyk's daughter, Kailyn, 9, who cannot speak and requires a ventilator to breathe.

She requires round-the-clock care, said Kowalczyk, who has converted the den of the house she rents from her parents into a Disney-themed "mini-intensive care unit." A bedroom serves as a storage closet for Kailyn's medical supplies.

That equipment, Kailyn's in-house nurse, medications and medical equipment are paid for by Medicaid and other public aid, Kowalczyk said. When she sat down to examine her finances, she said she determined the combined income of her and Heed might endanger Kailyn's aid.

That's when she started looking for an alternative to a conventional wedding and found Hassett, a former telecom sales executive. Hassett is a wedding celebrant, part of a growing occupation that helps couples who, for any number of reasons, want a ceremony formalizing their love and commitment.

By becoming an ordained minister, Hassett can certify an official marriage by signing a marriage certificate.

She also can preside over a "commitment ceremony," like the one Kowalczyk and Heed are planning. In those cases, Hassett signs a "keepsake" certificate of marriage, which holds virtually no legal status.

If and when they move in together, Kowalczyk and Heed would be part of a growing trend of unmarried cohabitation, statistics from the National Marriage Project show. In 2005, 4.8 million adult couples of the opposite sex were living together compared with about 440,000 in 1960.

But the likelihood that those arrangements will last for a long time is suspect, said David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project.

He estimated that about 75 percent of couples who cohabitate break up, compared with the 40 percent to 50 percent divorce rate.

Kowalczyk and Heed contend they have little choice and said they hope their somewhat unconventional commitment to each other helps them navigate the hard times together.

"It's just a piece of paper," Kowalczyk said of a marriage license.

"I'm still making a commitment to be with this person for the rest of my life."