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'We could never let go': Divorced couple remarries on husband's deathbed

When Joanne and Bob Wotherspoon married in 1987, Joanne knew she was in for a “wild” ride, but never anticipated she’d be remarrying her husband three decades later on his deathbed.

Giving new meaning to intensive care, the Wotherspoons held 2 family weddings at the hospital in 2018

Joanne Wotherspoon is pictured here on June 16, 2018, with her ex-husband Bob at their eldest daughter's wedding. She thinks her daughter's wedding set the wheels in motion for their own re-marriage the following month. (Robyn Russell)
Listen to the full episode29:42

When Joanne and Bob Wotherspoon married in 1987, Joanne knew she was in for a wild ride, but never anticipated she'd be remarrying Bob three decades later on his deathbed.  

"I remember thinking, 'This is going to be a wild, crazy, fun ride with Bob Wotherspoon'... and he lived up to it one thousand per cent," Joanne said.

Getting divorced, but 'could never let go' 

The couple had four children together.

Over the years, they struggled to balance the challenges of life together as a married couple and, in the mid-2000s, they divorced.

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      Bob wrote and recorded an expansive collection of songs. Most of his tunes mirror their highest points, such as the one titled You just make me smile, but some had a more sombre message, like the song Driving me out of my mind.

      "So as much as I drove him out of his mind and he was driving me out of my mind, we could never let go," said Joanne, looking back on their decades together. "That's the best way to sum up my relationship with Bob. We just could not let go, and his songs were about that."

      Bob hates delivering speeches so he chose to write a poem instead. See why Joanne loves to re-watch it so much! 2:08

      Bob's devastating diagnosis

      The pair continued to co-parent the kids and remain each other's confidant.

      That was especially true in 2017, when Bob received news that there was a problem with his blood work. He called Joanne on Nov. 4 to ask if she'd accompany him to the doctor's appointment to learn about the results.

      Often pictured with a big, bold smile, Bob Wotherspoon was described by Joanne as the 'healthiest' man in his 60s she knew, yet in 2017 he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. (Submitted by Joanne Wotherspoon)

      "I thought, he was the healthiest 64-year-old guy I've ever met.... He probably has the flu or something," she recalled.

      She was wrong. Bob was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer called Mixed Phenotype Acute Leukemia (MPAL).

      "I still remember being at the hospital in that room with my children and I was kneeling beside the bed and Bob held my hand and squeezed it so tight when they told us this," she recalled, choking back tears.

      "I could see the terror in his face... and that's the day we began the hardest journey."

      Diagnosed with Mixed Phenotype Acute Leukemia, Bob Wotherspoon was able to keep his spirits up throughout his cancer journey. In this picture, his delight is brought to you by his daughter, Emily, who decorated his hospital room at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre with lights and bought him a stuffed elephant. (Submitted by Joanne Wotherspoon)

      24-hour dash to marry

      Bob's cancer journey was a series of promising updates upended by terrifying setbacks. In June 2018, he was deemed too sick to leave the hospital for his daughter's wedding. 

      In less than 24 hours, the hospital staff helped the family relocate the official portion of his daughter's wedding ceremony to Princess Margaret's rooftop terrace so Bob could be there.

      "[The hospital is] a sad place but [the wedding was] such a little thing that brought a lot of joy to a lot of people," Joanne said. "It made my day and it made me feel complete that our family was together for this life event."

      Bob Wotherspoon, pictured here hugging his daughter Erin on her wedding day, was deemed too sick to go the 4.5 kilometres from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre on University Ave. in Toronto to the storied Gladstone Hotel on Queen St for his daughter's wedding, so the wedding came to him. (Robyn Russell)

      A second proposal, with no time to waste

      Less than a month later, in July 2018, Bob was rushed to the emergency room at Toronto General Hospital with an obstructed bowel.

      Bob's intensive care unit physician, Dr. James Downar, said Bob was too weak to undergo life-saving surgery.

      It was there and then that Bob popped the question to Joanne — for the second time.

      "He looked at me and said, 'We gotta get married,' and I felt this urgency, 'I need to marry this man. It's the right thing to do,'" said Joanne. 

      Joanne Wotherspoon (right) pictured with her daughter Erin during her wedding ceremony at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, along her ex-husband Bob. Joanne thinks her daughter's wedding set the wheels in motion for Bob to re-propose to her. (Robyn Russell)

      It would be another hospital wedding for the Wotherspoon clan, this time in Toronto General's intensive care unit.  

      With ice wine from Dr. Downar and a bouquet of flowers from the staff, the hospital helped Bob and Joanne marry again, 31 years later.

      "Bob was totally coherent, totally with it, but he was in his bed being like, 'Can you believe it?! Who else would do this? This is so unique. You know, here I am getting remarried to this woman that I've loved since 1981, but there's tubes and things and noises,'" Joanne recalled.

      I really felt whole with my family back together.- Joanne Wotherspoon, on her second marriage to Bob

      The following morning Bob went into respiratory arrest and passed away within minutes.

      "I know a marriage license is just paper but there is something to be said about that, and it is something sacred. It really does tie you to this person," said Joanne. "I think that Bob wanted that more than anything and I did too. I really felt whole with my family back together."

      Joanne wrote about her love story with Bob in a personal essay published in Toronto Life in January 2019.

      Returning to the site of a one-of-a-kind wedding

      In May, Joanne and her eldest daughter, Erin, went back to the intensive care unit at Toronto General for the first time since the couple's remarriage and Bob's passing.

      For Erin Wotherspoon, the hospital ceremony was the perfect ending to a love story full of twists and surprises.

      "It's such a little childish thought, but I've always felt my parents just really belonged together," Erin said through tears, standing beside the hospital room where her father died. "I'm just really happy that for once in life, something worked out."

      The emotional re-marriage wasn't just memorable for the Wotherspoons. When Joanne and Erin returned to Toronto General they were able to thank the hospital staff who had helped them. 

      Joanne Wotherspoon and her daughter Erin are reunited with staff at Toronto General's Medical Surgical Intensive Care Unit for the first time in the unit since Bob passed away. Left to right: Tamara Hambleton, Joanne Wotherspoon, Erin Wotherspoon, Suzanne Robertson, backrow, Dr. James Downar. (Chris Glover)

      "I can certainly say I have never had a case like that in my experience, not even close," said Dr. Downar, who provided the couple with ice wine for their toast.

      "To have the opportunity… to be a part of something that was so meaningful, it just stands out as a very unique experience," said spiritual care practitioner Suzanne Robertson. "One that fuels us up, that helps us to continue doing the work that we do."


      To listen to the documentary "Three Weddings and a Funeral," click on the Listen link at the top of the page.


      (CBC)
      About the Producer

      Chris Glover has been a reporter, anchor and producer with CBC News for a decade. He's an award winning storyteller, who has travelled the country in search of fascinating characters with compelling stories to share on TV, radio and online. A series he helped spearhead at CBC Toronto, No Fixed Address, won a national RTDNA award in 2017 and the municipal election special he anchored in 2018 was just nominated for an RTDNA award for best live special.

      This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe. It was made through the CBC Doc Mentorship Program.