Advertisements often show true love as dewey-eyed couples exchanging romantic looks over candlelight, holding hands at sunset or kissing on the beach.

Real love is rarely so idyllic and carefree, however. And sometimes it is forged with hard times.

Take the case of Michael and Franca Krajeski, who took the “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” portion of their wedding vows to the extreme.

After Franca suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident in 2008, Mike nursed her through it. When Mike started serving a 90-month sentence at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, Franca moved to Pendleton to be close, sometimes visiting him twice a day. Now, Franca wears some of her husband’s ashes in a silver heart around her neck.

The inscription reads, “I used to be his angel, now he’s mine.”

Their story includes plenty of human failure and heartbreak, but also unconditional love and determination.

A difficult start

Franca moved to the United States from Italy at age 10. She experienced abuse as a child and endured three failed marriages. Over the years, she worked as payroll clerk, credit analyst, bill collector, retail clerk, bridal veil designer and bar owner.

Mike grew up in a troubled home and ended up on the streets as a 10-year-old. He flirted with drugs and crime. He had stints in juvie and lived in multiple foster homes.

The two connected in 2006, forming a fast friendship that deepened to best friends and then to love. Both realized they’d never really known true love in their dysfunctional families and the relationships that followed. This was something altogether different and wonderful.

“I never knew what love looked like,” Franca said. “Mike gave me the experience of being deeply understood, truly supported and completely and unconditionally loved.”

Life’s circumstances would soon test their relationship. In 2008, a 17-year-old driver took a shortcut through a parking lot and crashed into Mike and Franca’s car as the couple waited to pull out onto a Portland street.

“My head hit the windshield and ricocheted back and forth,” she said. “The fireman that pulled me out said I should have been dead.”

A helicopter rushed the unconscious Franca to the Oregon Health and Science University Hospital.

Months of therapy followed. Franca had seizures, sometimes 10 a day. She relearned how to walk and talk. Mike ferried her to and from therapy sessions. Sometimes he took her with him to his job with a company that refurbished motorhomes.

Her brain injury meant she sometimes reverted to toddlerhood. Franca tells a story of going to the grocery store with Mike and demanding candy. When he said no, she had a full-fledged tantrum, screaming and kicking her feet on the floor. He calmed her down, checked out and loaded her into the car.

Later, when Franca decided to complete her doctorate in divinity, Mike served as her study partner as she studied theology and struggled with her uncooperative memory.

They married in 2009.

Behind bars

Things went reasonably well until Mike fell back into drugs.

One afternoon in 2012, police officers banged on the front door of their Redmond home. The officers hauled her husband away. Mike was charged with robbery and burglary. When Franca visited him in the county jail before he was transported to EOCI, he urged her to forget him.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Ninety months is a long time. You need to move on and meet somebody. You’re still young,’” Franca recalls him saying.

She didn’t think about it long.

“I decided I’m going to stick this one out,” she said. “Mike was the only person who had given me unconditional love.”

She moved to Pendleton, got a small apartment and started a cleaning business. She saw Mike during visiting hours. They exchanged letters. They spent hours across from each other in the visiting room, playing cards and dominoes and talking. Spending that much time, she said, “you get to know the other person’s soul.”

Mike was set to be released in August of 2019. They would walk out EOCI’s front door together, he often told Franca.

In the meantime, they continued to commune daily. They prefaced their visits with prayer. Mike had taken to reading the Bible so they studied it. Franca’s pastor, Marc Mullins of First Christian Church, visited him regularly.

Mullins said Mike looked forward to getting out of prison and reuniting with Franca.

“He felt great responsibility for his wife’s well-being,” Mullins said. “He longed to get out and support her as she had supported him so long in prison.”

Franca’s friend Margaret Rettig sometimes came along on visits and the couple taught her to play Crazy Eights. She marveled at their resilience.

“I never saw any blame,” Rettig said. “Both of them were wounded in their early lives. In each other, they found healing.”

An assault

On Feb. 10, 2014, according to legal documents prepared by Mike’s attorney, one of Mike’s cellmates assaulted him. According to the documents, the inmate “beat Krajeski so savagely that Krajeski was found in a pool of blood, a long laceration over his right eye, his nose was broken and crushed. The witnesses observed that the right side of his face was ‘caved in.’”

Franca’s copy of Oregon Department of Correction notes from that day confirm the description. Surgeons repaired multiple facial fractures. Symptoms included memory loss, vision problems and confusion and he had trouble speaking and walking. Soon after, Mike was diagnosed with hepatitis C virus and cirrhosis.

Mike won a lawsuit settlement in June of 2017 against two state physicians and the Oregon Department of Corrections department’s then-chief medical officer for delaying medical care for his hepatitis infection. The state agreed to pay $100,000 and allow him medical treatment needed as long as incarcerated, including a liver transplant if approved by the OHSU transplant team.

A transplant never came. Mike’s condition worsened over the following months and he soon faced the grim realization that he was dying. He eventually entered the prison’s hospice and Franca visited every day.

On the Friday before he died, “he looked horrible. He was in pain. He couldn’t play cards, so we held hands and prayed.”

On Saturday, Nov. 10, Franca got a call from Mike’s doctor that her husband had taken a turn for the worse and was back in the infirmary.

“He wants to see you,” he said.

Once there, she tried to give him comfort.

“I put my arm around him and told him, ‘I love you,’” she remembers. “He closed his eyes, squeezed my hand and he was gone.”

She was determined to walk out of the prison with Mike, just as he’d said they would.

“EOCI let me stay for three hours while the coroner and investigator came,” she said. “We walked out of there together.”

Mike’s body, however, lay on a gurney in a body bag.

On Dec. 8, Pastor Mullins conducted a memorial service at First Christian Church for Mike. Franca expected only she and a few friends and family would attend. Instead, dozens showed up. Most hadn’t known Mike.

At the service, Franca let her tears flow as she spoke.

“I have no words to describe how much I will miss the love of my life, my best friend who was my husband,” she said. “There can never be, for me, an explanation as to why I had to lose the love of my life when we still have so much life to live.”

She paused.

“He always told me that I was his angel. And now he is mine.”

———

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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