Trudging Through Sobriety and Other Challenges, One Step at a Time


In March 2018, Morgan Olivia Hartman, who was new to Alcoholics Anonymous, attended the Miami district annual A.A. banquet dinner. Phillip Xavier de Amezola, who had been sober for four years at the time, was also there, seated at another table.

Though the two had been attending the same local morning meetings since the previous October, they had not truly connected. Until, that is, each observed the Swedish ivy plants serving as centerpieces on the banquet tables.

“It’s the plant Bill W. gave to his sponsees when he was dying in the hospital,” Ms. Hartman, 52, said, referring to one of the founders of the 12-step recovery program. “Part of what makes the plant special and significant is that people are supposed to cut the leaves off, replant them, and let the plant continue to grow.”

At the end of the evening, each plant was given to the person at the table with the shortest period of sobriety, and that was Ms. Hartman at her table, with six months.

In a meeting the next day, Mr. de Amezola, 54, asked if anyone had received the sprout. Ms. Hartman said she was quick to tell him she had and if “he gave me his number, I would text him photos of the plant and share a clip with him when it got big enough.”

Both were happy to connect. “I liked what he shared in meetings,” said Ms. Hartman, a mental health counselor in private practice. “He was my type physically and he had wonderful blue eyes.”

Mr. de Amezola “liked her energy,” he said. “She was cute and attractive, and I wanted to get to know her better.”

As the ivy grew, the friendship blossomed as well, starting with Ms. Hartman texting a photo of the plant, as promised.

In May he asked her to speak at an A.A. meeting he chaired. “You could tell she was special, had a great story and something to offer people,” said Mr. de Amezola, a project scientist for Hydrologic Associates, an environmental consultant company in Cutler, Fla.

Afterward, as a thank you, and an excuse to keep the interaction going, he took her to dinner at Hole in the Wall, a burger joint in Miami. They talked for hours, both admitting to having crushes on the other. A shared kiss ended the evening. A second date followed two days later.

Their relationship moved quickly even though each, having been married and divorced, was a little wary. Ms. Hartman was married for three years, and Mr. de Amezola for 13. He has three children.

Over the next eight months, they celebrated each other’s birthdays, Ms. Hartman’s one-year sober anniversary and New Year’s Eve.

In January 2019, after both of their leases were up, they rented a townhouse together in Miami. The plant, “which had multiplied in size,” Ms. Hartman said, came with them. “We took it as a sign we were meant to be together and called it our ‘love plant.’”

In March 2020, after the pandemic began, the couple bought a house in the nearby village of Palmetto Bay. “It was a big commitment — I wasn’t sure about getting married again,” Mr. de Amezola said. “But she makes me a better person. Everything I do with her is an improvement.”

That September, Ms. Hartman developed a cough that wouldn’t go away and had trouble swallowing. She saw a specialist in December and had an endoscopy.

“When I woke up, the doctor was sitting in my room,” she recalled. “She said, ‘There’s a mass. It’s big. We have to wait for pathology to confirm, but I’m pretty sure it’s cancer.’”

Ms. Hartman cried in the car as she told the news to Mr. de Amezola. “If someone was getting cancer it would be me,” said Mr. de Amezola, a pack-a-day smoker. (Ms. Hartman, a nonsmoker, ran marathons.)

For the next two weeks, as the world prepared for Christmas and New Year’s Day, the couple prepared for test results.

Mr. de Amezola also bought a diamond and sapphire engagement ring.

“Morgan kept saying, ‘I’m going to die alone,’” Mr. de Amezola said. “I wasn’t going to let that happen. I wanted to marry her before she got sick. But I didn’t want people to think I was asking because she was sick.”

A few days before Christmas, they were standing in their kitchen when Mr. de Amezola got down on one knee, and told her, “We can do this now or when you’re well. Whatever you choose, we’ll get through this.”

Ms. Hartman said yes, and the couple kept the engagement to themselves.

The holidays came and went. The plant continued to thrive; the couple tried to as well.

On Jan. 4, 2021, Ms. Hartman was diagnosed with spindle cell carcinoma, a rare form of esophageal cancer. Five rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation would be needed to shrink the tumor before an 11-hour surgery to remove her esophagus and recreate one from her stomach.

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Because of Covid, Ms. Hartman’s mother, sister and Mr. de Amezola could not be in the room to sit with her through treatments. “She was such a trouper,” Mr. de Amezola said, “but it was heartbreaking. She looked gray and sick at the hospital. I felt cheated. I’m never going to have the life I’m supposed to have with her.”

On April 28, 2021, Ms. Hartman had surgery at Baptist Health South Miami Hospital. The next several months were a blur of physical pain and financial distresses. With all of their earnings paying off medical bills, a mortgage and issues with the house, planning a wedding felt far away.

The holidays came and went, again. So did another New Year’s. The following April, in 2022, Ms. Hartman’s stepfather died. Wedding talk was put on hold, still the couple hung on.

By mid-September, having endured a year of unexplained stomach pain, Ms. Hartman was informed she had a bowel obstruction. Another surgery was scheduled.

Once corrected, Ms. Hartman turned a corner. Her hair grew back and she put on weight. “She started to look like herself,” Mr. de Amezola said. “I was getting her back. We start talking about marriage. This time for real rather than to legally or medically have rights in each other’s lives.”

January 2023 started off optimistically, but was short lived. As the couple were about to board a flight to Washington to visit Ms. Hartman’s family, Mr. de Amezola’s doctor phoned. “She told me I had an aortic abdominal aneurysm that was 6.5 centimeters,” he said, “that I can’t get on the plane, that I needed to be operated on immediately.”

Mr. de Amezola’s surgery was difficult. Opioids for the pain were prescribed.

By the end of February, he was back home. Recovery was slow; weening off the drugs was grueling. “I went to a dark place,” he said. “I’m never going to get out of this. I’m never getting married. Morgan kept me afloat.”

“Watching that happen was scary — I saw obsession, fear and depression,” said Ms. Hartman, adding that both leaned into their A.A. program for support. “All I could do was love him and get him through this.”

Since her diagnosis, Ms. Hartman had become a Facebook enthusiast, specifically for the Miami Cancer Institute and 305 Pink Pack, a support group for women going through cancer who lived in her area code.

In May 2023, she was browsing the groups when she stumbled upon a dream wedding contest, A Gift of a Lifetime, organized by the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, Miami. There were three requirements: you needed to be a cancer survivor, be engaged and be a patient of the Baptist Health network. Ms. Hartman, unbeknown to Mr. de Amezola, applied. Then she forgot about it.

A month later, she received a call informing her she was one of five couples being considered. A Zoom interview with committee members proceeded. An in-person luncheon to meet the couple followed.

“I finally told Phil I did this thing,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d win. I’m not a lucky person. Plus, we didn’t look sick anymore.”

When the couple arrived for lunch, they walked into a room filled with balloons and a sign that read: “Congratulations.”

“Winning was a huge surprise, but our entire relationship and life together has been a surprise,” Ms. Hartman said. “There is life after cancer, life after major medical issues and things to still celebrate. We didn’t realize we’d been holding our breath, waiting for something good to happen.”

On Oct. 19, 2023, the couple were married in front of 56 friends and family members by Eddie Rodriguez, an ordained interfaith minister who officiated at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Key Biscayne. Everything — the D.J., photographer, flowers, photo booth, video, their wedding attire, dinner, cake, along with two nights at the hotel — was donated.

Brigit Sparling, Ms. Hartman’s mother, who lives in Naples, Fla., said she had always seen the couple’s relationship as touching and meaningful, “but this wedding was a beautiful representation” of those qualities.

“When I look at them, I see these two people who are right for each other, who laugh a lot together, and that’s a great strength,” she said. “They help each other see the best in one another.”

The couple spoke similarly about each other.

“We’d both been married before, we’d both thought we would die, but we didn’t,” Mr. de Amezola said. “She understands me and still loves me. I’m not easy to love, and she does, and she has the capacity to deal with me better than everyone.”

“I didn’t know I was capable of finding a good man or being in a relationship with one,” Ms. Hartman said. “Even through the rough times, life has been OK because we’ve had each other.”

The couple are now healthy and feeling well; Ms. Hartman said her scans show she is cancer-free. And through it all, their “love plant” has also flourished.

When Oct. 19, 2023

Where The Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne, Fla.

The Dress The bride wore a strapless gown with a lace bodice and jagged “horsehair” hems, designed by Paloma Blanca. “I picked it for its playful hems and simplicity,” she said. “I felt really pretty in it.”

The Cake “I picked some elaborate Tahitian vanilla with champagne raspberries, but I only picked a flavor,” said the bride, adding that the rest of the visuals were a surprise. “It was white with peacock feathers imprinted on the fondant.”


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