NEW PORT RICHEY
The Christmas lights twinkle white in the corner of the living room. Brian Verrette can see them from the hospital bed that sits across from the small flat screen television.
His two daughters arrived from Baton Rouge, La., a few weeks ago and put it up.
"We had an early Christmas," said his wife, Karrol. "We done a lot of special things."
This Christmas will be Brian's last, if he makes it that long.
Riddled with cancer that started six years ago in his colon, he is down to one functioning kidney.
"It's probably about to shut down," Karrol said. "When that happens, he'll go very quickly."
Until then, Brian, 43, who is in hospice care, gets enough medicine to keep him comfortable. He has good days, when he's lucid, and bad days, when he doesn't recognize his wife. He sleeps about 22 hours a day.
While he's out, Karrol pleads with the bill collectors.
• • •
In 2006, Brian Verrette was a 36-year-old information technology specialist living in Baton Rouge. He had few health problems. But he started having trouble sleeping, averaging about an hour or two a night. He went to a doctor.
"Instead of just throwing sleeping pills at me and sending me off, he wanted to find the cause," Brian said. "He saved my life."
Tests showed scores of cancerous polyps in Brian's colon. He began an aggressive treatment regimen. By 2008, he was in remission.
He became a tireless advocate for the American Cancer Society, giving speeches and raising money. He worked on Relay for Life events. In 2009, the organization named him a "Hero of Hope."
In 2009, he met Karrol, who lived in Pinellas County, through an online chat group. They began accumulating lots of airline miles. She knew about his battle with cancer.
On July 3, 2010, Karrol brought him to Kentucky to meet her father. She didn't know that Brian had a surprise. During the visit, he privately asked Karrol's father for permission to marry her. After he gave his blessing, the couple went for a walk on a dirt road.
Brian dropped to one knee so fast, Karrol thought he had fallen. Then he whipped out the box that held a princess-cut diamond.
"I kept staring at the ring," she recalled. She looked at it so long it made Brian nervous.
"Does this mean yes?" he asked.
Karrol had one condition. Brian had to move to Florida. They began planning a beach wedding.
• • •
After his treatment, Brian had been getting regular checkups to make sure he was still cancer-free.
Two weeks after he proposed, the results showed the cancer was back.
He told Karrol. He offered to cancel their engagement and let her go on with her life.
She never hesitated. "I chose to stay," she said.
Brian moved to Florida and found an oncologist. Doctors found tumors had spread all over his body. This time the cancer could be treated but was incurable.
As the bills began piling up, a fancy wedding was of reach. On April 30, 2011, they exchanged vows at the Trinity Relay for Life event at the Mitchell High football field. The team even chipped in to buy Karrol's wedding gown.
After a brief honeymoon, they settled into a home in New Port Richey with Karrol's three sons and continued the cancer fight.
• • •
Brian worked as long as he could, he said. Karrol, 36, and an insurance agent, also worked so they could pay the bills. Brian's condition worsened, and in April, she quit her job to care for him full time.
That's when the bills started piling up. At first, they paid the mortgage and car loans, but had to let credit cards slide. Then they got behind on the house. They owe about $105,000.
Friends and community groups have organized fundraisers, including a Dec. 14 benefit at the Seven Springs Golf and Country Club. Brian's Belief, a Facebook page, has received 979 "likes" since it was created last year.
The support helps. Karrol also faces their problems directly.
"It's amazing what you can do if you don't ignore the collection calls," she said. Some collectors break down into tears, she said. Others offer to pray for the family.
Progress Energy waived a $400 re-connection fee when they once lost their electricity.
Now the couple is waiting for foreclosure papers from the bank. Brian has a life insurance policy that will pay off the loan when he dies, but the bank opted to move forward anyway.
To make matters even worse, Karrol's brother, Rick Miller, 42, of Seminole died Sunday in a motorcycle accident in west St. Petersburg. In addition to caring for Brian, she arranged his funeral, which was held Friday.
But the couple has found support through Generations Church, where they attended while Brian was able to travel. They made a video that the church used as part of a sermon series about Bible heroes. The church also let Brian have an early father-daughter dance with his 20-year-old, who is engaged.
They recorded the dance, which will be played at his daughter's wedding next year.