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How we stay together: 'Pretty much on a daily basis there's adjustments'

Names: Deb Stumm and Di Lane
Years together: 24
Occupations: Retired

While she was fighting to get a heart transplant, Deb Stumm couldn’t stop worrying about one thing: who would look after her partner Di Lane if things didn’t work out? “I’m the cook in the house and I always worry about her not eating enough,” says Deb. “When I go away, she doesn’t eat properly and I get back and she’s all hungry and exhausted and I have to build her up again. So I couldn’t bear the thought of her not looking after herself.”

Deb was unexpectedly diagnosed with a serious and rare congenital heart condition in 2011. It was a huge shock as she’d always been fit and well. Then in 2015, things began to deteriorate and her only hope of survival was a transplant. She faced an uphill battle to be considered a viable candidate but was determined not to give up. “There’s this thing [when] you’re dying, you realise then how much you want to be there. I realised even more how much I didn’t want to leave Di … The transplant really made me want to live, and want to be with Di.”

The couple have been together for 23 years. They met in Sydney in 1997 on a night out at a club with mutual friends. There was an instant attraction between Deb and Di. “It was really dark, there was dancing and we were sitting next to each other,” says Deb. “Our legs touched and there was electricity.” Di agrees, remembering standing outside the club and feeling Deb’s eyes sweep up her body.

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Although they were both living in Sydney at the time, they discovered they were both from Queensland and had grown up not far from each other. In fact, Deb’s mum had taught Di at high school. However, they’re glad they didn’t meet back then. “Luckily we never met,” says Deb. “We were in our early 40s when we met, which was the right time.”

The couple in the Cape Byron lighthouse in 1998

The couple on a trip to the Cape Byron lighthouse in 1998. Photograph: Deb Stumm and Di Lane

Di pursued Deb, sending a fax to the New South Wales state library, where she was working at the time. “Her excuse was that she wanted to talk about birdwatching and she had this really amusing turn of phrase that said, ‘of the feathered variety’,” Deb says with a laugh. While Di had no interest in birds, she’d picked up on Deb’s interest that night. “It was most unusual for me just being someone to pursue something,” says Di. “I’m slightly aloof most of the time. So it was obviously fate.”

Things moved quickly after that and within three months they were looking for a house to buy together. “Di’s very decisive,” says Deb. “[She] said, ‘Oh, I’m going to sell my house and we’ll buy one together.’ And I thought, ‘Oh well, why not, might as well get into real estate early on rather than wait. Throw caution to the winds.’ Most people would wait for a while, but we thought ‘what the heck’.”

They knew they had something special. “Definitely,” says Di. “I remember distinctly saying and feeling, ‘I’ve met my soulmate.’ I said it quite a lot.” Deb chips in: “Within two weeks, I remember.” Di was certain they were meant to be together: “I knew very clearly that this was the person that was going to see me out. I’m going to be with her and we’ll go together to old age. That I wasn’t going to be likely to find someone else so compatible.”

Deb was just as committed. “I’m less decisive than Di, but definitely I was prepared to put everything into it at that stage of the relationship, and we were just so into each other.”

They had – and still have – strong physical chemistry. “That was what really connected us, we were very sexually attracted to each other,” says Di. Deb agrees: “We couldn’t go anywhere because people hated being with us, we were just so all over each other.” She laughs: “I kind of cringe to think about it.”

Deb and Di in Brisbane in 2004

Di and Deb in Brisbane in 2004. Photograph: Deb Stumm and Di Lane

They share similar values and politics and both enjoy being out in nature together, especially now they live in Queensland. And they balance each other out in some ways. “I’m a glass-half-empty type person,” says Di, “and she’s good like that for me, because I can immediately see the negative stuff in whatever’s going to happen, and she keeps flipping that – annoyingly sometimes. She’s got a very sunny outlook on things, which astounds me because a lot of what happens to her is not that sunny.”

Deb has cultivated optimism in the darkest times to get her through. “I guess having been through major health problems, I think that has made me more just grateful to be alive.”

Much as they enjoy being together, they lead their own lives too, particularly as they’re both retired now. “Having separate interests [is important],” says Di. “She keeps finding new things to absorb … And she could easily look at a screen all day, whereas I’m happy to look at the clouds all day. I don’t need to do a lot [while] she likes to have lots going on.”

Di adds: “You’ve got to let the other person be themselves. Because that’s the person you fell in love with – someone different.”

Di and Deb in 2014 in literary fancy dress as Jay Gatsby and Neely O’Hara

Deb and Di in 2014 in literary fancy dress as Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby and Neely O’Hara from Valley of the Dolls. Photograph: Deb Stumm and Di Lane

They try to address issues before they become too big. “At the first flush, it seems like [the other] couldn’t do anything wrong, like I was just with this perfect person, and then that wears off over a few years, and then you start to see things,” says Di. “You have to adjust with each phase. I think even as we get older and a lot more long-term, we still have to adjust. Pretty much on a daily basis there’s adjustments.”

But they don’t sweat the small stuff. “I’ve consciously taught myself I don’t need to mention all those little things that are trivial,” says Deb. “Di may not do exactly as I would do, like put the pegs in the wrong basket or something ridiculous like that … Talking’s really good but leaving things unsaid is also good.”

Deb’s health battles have been a constant challenge. Di remembers watching her partner fight to get the heart transplant. “I’ve been in awe, I just watch from the sidelines going: how the hell do you keep going? I just don’t think I’d have the mental attitude to go with it.” But for Deb, Di was part of the fight, giving up work to help her when she became very unwell. “Di has really been there for me. Without her I really couldn’t have got through it.”

Laughter has been their saving grace. “Being lighthearted at some things because some other things are so huge, we have to find some light,” says Di. “And keep with the light as much as possible, because if it were up to me I’d be a bit doomsday about everything.”

Although they’ve been together for so long, their relationship hasn’t changed in many ways. That consistency has helped them to navigate their many challenges together. “What hasn’t changed is our ability to focus as a team really quickly … Right from the beginning we knew, we could see that in ourselves, that ability to quickly focus and adapt. We can do.”

Deb adds: “We just know practically everything about each other now. There’s not a lot of mystery to be had – but then she will always surprise me. If someone’s going to surprise me, it’ll be her.”

Their commitment remains unwavering. “‘For me [commitment] means that Deb can rely on me. I’ll be there 100% at the moment, whatever it is that’s required of me,” says Di, adding later: “We’re committed to each other, not because of any piece of paper or any expectations from other people. It’s because we want each other to keep expanding, and we know that we give each other the right love to be able to do that.”

Deb sees things plainly: “We’re committed to being together for the rest of our lives … looking after each other and making the most of what we’ve got. We try and just live for the moment, rather than think we’re going to be alive at 80 and we need money for this or that … I can’t see myself living that long. I don’t think that’s what happens, but I just want to live the best life I can with Di.”

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