Patrick Dillon knew when he proposed to his girlfriend that it would not mark the beginning of a life together. It marked the end.
Instead of marrying the love of his life, Dillon, 38, flew to New York last week to bury her.
"I've had crushes growing up, but I never loved anybody like I loved Caren," he said. "We were so meant for each other. We are soulmates."
His girlfriend, Caren Miller, died Oct. 2 from the effects of a potentially fatal neurological disorder, the same disease Dillon suffers from. She was 26.
The two met when Miller read a poem Dillon wrote for a support-group newsletter. They became pen pals and evolved into Internet pals.
"She was very funny, wasn't afraid to get silly," Dillon told the Nevada Appeal. "When a member needed surgery or passed away, she was very caring and supportive. She was just a warm, wonderful person."
Like Dillon, she also suffered from neurofibromatosis type 2, a neurological disorder that can lead to disfigurement, blindness, deafness, skeletal abnormalities, tumors and loss of limbs.
The genetic disorder tends to manifest itself in the late teens or early 20s. Miller was diagnosed at 17, and Dillon discovered he had the illness at 20 when he started to lose his hearing.
After being in contact for about six years, Miller confessed to Dillon that she had fallen in love.
"It didn't take me long to fall in love with her too."
So she left her family and friends in New York to move to Las Vegas to be with Dillon. Three years ago, they moved to Carson City, where he got a job with the State Division of Health Finance.
"We both have a terrible disorder that would prevent most people from leaving the house," Dillon said. "But we didn't like to hide in the house, so we got out and did stuff, stayed active."
Neighbors remember seeing the two of them in Miller's wheelchair, spinning figure eights in the snow.
After her death, Dillon's co-workers, who had become close with Miller as well, started a scholarship fund in her name at Western Nevada Community College, where she was a student.
Miller's disease progressed more quickly than Dillon's and she was confined to a wheelchair shortly after moving to Carson City. She eventually lost her hearing, sight and much of her mobility.
Dillon is deaf and blind in one eye. He responded to interview questions via e-mail.
"At some point, Caren became my reason for breathing," Dillon said. "Caren and I worried about each other much more than ourselves. We felt we'd be OK as long as we were together. We could fall apart together."
But they were separated in late May when Miller was hospitalized. She was too ill to attend her graduation at Western Nevada Community College, so officials brought the ceremony to her bedside at Carson-Tahoe Hospital.
She was later flown to Buffalo, N.Y., where she underwent brainstem and cervical spine surgery to remove tumors.
Over the next four months, she underwent several other operations and seemed to be improving.
She did her own physical therapy in hopes of returning to the home she loved in Carson City, her cat and Dillon.
But in July, Dillon received news that Miller probably would not survive her latest bout.
"I got the call at 8 p.m. and ran to the store," he remembered. "I was crying all over the jewelry counter as I bought an engagement ring. I was on a flight to Buffalo at 7 the next morning. I proposed to her in the ICU the next day."
Although time ran out before they made it to the altar, he said she will forever be with him.
"Caren's joy of life and sparkling attitude under the worst circumstances in the face of her many disabilities inspired everyone she encountered," Dillon said. "To those she loved and those who loved her, to every life she touched, she will never be forgotten."
And she will remain his inspiration as he continues to battle his illness.
"She taught me to deal with adversity with courage and humor," he said. "She taught me to smile even when you cannot."