This past year or more, especially the past few months, I have been given the privilege to witness what true love is. As my friend Irene has slipped away, little by little with dementia, I have seen love in a way the movies don’t often portray. Devotion. Steadfastness. Commitment. Adoration. The kind of love that we deeply crave and few ever receive.
I watched Wally’s patience as he repeated the same sentences over and over and more and more often as time went on. One day, I walked in and he was seated on a little stool in front of her, with her feet in his lap, he had just washed her feet and was drying them. Then he applied medicine to her toenails and then massaged lotion on to each foot. Slowly and tenderly. Then he put a sock and slipper on each foot and one by one gently lowered each one to the ground with a loving pat to each one as he sat it down. I saw him afraid to leave her, knowing that she would be agitated and worried until he got back. If he went outside to work in the yard, he checked back in on her every ½ hr. I saw him give up himself and what he wanted to do in order to care for her, because that is what he really wanted to do anyway. Care for Her. He struggled with getting help because he wanted to be the one to care for her and didn’t want to admit it was getting to be more than he could handle. At first, when she started losing her short-term memory, I would see him look at me, wondering what my reaction would be as she asked me the same question for the 3rd time in 5 minutes. But then a small nod or smile as our eyes met, he knew, I knew and that it was OK with me to repeat…and repeat…and repeat.
The last few months have been the hardest, yet the most loving times of all for me to witness. She had to go to the hospital in Dec, from there she was moved to physical therapy for a while. In the shuffle, she lost track of where her home was, she didn’t even know where Sandy was anymore, could not even picture her house. She knew she wasn’t home, but she didn’t remember home, just that THIS was not it and she didn’t know where it was anymore. He remembered how they used to enjoy hiking together. So he took her wooden cane and made her a little ‘map’ on it just like they used to do on their walking sticks to mark all the places they had passed as they were walking along. He drew Mt Hood, showed the river and other places as he got to the hospital and then the therapy center. It really helped her. Amazing how he knew that would do the trick to ease her confusion. She would sit there in her bed and just study it. Eventually she stopped asking where home was.
He spent every day with her, even in the ice and snow, he went. He brought her mochas. He massaged lotion on her feet, clipped her toenails, filed her fingernails. He waited while she had her physical therapy and dreamed up ways he could imitate those exercises with her when she left there. He made her tiny little ‘barbells’ from a long bolt with a nut on the end.
One day, I walked in the room for a visit. It was their anniversary. There he sat with a tiny cake and two mochas, raspberry for her and caramel for him. He had made sure to stop to get a little cake to celebrate it. When I arrived, he left the room, leaving her and me in the room while he hunted down some forks and he insisted that I have a bite of cake to celebrate with them.
He had finally come to the realization that she needed more help than he could give and he was wearing himself down trying to do it all. He knew he could not take care of her at home alone anymore. So, while she was in the rehab place, he arranged a room for them at Avamere. When he went home, he would go around their house and figure out which things to move to make her feel like she was still at her home. Little by little he had the new place all set up, with a hospital bed right in the middle of the living room right in front of the window so she could see outside and watch the cars and airplanes just like she did in her living room at home. She was the center of his life and it was just natural to put her bed in the middle of the room. Moving day came and it was a success. She seemed content to be there and didn’t fight it, except at first, she just kept saying as soon as she was well, she would be going home. To help her keep track of the days, he had a calendar on the wall and each day he would circle the day, at the end of the day he would put an X in it. On Valentines Day, he drew a heart with an arrow through it. I noticed the last time I visited him, that he had stopped marking the days on the 17, the last day he had with her.
Two weeks after moving there, she got the flu. Back to the hospital she went. She was so sick. In her delirium and confusion, she keep calling out “Wally, Wally!” and reach out for his hand. He made sure and held on tight. I convinced him I could stay with her so he could go get some things at home. I promised to hold her hand the whole time. He reluctantly left. The whole time he was gone, she was calling for him, reaching. I held on tight to one hand and only sometimes did that second hand get away. She loved him and depended on him so much.
Two days later, I walked in the room and there sat Wally looking sicker than Irene had looked. She had improved, but now, he had the flu. This time, it took no convincing to get him to go home. Once home, at Avamere, they put him in his room and quarantined it. Terry, her daughter, and I somehow satisfied Irene’s desperation to have Wally there and she relaxed enough to stop calling for him, unless she was in her sleep. But boy was she happy when he finally was able to go back again.
While in the hospital, one day, I asked her if she wanted a scone and tea, just like when we used to go out for tea together. She asked where I would get a scone, I said they had them downstairs. She said “well, get a BUNCH of them then!” It made me smile, as if SHE was going to even eat half of one! But she did manage to eat half of one! And she sipped and sipped that tea. I sort of knew it was our last tea party.
He had a hard time agreeing to begin hospice at the doctor’s recommendation. He was in denial that her end was nearing. He tried so hard to feed her, was so happy with a few bites, as if it was a feast. But they got her home and then it hit him when the hospice people made their first visit.
From there on, he went even further to show her his love and devotion. His whole world was centered on her, he would hardly leave. He even got a chair that he could lay down in beside her bed at night. When I would show up, he would insist I have his chair and then ease his hand out of hers as he put my hand in in his place. She was getting weaker and sleepy. But he stayed and stayed at his post, watching and hoping she would get better.
Then came the day that he realized she really wasn’t going to get better. He got sentimental. Saying things that I was surprised to hear, asking me little things about faith and dying. He got more teary and more emotional as the days went on. He told me memories of their times together, falling in love, how she danced, how strong she always was, how hard she worked, how stubborn. I learned so much more about her. He talked about their years struggling financially, the first car they bought, about building their home and how they raised their children. In all my times with Irene, we had never talked about some of those things.
I went every day after we got home from LA. Not a huge feat, since it was only 4 days later that she died. She was drastically different. Wally was no longer trying to get her to eat anything solid. No more milk shake, no more applesauce, only tiny balls of ice and a syringe with liquid. He kept a little journal of how much she took each day. He was constantly kissing her on the forehead and face and hands. She was semi awake when I first visited after we got back and when I leaned down she opened her eyes in such surprise, at first it seemed she was startled and I don’t think she recognized me, but it only took a second and she made a little smile. She was not really talking anymore, he speech was slurred if she tried. I offered to sit with her the following day so Wally could get out. He was gone for 3 hours! A much needed break for him. He had not been out since his sons had left a week earlier. She slept the whole time, but while he was gone she would moan for him, or cry with little tears coming down her cheeks, eyes still closed. I would pat her and tell her he would be back soon. At one point, I leaned down to her ear and rubbed her forehead and stroked her hair, I told her through my tears, that it was OK for her to let go, for her to not be afraid, I told her how beautiful heaven is supposed to be, that Jesus was waiting there for her and we would be joining her there sometime. I told her what a good wife she had been and how great a job of being a Mother and Grandmother she had done. That they would all miss her so much. I told her I loved her and would miss her too. I told her that she should not worry about Wally anymore and I promised her that I would take care of him for her, that I would keep visiting him and be his friend just like I had been her friend. I asked her if she understood me. Her eyes never opened, she didn't respond. But her forehead was not all wrinkled up as if she was in pain, like it had been. I don’t know if it really did anything at all for her, but I have read that when a person is dying that they might be afraid of going, of leaving their loved ones.
The next morning, she had taken one huge step closer to going! When I arrived, Wally was sitting there so quiet, his voice was a whisper, he was in pain. Irene was completely relaxed, asleep, he said they had her sedated. Morphine every hour now. Her forehead was not wrinkled up in a grimace like it had been for so many days. She could not swallow, so no more liquids except to wet her lips and tongue. She was totally out, but breathing normal, except for the gurgle that had begun. Her head and jaw was dropped even more. I felt so sad watching him take care of the little things he could still do for her, wetting her lips, chap stick, rubbing her feet. He kept saying “I thought we would have more time. 67 years was not enough” He didn't want to leave her and after sitting there with him for an hour I went on home. A few hours later, he called, in tears, saying that hospice had just come in and told him she only had hours to a day at the most. He was devastated. I went right up to wait with him while Terry drove out from Portland. My plan was to only stay until she arrived. I sat in a chair in the corner. It was gut wrenching to watch him, to listen to his words to her. He poured out his heart full of love for her, making sure he said all he could express. He got on the phone and called his sons back east, knowing they could not make it in time. They both had been here in the weeks before. One of them asked to put the phone up to her ear for him to say goodbye. I was shocked to see she actually flinched and made a little moan!!! Wally asked the hospice chaplain if she could get a priest in for last rights. She offered to do the rights, saying she was ordained, even though not a priest. He wanted a Roman Catholic, so she got on the phone. None of the parishes had anybody!!! The chaplain from hospice offered again to do it and Wally accepted. I told Terry that I would leave them alone, but she said to stay for that. It tore me up. He got on his knees and was sobbing into the bed. Terri and I were holding hands and Irene's hand and both crying. After that, I knew this was their time together and so I kissed Irene goodbye and left. I went home and made dinner. I knew they would have a long night, and I just wanted to comfort them so much, so at 8, I went to Starbucks and got them coffees and dropped them at the door. I got a text at 2am saying she had gone. In the morning I went to see them, but the door was locked. It had always been open, so I just left. I text Terry thinking she might have taken Wally home with her, but she said that Wally had asked her to go on home, he wanted some time alone. So glad he had locked the door. Later this morning he called me. It was so sad, and hard, but I am so honored that he allowed me into such an intimate part of their lives. No funeral. There will be a memorial at their farm sometime this summer. Their son Ron is retired Coast Guard and he is having her ashes taken out to sea. Wally told me that he was adding in the ashes of their dog Peaches so that Irene and Peaches will be together. The last act he can do for her is bury her with her little dog.
Yes, in the past year or more, I have seen love in action and heard stories to fill in the blank spaces that I was not a part of, to know that I was seeing the love of a man for his bride just the way that God had intended it to be.
I Wally, take you Irene, to be my wife,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
In good times and bad,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part,
according to God’s holy law;
in the presence of God I make this vow.
Well, done, Wally.