They have been together for over 65 years.
Man and wife…partners…lovers…friends…teammates…parents…soul mates.
The first death was slow. It began with small things, little forgotten details of their life together. Where items were located, places they had known, people who were friends.
Then he forgot their children and grandchildren. There were moments when he would remember, times when she could ask him “Eddie, do you remember your boy Ray” and he would say “well, yes!” Now that their 65th wedding anniversary is approaching, even those brief glimpses have disappeared.
She misses watching basketball and football games on television with him. She misses sharing details of her Sunday School lessons. She misses her buddy.
Mary is a pragmatist, if nothing else. She looks at life through clear, wide, eyes. Enduring life’s deepest pain, she has still always managed to forge ahead. When they lost their daughter to an infection following a battle with cancer, she moved ahead, even though a part of her felt ripped out, shredded, never to fully heal. When her mother was old, helpless, she and Eddie moved her in with them and provided the care needed until she passed away.
Being an only child probably help mold her into an independent, free-spirited dynamo. The only time she struggles is when people underestimate her.
Dementia, Eddie's disease and Mary's burden, is a confusing, maddening, cruel enemy. There is no cure. There is no way to get back what has been lost. And when the person who knows every curve of your body, every nuance of your expressions, and every thought you have before you are able to speak the words is lost to dementia, it feels as if your other half has died. Only their body is still breathing.
She is scared of not being with him. Even though every memory is gone, his heart knows her. In the darkest hours of the night, he reaches for her. He smiles when he sees her face. His heart remembers and they are still connected. She sees and feels it every day. In their home, HIS home, he is the happiest and the safest .
This is why she wants him with her. Mary knows best and those who have the joy and privilege of being in her home during this time understand that she is in control. She knows her own limitations and every step of the journey she has asked for aid when needed.
She has the help of Hospice, home health services, and family members. She has been responsible with money over the years and can pay for some private help. Mary journals as an outlet, something most therapists would applaud (although she doesn't need a therapist's approval; somehow, she just knows that this is important) and has an impressive base of support through their lifelong church.
She has identified the specific times when she needs the most help and has found a way to plug in resources. They have neighbors who will come over with the simple ring of the phone.
Mary makes chocolate chip cookies every week as a gesture of gratitude towards Peter, her primary home health care worker, and this writer. I am her granddaughter; another caretaker who has been blessed with the privilege of seeing this woman's love and commitment in person each and every week since Eddie came home from the hospital following a broken hip last February. I joke with Peter, telling him to "stay out of my cookies". The joking, the love of her cookies, and the camaraderie between her helpers makes Mary smile. Eddie can be a great deal of fun as well. He may have dementia, but is far from catatonic. In fact, most days he chatters more than a women's quilting group, tossing in a large dose of unrecognizable German for good measure.
Soon, Peter's job will change, taking him away from Mary. She worries, but knows through her faith and wisdom, that answers will come if she keeps her eyes open. This could mean more pressure from others to place him in a facility.
Many people don't understand how she does it. But that would infer they are actually asking the question of themselves, i.e. "could I do it?". For most, the answer would be "no". But then again, most people aren't Mary...most couples don't share what Eddie and Mary share. They are the last of a generation, a generation where commitment and hardship had different meanings. Mary has no problem asking for physical help. She understands the need for someone to help her assist Eddie from the wheelchair to the bed on those particular nights when he seems to forget how to stand up. She fully understands the financial benefit of having Hospice and the VA involved so that she isn't paying out of pocket for Eddie's Depends and wipes. But make no mistake, just because you are reading this and thinking "Oh My God, I couldn't clean up someone" doesn't mean it bothers her one bit. You see, she loves him. These are simple human acts. Mary doesn't give it a single thought. She does it because he needs it done, because she can still physically do it, and because there isn't another human who exists who will do it with the care and devotion she will.
Sometimes I watch them together, silently across the room, trying to hide within myself because to witness their affection is almost overpowering, almost brings me to my knees in humility. She still holds his face in her hands, nuzzles nose to nose, and she kisses him while he smiles sweetly and adoringly up at her. These are acts that occur not just every once-in-awhile, but many times every day. I don't know who taught who to be so affectionate and openly loving, I only know that Eddie passes that same affection on to me, by holding my hand and saying things like "Oh, I love you....you are just so beautiful....oh thank you so much....you are the best, just the most wonderful boy". The gender confusion? Who cares. He's kind and gentle to everyone but saves the kisses for the beautiful bride his heart still remembers.
The first death for Mary has been the death of his memory. She knows a second, final death, is still to come. This is why she treasures their remaining time together, even if it is so different from their previous life.
Eddie's heart needs those deeply hidden life memories close to him, every day. He needs to feel safe and Mary needs to know he is safe. They have been together their entire lives, and the most cruel thing that could ever happen would be for them to be separated, particularly when there is no reason. I watch...I see...and I know. Mary can handle this.
Never, ever underestimate the power of human connection. Marriages that fail are missing this. Never, ever underestimate the power of human touch. Humans wither without it. Eddie is thriving, as much as this horrible disease will allow him. The reason is his connection...the reason is her touch...the reason is his partner.
If you want to see true love in all of it's beautiful and wondrous glory, see Eddie and Mary. Their love is absent all of the vanity, jealousy, selfishness, and immaturity that is so prevalent in relationships today. Look at yourself - look at your partner - and ask: could I do this?
Mary can. Because she loves him.