December 13, 2017

Joe and Marge

Marge died today.

A petite, pretty octogenarian, she had been wandering in the world of Alzheimer dementia for many years. I’ve known her for a few of those years, at least I’ve known the lady who rarely sat still, who moved continually from one place to another, looking out the windows, fluffing and straightening the pillows, and then sitting down for a moment, her knees rising and falling as her legs bounced incessantly. Then it was up again, muttering this or that, moving like a tumbleweed blowing across the floor, rarely at rest, moved by some mysterious wind.

“Pleasantly confused” we’d write in our notes, because she’d smile, say a few words that may or may not make sense, give you her hand, and then rise to move about some more.

But today there she lay, still as can be.

Joe, her husband, in the immediate aftermath of her death, seemed a bit lost without her to chase around. His carefully maintained routine had now reached its end.

Joe is also a mover, an actor, a doer. He took care of Marge for a long time. Though he has twenty five years on me I never thought of him as being “old.” He had been an athlete in high school and college, still has most of his hair, and he moves energetically around the house. The military had given him a lot — discipline, plain and direct speech, self-confidence and good habits, a profound sense of duty, and impeccable organization skills. He is a smart man too. Joe had worked for the phone company and he is a master at diagnosing and fixing problems. With all his gifts, he still has an easy, “aw shucks” down-home Hoosier personality. He’s always smiling, quick with a story or a saying, or a “can I get you something?” offer. Then he’s off on the move again, serving his wife by keeping the routine going.

Most of all, he loves Marge.

I don’t mean he is sentimental or romantic. He may be, but I have not seen that side of him. What I have witnessed is the essence of what I take love to be: being with and for another for that person’s benefit.

When Marge came on hospice service, Joe made it clear to everyone that he was her caregiver. We were there to help him, if and when he needed it.

He allowed the nurse to come, of course, to assess Marge and manage her medicines (and he wanted her to have as little of that as possible — only what was necessary). No health aide was needed. He would bathe her and take care of her personal needs. He rarely required social worker visits because he had all the practical matters settled. And in the beginning, he did not want the chaplain. They had their faith and that was enough. Joe believed in routine and didn’t want others coming in and disrupting theirs because he thought it best for Marge.

So, every night they would go to bed past midnight after watching their favorite late night TV show. Marge would sleep soundly until late in the morning. Joe awoke early, did whatever errands he needed to do, and then returned home, read his paper and prepared breakfast for them. He awakened his dear wife, helped her to the bathroom and got her clean and dressed, and then they sat down for breakfast together. While he was finishing up in the kitchen, she would start making her laps around the house, occasionally sitting down to watch a few moments of TV. Joe would spend the day taking care of the household and their affairs while keeping an eye on her and tending to her needs.

On it went throughout each day. Together they played the same sonata over and over again, now moving, now resting, now faster, now slower. On Fridays, he took Marge on a weekly outing to get her hair done. However, for years, they spent the vast majority of their time hidden away, retracing their steps around a closed course. Their world was small, but filled with love. Joe was always with her. Joe was always for her. And she always knew him and responded to him.

After a couple of offers, Joe agreed to let me, the chaplain, come out. I think he wanted to apologize for seeming inhospitable and to let me know that they were people of faith. He just wanted to interrupt Marge’s routine as little as possible.

We had a good visit. I found out they had been hurt and disillusioned by some experiences in church and preferred to keep private about practicing their beliefs. I also found out how funny Joe was and what a good storyteller he could be. He liked me too, and I guess you could say we hit it off. He agreed that I could come out once a month.

He would never have put it this way, but I know these visits were for him, not Marge. He had found someone with whom he could talk and laugh for a little while, and he needed that. I was amazed he felt like he only needed it once a month. We’d talk about his growing-up years and his old neighborhood, sports (always, especially basketball), what he used to do at work, what was happening in his extended family, places he and Marge had traveled, and so on. We had good, friendly conversation while Marge made her rounds or sat in front of the television.

One time he apologized because he thought he might have offended me by saying something negative about church on a previous visit. The way he went about it let me know that he’d been thinking about this for a month and couldn’t wait to unload the burden he’d been carrying. Another time Joe seemed distracted during our usual small talk. After a pause in the conversation, he asked if I officiated funerals. He had been thinking maybe it was time to get that lined up.

Slowly, the routine required more of our team’s participation. The nurse came a little more often. Marge’s medicines needed tweaking to take care of new symptoms. At one point, Joe agreed to having the health aide come, especially to help wash Marge’s hair. It had become too much for her to go out on Fridays. The routine, like a great ship on the ocean, was slowly turning toward home port.

The last time I visited, Marge’s condition had changed noticeably. She was sleeping more and more and moving about less and less. She was far less sure on her feet, and Joe had to guard constantly against falls. To my surprise, he talked about getting a hospital bed and we had a conversation about where he would set it up and how it might help. As usual, he asked every question imaginable and considered every scenario. Joe kept saying, “I’m almost ready to do this.”

If and when it happened this decision would be huge. They had always slept in the same bed, always gone to bed together after watching their late night show. He had always been right next to her if she needed anything in the night. For forever and a day, he had awakened first, got up, and taken care of the morning for them. He had always been with her, by her side, and she with him.

I heard on our team voice mail this morning that Marge fell yesterday. While taking a nap, she had tumbled out of bed. Joe finally agreed they needed the hospital bed. It would come later that day and the nurse would go out to check on them. I decided to call and talk with Joe to see if I could be of any encouragement to him.

Before I had a chance to call, about an hour later, my phone rang. Jack had slept later than usual because he had been awake through the night, worried about Marge. But he knew he had to get up and get their daily routine going. He leaned over, kissed her, then got up and went out to the living room to watch the news. When he came back a few moments later to look in on her, she was gone. Right there in their bed, where she belonged.

He called the nurse and gave her the news.

They wouldn’t need the hospital bed, he told her.

Comments

  1. Grace. Painful,beautiful, tender, powerful grace.

  2. Intensely beautiful. May the Lord give us all the grace to love our spouses like that.

  3. br. thomas says:

    Thank you for sharing, Mike. You are very gifted in what you do, with the written word and, it seems to me, in being the presence of Christ to those in need. Thank you.

  4. Man, can this life be so beautiful and so heartbreaking…all in the same sentence.

    I pray that the Lord is embracing Marge at this very moment. And that Joe will be with her again in the Lord’s good time.

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike.

  5. Thanks for sharing that wonderful story of love and grace in action. May we all learn to love like that.

  6. Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for this beautiful love story. May God continue to bless you and your works of mercy with Hospice.

  7. Clay Crouch says:

    Thank you Chaplain Mike for giving us a peak behind the curtain of what I suspect are countless millions of christian lives. THIS is radical Christianity.

  8. Adrienne says:

    Amen Clay

  9. Whenever I read the Bible or the stories of the saints, this is the kind of stuff that strikes me as the most impressive, yet the way most stories are told this part blinks by. Told by another person, this might have been written, “Joe then took care of Marge for 20 years with great love, after which some other stuff happened.” Especially in the Old Testament, some of the most amazing faithfulness blinks by in a verse: “After 10 years in the wilderness….”

    My husband and I just celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary this weekend past. We’re both disabled, in different ways, and I just hope we can always take our turns being Joe for the other.

  10. Prodigal Daughter says:

    What a beautiful ending to a marriage. So very different than what we’re used to hearing.

  11. Thank you….
    Please, let us know how Joe is doing if you can…

  12. Okay, I’m sitting here with tears rolling down my face….

  13. David Cornwell says:

    A demonstration of the real meaning of marriage. This will not be found in law because law cannot comprehend it.Thanks for the story.

  14. Thank you for this God story. I have been previleged to faciliate a weekly support meeting for caregivers with spouses/friends walking through the desease of Dementia/Alzheimers. We meet in a facility that cares for residents with Alz. The love and support for one another is the truth of Scripture that those who have experienced compassion can have compassion to all who come. Our group is growing inside out as well as participants (not surprising as we hear of increasing numbers of people in dementia). I am previliged to hear and learn from each person that are experiencing painful changes for those they care for and for themselves. I am challenged to pray for all who come to try to be the best caregiver with what they are learning from one another and to seek good resources to help in the professional fields from medical to legal for I am only a facilitator. I pray that more support will come professionally and from people of faith to walk with them. Often in the confusion we try to do this on our own – we need each other. So I hope that more of these stories of testifying will increase to our understanding so in answer to Jesus’ exhortation that this is also a “cup of cold water and Living Bread” to all. Thank you for this powerful post.

  15. Excuse my spelling faults; my heart is full for this great opportunity to walk and listen to caregivers in prayer and love.

  16. Just yesterday my elderly mother-in-law stated that the only thing she finds clergy useful for are pastoral care and in particular as she “passes over the threshold”. But so many are not gifted in that ministry -she hopes whoever our priest is at the time will be there for her. So grateful for spiritual care givers like yourself who really walk the walk and I pray that all your readers who have the gifts use them liberally – they are so needed and appreciated!

  17. Lord, give me the grace to embody that kind of love. Joe and Marge’s story brings tears. I know my father-in-law is also living that same story. However, my mother-in-law is bed ridden.

  18. flatrocker says:

    CM,

    Just when I vowed to start cutting back on my internet reading you have to go and write this.

    Oh well, maybe I’ll start cutting back tomorrow or maybe next week.

    Thank you for the flow of grace.

  19. Profound story and lesson. Thank you so much.

  20. Mike McCullough says:

    Chaplin Mike,
    Thanks for this. I was speechless when I fininshed reading. There was a lot of water in my eyes. May the Lord bless you for what you do, you certainly have blessed me with this story.

  21. Elizabeth Johnston says:

    I have worked in long-term care for about 16 years. Seeing the unconditional regard and steadfast love of both husbands and wives for their spouses with dementia in all stages has been amazing. Truly, the greatest of these is love.

  22. My wife works in an assisted living facility and shares with me when residents pass away. Occasionally they will be moving stories similar to this. Sometimes I worry about how the job affects her emotionally but says that it is truly rewarding.

  23. John M. says:

    They had a pearl of great worth. I’m thankful he had someone like you enter near the end.

    “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

  24. I could read one of your stories every day CM! Thank you for sharing this, from your heart.

  25. Thank you so much for sharing this. Many of us need to be inspired with this kind of relationship and to learn lessons on how to love our partner in life. When I was still single, I always pray to God for a husband that I will grow old with… whatever happens… it’s always me and him and the Lord!

  26. Wow, incredible weblog structure! How long have you been running a blog for? you make running a blog look easy. The full glance of your web site is wonderful, let alone the content!