Imagine your spouse doesn’t know you anymore. All the moments you shared, gone. Leota Ester tells us about the community that provided the support and stability that both she and her husband needed.
Although I lived in Wisconsin for forty years, the two years that I hold closest are those that started every day with the walk into Brewster Village. It’s a nursing facility on an old “country farm” hidden from Appleton’s busy Wisconsin Avenue but very present to those who have had loved ones living there.
Once in, I would walk down the hall and greet those in the common room. Further down the hall, there he was….waiting for me in the Alzheimer’s wing.
Through the curtains, I could see Lee rise out of his chair to greet me, a huge smile on his face. We’d go to his room where he might have rearranged the furniture from the previous day; where someone else’s shirt might be hanging on his rack; where the children’s books that I read to him were piled by his bed; and where pictures of his three daughters sat on his shelves.
When he could still walk, we would go for a ride in the car. On the back roads, we marveled at cows, red barns, old faded signs, and corn “high as his thigh by the 4th of July.” When we drove down the streets in town, he’d occasionally call out, “Hardee’s” and point, but other than that, he never talked. We stopped for ice cream cones that dripped on our shirts because we ate slowly, went to movies where he’d shout “OK” back to the actors, and hiked in Bubolz Woods until he couldn’t any more.
Always, when we returned to Brewster Village, staff and nurses greeted him, gave him a hug, saw him to the dinner table. This place had become his home. A home that offered the order that Alzheimer’s patients need: the daily structure of routine, a smooth transition from my love to include those who cared for him, doing the lifting, the bathing, the night watch in my absence.
When he had to be in a wheelchair, around the building we went, stopping to smell the long-lasting white roses in the garden, listening to the birds in the not-too-distant trees, marveling at the busy cars on the street, and especially, singing. It is a gift that those with Alzheimers can continue to sing as the familiar words deep inside them rise from the depths.
Often we wheeled through the halls where Lee greeted others with his cheerful “Hi.” Sometimes he’d say “Hi, Lee” and we’d smile. We were all family, healing, recovering, moving slowly to the end of life, dancing at the dances as we were able, smiling, sometimes lashing out, but always surrounded by patience and support.
I remember Lee’s last days when, even then, the nurses helped me bundle him up for a ride in the fresh air, when they pushed the piano to the hallway so that everyone in his area could hear opera tenor Dale Duesing sing to these patients with ebbing memories and minds. I remember, too, when they were by our sides as he died.
When folks say, “How sad” when Lee was in the slow process of dying, I say, “Yes, but it was also two years of a sweet love affair” in a community that provided what we both needed.