Gene Conrad, 86, got up every morning at 5 a.m. to make breakfast for his wife, Reva. Before he shuffled downstairs, he cuddled next to her and began singing the song they had sung to each other every morning since they married in 1950: "You Are My Sunshine." Reva was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 21 years ago but she glowed as she heard the words Gene sang. Gene died last week after a brief illness.
I'm sitting in a circle with nine other guys in a meeting room at Union Memorial Church in Stamford, Conn., remembering Gene. We are members of a support group he began and moderated for men whose wives have dementia. Union was Gene's parish.
We're joined this afternoon by the Rev. Blaine Edele, a trim fellow much younger than the rest of us. "Their daughters placed Reva in Waverly House when Gene died," he informs us, "the best facility around. Gene had it all set up. The girls didn't tell Reva Gene had passed. That would have been unkind. She would forget it in a minute anyway. She's adjusting well."
Blaine shares memories of Gene. "When I asked him what advice I should give to caregivers, he said without a beat, 'Caregiving is noble, rewarding but frustrating. Patience is both a virtue and a necessity.' "
The guys in the room nod and share knowing glances. Blaine continues: "Gene never felt he or Reva was a victim. He saw the experience as an opportunity to become wiser, more nurturing, more tender and mature."
Blaine then passes the spiritual baton to Paul, the logical successor to Gene as group moderator. As he remembers Gene, I remember Paul's story. His wife, Joan, has been in a near vegetative state for five years. He visits her in the nursing home every day.
He once shared: "When I come into her room and sit at her side, I ask her, 'Where is my kiss?' and, amazingly, she puckers up. Her eyes are closed. She can't talk. The only real communication is when I feed her. Her mouth opens up just like a little bird."
Paul visits patients who don't get visitors and makes a fuss over them.
"Your turn, Mike," Paul says. "Is there anything particular you remember?"
"I remember Reva was here once," I recall, "and she was sitting over there and I went over to her and sat down and held her hand and talked to her. I told her Gene was a good man. She nodded vigorously and her whole face broke into this crazy happy smile."
It's Peter's turn. He's the youngest of us, in his early 60s. Kathy, his wife of 40 years, died last year after suffering 20 years through seven forms of cancer and early onset Alzheimer's for four.
Peter is a deacon in his church. He will soon move to Weston, Mass., where he will study to become a priest.
He was with Gene in the hospital the day he died. "I heard him say one thing: 'I'm ready.' "
Paul asks Len if he'd like to share anything. Len tries to speak but chokes up. Tears squeeze out of the corners of his eyes. "I can't," he says. "Later."
Len's wife, Sabina, can't talk or walk and there is a lot of heavy lifting to get her out of bed, onto the toilet, into the shower, onto the stair lift, into a wheelchair, into the car, over and over again.
"This is my purpose," he once shared with us. "It's my life. This is what I'm here for. It's what I do. I can't imagine life without her."
The invisible baton moves around the circle, Art, Bob, Dick, Henri, all the way to Stan, the oldest of us at 95. And just like that our hour is up.
"Len?" says Paul. "Would you like the last word?"
Len says, "Gene meant so much to us. He was a good listener."
We will meet again in two weeks. We leave the church in twos and threes, into the sunshine.
[Michael Leach, editor at large of Orbis Books, shepherds NCR's Soul Seeing column.]
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