The time had come for the welcoming toast on Thanksgiving Day. Friends were around our table after arriving with dinner in hand. Turkey, dressing, corn bread casserole, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. The only thing I provided, and that was because I insisted, was a yam-carrot dish. I raised my wine glass, looked across the table at my husband and got as far as “I was most grateful that I am sitting across from Paul” before I burst into tears. He was still with me.
I then tearfully thanked our friends for being here for us and doing something so special. We clinked our glasses and got to the business of eating a very good meal.
Paul and I are in our sixth month of hospice care. I cannot imagine that it is a situation I will ever get used to. The wisdom of embracing the present and living one day at a time is a goal we reach on some days and not on others.
I am the watchful one, the shepherd. He is the enduring one, the legend of a long and full life. I marvel at his fortitude and his strong will to live. More days with me, he promises.
I see his resolve to do what he can to make it come true, not only being here but being here in a way we together can manage.
Paul’s strong and enabling intentions are nothing new. Everything about his life has held responsibility and purpose among which giving up was never present. So why would it be now?
Today, I leave his side to write this column. He has just finished arm and leg exercises with weights. Having enough strength in his legs and arms to independently transfer from wheelchair and back enables us to manage.
He is tired but he does not stop, this man of the silent generation. He was born and raised in Arkansas. He inherited and learned strong values of justice, hard work and farm fresh vegetables while growing up in the depression. His father ignored those that thought his son should be in the fields instead of going to school.
This man left high school early to join the U.S. Navy to serve his country. There was never a doubt in his mind that he should, not even when he was scheduled to go to the invasion of Japan to serve as a medical corpsman, an easy target for the enemy. The invasion became unnecessary after the President ordered the bombing of Japan.
The GI Bill enabled him to attend college, which was interrupted by the Korean War, and he entered through the Air Force’s officer’s candidate program. There he met his first wife and together, they had three children.
Once discharged, he returned to school and soon began a career in management.
What I have come to call his wise grit serves him well to this day. His daily life is that of a man at the end of his life but with a life spark honed by his life experiences and his love for me that keeps him going. That is what you do, he would say.
How could it be any different? It couldn’t. When would he stop trying. He wouldn’t.
Odds are …
Paul’s decline is nature’s decline. He endures because of his will but also because he does not have the pain that some have at the end of life. No two circumstances are the same; this is only our story of a love that has lasted more than half of a century and defies its inevitable end.
Benchmarks roll in and out reminding us. Some I resist like target holidays, although family is beginning to plan for Paul’s January birthday. I have yet to order a 2023 appointment book for each of us, something I usually do in early November. The simple task paralyzes me. How unfamiliar, how odd the contemplation felt. Finally, I asked Paul if he wanted one. Of course, he said no.
He does not want the conversations of clinical dying. He knows enough already and true to his character will not dwell. To him, to do so makes no difference.
Being together makes the difference.
We have our moments of tender sorrow or sobbing grief which renews our joy in each other and our sadness at parting. We have a poem we read which I will share someday.
His formerly 6-foot frame still has long handsome legs that stiffen during the night. He has a pillow that he uses to stabilize and comfort his legs. I tell him I will sleep with the pillow when I am alone which makes him smile.
One night before we turn in, I have an aching desire for a stand-up hug. I ask him if we can try. Indeed, he will try. He stands with the chair behind him for safety. I get close and we wrap our arms around each other as always. I bury small sobs in his chest. He, his arms, his bony body feels so good.
We make it for a few minutes — longer than anyone would have expected.
Bertha Cooper, an award-winning featured columnist with the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation and it the author of the award-winning “Women, We’re Only Old Once.” Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at email@example.com.