If you know me, you know I’m not much of a romantic. However, it’s almost Valentine’s Day. And I’m going to tell you a love story.
Maybe it’s not a traditional love story. But a love story nonetheless.
I met John and Lynn (not their real names–and I’ve changed some details here) at a nursing home that I visited to do a series of trainings. John was in his late 50’s and had younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Lynn, his wife, had married him only a few years early. A second marriage for both of them, they had looked forward to retiring together and traveling the world. Instead, they sat in the lounge at the end of a dim nursing home corridor. She was watching Judge Judy. He was sitting in a wheelchair holding a stuffed bear like a baby.
John’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s had baffled both of them. A female friend came over for dinner one evening, and he kissed her goodbye–on the lips–quite passionately. When Lynn asked him about it later, he denied it ever happened. Soon, his supervisor at work was calling Lynn to ask if he might have come to work drunk. The diagnosis, Lynn told me, was a relief.
Lynn explained that she kept John at home as long as possible, but they didn’t have enough money for in-home caregivers and she couldn’t afford to quit her job at an insurance agency. Also, John had made her promise that she’d place him a nursing home when it was time…and that she wouldn’t feel guilty.
About the time he moved into the nursing home, he stopped recognizing Lynn. Actually, he started calling her Nancy, which was his ex-wife’s name.
At one point, the real Nancy came with Lynn to visit John at the nursing home. (Interestingly, they were pretty good friends.) They were both curious about how John might respond.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed in all seriousness. “It’s two damn Nancy’s! What the hell am I gonna do now?”
Lynn and Nancy laughed until they cried, and they started jokingly calling themselves the “two damn Nancy’s.”
As his Alzheimer’s progressed, John spoke sparingly. A friend’s toddler had visited with a teddy bear, and John seemed to find comfort in holding and stroking the bear. Lynn bought him his own stuffed bear. Then a lion. And a bunny. Soon he had a dozen stuffed animals carefully arranged in a recliner in his room. Lynn called it “his zoo.” He rarely spoke to people. He more frequently spoke to his zoo.
After John had been in the nursing home a couple of years, Lynn was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Surgery and chemo limited her visits with John. She encouraged Nancy to go see John. After all, Lynn told me with a laugh, they’re interchangeable.
Treatment wasn’t effective for Lynn, and she enrolled in hospice. With limited time left, she got to work. Neither she nor John had any children, so she worried about who would be there for him at the end of his life. She compiled a bunch of information–financial, health, etc.–and made a handbook. She gave it to Nancy, who promised she’d be there.
In the midst of her own terminal cancer diagnosis…sitting next to a husband who doesn’t know who she is and intermittently mutters non-sense to a stuffed bear…as she trains her husband’s ex-wife to care for him after she’s gone…somehow Lynn is okay.
Maybe she is a wise Zen-type person who has found inner peace. Maybe it’s her faith. Maybe she’s on some awesome painkillers. I want to ask, but I don’t know how to phrase the question. Whether it’s Zen, faith, or painkillers, I want some.
Lynn knows John won’t miss her when she gone. She considers this a blessing.
“They won’t tell him when I die,” she says. “He won’t understand so there’s no point. He won’t have to be sad.”
Then she says something that I haven’t stopped thinking about: “The best thing is that he won’t even notice I’m not around anymore.”
I feel like there’s a love story in there somewhere, right?