A few years ago I met a couple who made me think a bit differently life after loss.
Art had been married to his wife, Ann, for almost forty years when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After her diagnosis, he learned everything he could about her disease. He read articles online. He ordered books from Amazon. He watched YouTube videos. He joined a couple of support groups.
When his wife moved to a nursing home, he was a constant presence there. Not only did he spend time with Ann, he dedicated himself to visiting with residents who didn’t have family and friends. When I asked him how many hours he spent each week at the nursing home, he shrugged. Maybe 30?
“I didn’t have anywhere else to be,” he told me.
At some point, he was approached by the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and he began volunteering at their fundraising events. He even overcame his lifelong fear of public speaking to tell Ann’s story.
Late one night, he got a call from the nursing home that Ann had passed away. Although she was approaching the end stage of Alzheimer’s, her death came earlier than Art expected. He will never forgive himself for not being with her.
Yet, life continued for Art. And it continued much like it did while Ann was alive. He still spent time at the nursing home to see his friends (maybe “only” 20 hours a week). He still volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association. He even continued to attend support groups two or three evenings a week.
“I’m retired,” he said to me. “What am I supposed to do? Watch soap operas? I don’t even like golfing.”
Then…one day about four months after Ann passed away…without meaning to…Art met someone.
It was the sister of an old friend. Her name was Juanita. He didn’t intend to start dating her. In fact, he never saw himself in a relationship after Ann’s death. But he liked Juanita.
He continued to go to the nursing home. He expanded his volunteer role with the Alzheimer’s Association. He even became a leader for one of his support groups. And he was dating Juanita.
Often, Juanita went to the nursing home with him. She had to, Art said, because he wanted to introduce her to his friends. Juanita even started volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association. Eight months after Ann’s death, Juanita wore a shirt with Ann’s name on it and marched in her honor at the Memory Walk.
It was obvious to me that Art wasn’t “over” (as if that’s even a thing when you lose a spouse….) Ann’s death when he met Juanita. It seemed like has unwilling to give up pieces of his life related to Ann–the nursing home, the support groups, the Alzheimer’s Association. And Juanita jumped right in. They were married less than a year after Ann’s death. Instead of gifts, they suggested donations to the Alzheimer’s Association.
As I’m learning, life isn’t black and white. It’s not like your spouse dies, you grieve, and then you wake up one morning having completed your grief and ready to date.
In talking to Art, it was very apparent that he loved two women–one dead and one living. I’m sure this makes some people uncomfortable. I’m sure there are many women who would not want to marry a man still in love with his deceased wife.
Juanita has a different perspective.
She wants him to keep Ann’s pictures around the house. He took off the wedding ring from his first marriage, and Juanita put it in a shadow box along with a picture of Ann on her wedding day.
At Art’s request, Juanita made Ann’s favorite meal on her birthday. They even set a place for her at the table that night. (I’m going to be honest here–I might have cringed just a bit when they told me about this.)
Art also tells me that Juanita was about the same size as Ann. He took some of Ann’s clothes to Goodwill when Juanita moved in, but Juanita kept most of the fancier blouses and sweaters. (And–yeah–I did cringe here as well.)
“I bet you think it’s odd I wear her clothes,” said Juanita. I know that I was supposed to jump in and say I didn’t think it was odd….but I really wasn’t sure….so I didn’t say anything.
When someone dies, their spouse doesn’t stop loving them. There’s a difference between living in the past and continuing to love someone who’s gone. Juanita doesn’t see Art as living in the past–and she respects that he still loves Ann.
In a way, I feel sorry that Juanita–who has never been married before–has to share her husband with a woman who is deceased. She visits the nursing home and listens to everyone reminisce about Ann. She goes to Alzheimer’s Association events and listens to Art speak about how Alzheimer’s stole his wife. And once a week she watches Art walk out to the door to go to a support group, where he will focus on Ann’s journey with dementia.
Truth be told, there’s a part of me that is uncomfortable that so much of his focus is still on Ann.
But it’s not about me.
I watch Art and Juanita together, and they seem happy. If Juanita is jealous or resentful that Art’s life still seems to centers on Ann and Alzheimer’s, she doesn’t show it.
“I’m lucky or maybe tricky–I’ve tricked two wonderful women into marrying me,” Art said, and Juanita laughs.
“And I’m lucky Ann trained him to be such a great husband,” Juanita tells me.
As they walk away holding hands, I notice they are both wearing their Memory Walk t-shirts with “Ann’s Army” and a giant photo of Ann on the back. I can’t help but think Juanita looks more than a little like Ann.
There really are three people in this marriage, I think to myself.
I can’t decide if the whole thing is totally weird or absolutely wonderful.
Maybe it’s both.
I allow my mind to wander, just for a second, and think about whether or not I could be in a relationship with a guy like Art. Could I set a place for my husband’s dead wife at dinner? Could I wear my husband’s dead wife’s cardigans? Or look at photos of her all over the house?
Then I shut down that internal conversation.
Because I’m not Juanita.
And it doesn’t matter if I could do it.
Juanita is doing it.
Last I heard, she and Art had started teaching a monthly cooking class at the nursing home where Ann lived. They continue to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association in Ann’s name, and recently Juanita hired an artist to paint a large portrait of Ann to put over the mantle.