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Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Ann Romick as matron of honor for her best friend, Julie

Last week my friend Bob came for a visit.  We hadn’t seen him and his wife, Julie, since they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the summer of 2006.  She died on Thanksgiving Day last year.  For me, it still seems unreal and difficult to grasp.  After all, it was only yesterday – or so it seems — that she and I chatted on the phone just like old times, the gaps in time and distance vanishing as soon as we began talking.

Julie and I met while working in the 22-story office building on the corner of Bush and Sansome Streets in San Francisco which was better known long before the 1950s and early 60s as The Standard Oil Building of California (now Chevron).  The two of us were employed by the mega oil company and assigned to Central Steno, located in a gigantic room taking up most of the 2nd floor.  It was filled with copy machines, typists, stenographers, Dictaphone operators, Varatypists and all sorts of other specialists in the clerical department.

Despite Central Steno’s enormity and scattered personal, Julie and I bumped into one another at the morning coffee wagon and became instant friends.  She, newly arrived from Santa Barbara, and I, a local, could have been sisters. We looked alike, we thought alike and often dressed in similar outfits, except her waist was at least three inches smaller than mine requiring alterations on all of her clothes. However, we did have one other major difference: Julie was single and I was married to Ken with an adorable little girl, Deborah, and number two peeking up over the horizon in the not-too-distant future.

We lunched together, shopped together, and talked about her latest date or current beau — none of whom seemed to be Mr. Right.  If her weekend was uneventful I invited her to spend it with me and Ken at our new home across the bay from the city.  When number two baby arrived we named the little girl Julie after my new best friend.

The following summer Julie met Bob.  It was July 1st and they were married September 8th.  A whirlwind courtship and two months after meeting they tied the proverbial knot. I was her matron of honor.  And the skeptics said it wouldn’t last – only 54 years.  Bob was career Air Force and they traveled all over the world adding a girl and then a boy to their family tree. Meanwhile, she was the officer’s good wife, but still found time to study and develop her natural artistic talents — all in addition to being the best mom in the world to their growing children.

We kept in touch.  Then we didn’t, then we did, and then we didn’t, but we did manage to hold on to that thin golden thread which tied our busy lives together with short notes and cards sent every once in a while. That’s how good friendships are, and that’s where we were when my phone rang nearly five years ago.  It was Julie and she asked once again if I would stand up for her as she and Bob renewed their wedding vows in celebration of a half century of marriage.  Bob’s best man and his wife would be in attendance as well as lots of friends and family.  I reminded Julie of Ken’s Alzheimer’s, but told her I would make every effort, keeping her updated through email.

In spite of Washington state’s reputation for rain, the weather that summer’s day was fabulous:  blue skies and balmy breezes.  Ken’s proclivity to be social was at its best as he made friendly conversations with the other guests minus the stumbling blocks often associated with AD.

Bob and Julie wrote their own vows for the occasion, and this time she said she wasn’t going to repeat that “obey” thing.  They pledged, we clapped and smiled in approval, and they kissed – sealing another 50 years– the fates willing. No longer the whirlwind courtship love, it was now a comfortable love, the warm old-slippers kind of love, devoted love — the very best kind of love.  And now Bob was here with me and Ken – remembering — and Julie was gone.

I don’t believe Bob really expected to find Ken as deep into the depths of AD as he is.  “Ken’s gone,” he said after attempting to reintroduce himself and reminisce about some of our early times together.  I agreed, adding that Ken had pretty much forgotten everyone who was near and dear to him.  Occasionally, he will ask if I am his wife, wondering where his mother and father have gone – and his sister Loretta.  His persona seems to be “Buddy,” his mother’s young boy, the name I often use instead of Ken.  I believe it’s in that time zone where he feels most comfortable – if AD victims can ever feel truly comfortable in their confused and frightening world.

“I write about my AD journey with Ken in my blog,” I said to Bob.  “It keeps me sane – writing is therapy for me.”  “That’s why I do this,” he replied.  “I take the celebration of Julie’s life to those people who knew her and have shared in a part of our life together.  This is my therapy.  There are so many people who couldn’t come to the service — so I’m bringing it to them.  Following the funeral there is hardly time to really talk with anyone for any length of time, and then it’s over and they’re gone.  So much is left unspoken.  When I bring the celebration to others, we get to spend time just talking.  It’s been a wonderful experience.”

As Bob and I talked I realized that while we two can empathize with each other and share our grief, the therapy part is a day-to-day process, and healing will be yet another process for both of us to achieve as individuals.  Furthermore, we can’t be forceful or anxious.  It all takes time.

And we talked about the increasing presence of Alzheimer’s everywhere.  Bob’s father was also a victim.  As the oldest son, he was elected to take his father to a care facility when he could no longer be cared for at home.  Life gives us all difficult experiences with which to cope.  I suppose in coping we become stronger. Perhaps adversity is preparing us for what might be heaped upon us at some future date.  Meanwhile, we just keep doing what we’re doing.

Julie had continued with her art and developed a rather impressive following.  Once Bob retired from the Air Force he realized she was serious about her work and told her how he had appreciated her supporting him all through the military.  He would now give her that same support with her chosen career.

Remembering their 15 years on Maui, he said that once, while gazing at a 20’ wall filled with her paintings, he stood in awe of what she was capable of creating.  In his travels he carries CDs of their life and her work.  In addition are four folding panel boards to display either photographs of the work, or small original samplings to share with those he visits.  And he tells of her early life, their serendipity meeting and San Francisco wedding as part of his informal presentation.

Before he left on his journey to Ventura, I told him his continuing celebration of Julie’s life was one of the loveliest gestures I have ever encountered.  Seeing so much of her beautiful art, and hearing stories of their years which Ken and I had missed, I felt privileged our family had been included.  I was also able to tell him a few stories of my own about his wife that he had never heard.

For a few days my focus was taken away from Alzheimer’s (for which I was grateful) and riveted on a long-time friendship and the grieving of a good man who had lost his soul mate.  Seldom do life-long partners depart the planet together which leaves the one remaining alone to mourn the separation. 

With my belief in eternal progression I am always comforted that we will meet again and be reunited with loved ones.  It’s like Samuel Butler wrote a very long time ago when people traveled to the “Continent” by way of the old luxury steamer ships, “Death is only a larger kind of going abroad.”  If you consider that, dying really isn’t goodbye – merely “Bon Voyage.”

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Remember watching the PBS special series which took place during the 1800s where the rich European noblemen and their wives had dozens of servants scattered throughout the castle: butlers, upstairs and downstairs maids, a seamstress or two, cooks and bakers plus scads of additional kitchen help.  Outside there were gardeners, stable boys, coachmen and countless others to keep the grounds manicured and trimmed, and the carriages polished.  It took a lot of people to keep those palaces functioning and presentable. To head up the staff was the prim and proper housekeeper who, with help from the butler, supervised the staff making sure their work was always done; accomplished quickly, quietly and out of sight from the manor’s lord and lady; except possibly, for his groom, her personal maids and the children’s nanny.  The “upper crust” did not fraternize with the help. 

Even in America the mansions of the early 19th century boasted servants quarters in their elegant three and four story mansions where it was normal for the help to “live in.”   Economics, career opportunities and life styles have changed the previous opulent society from normal to unusual.  However, it isn’t unusual for busy people in all walks of life to enlist cleaning services and gardeners on a weekly schedule, or occasionally to help catch up on the often dreary tasks of home maintenance, but for the most part, most people do everything themselves

Ken and I were always do-it-yourselfers, learning early on that by doing you got more bang from your buck, plus the satisfaction of a job well done.  Whether it was adding an extra room, painting the house – inside and out — bricking in a patio, building fences, landscaping the front yard, caring for the children or keeping the house clean we did it ourselves.  Consequently, I found coming home after my three months of recovery and recuperation a bit disconcerting to have “help” in my house on a permanent basis.   What’s more, it made me wonder who’s the boss?

I knew, without a doubt, that my family had made the very best of decisions in my absence, yet to find Ben (Ken’s caregiver and a person I didn’t know) busy in my kitchen preparing food for my husband  — and me — felt very odd.  Not only does Ben care for Ken, he cooks, keeps up with the houseswork and laundry (which he folds to perfection) and polishes the furniture when company is coming.   However, I still wasn’t sure if I was at ease with this new arrangement, feeling at first as if I didn’t quiet fit anywhere in my own home.  But doing a reality check I also knew that I would have to change; caring for Ken as I had done before the accident was a thing of the past — something I could no longer do —  especially considering all of his new needs.  Even though I was capable of taking care of myself, it was, perhaps, a good thing to still require rest and a nap when my energy level plunged, and appreciate Ben’s presence.  I was the one who still had months of therapy for my neck and knees, and I was the one who needed time to make an attitude adjustment.

Unlike the gentry of long ago who didn’t fraternize with the help, a few months have passed allowing me to become comfortable with Ben and I believe him with me.  In addition, there is David who is Ben’s relief (granddaughter Kristina, who was living with us, takes the night shift).  Having other adults in the house has been a surprise bonus – someone else to talk with.  I have also met and admire the wives of both men, finding the four new treasures in my life.  They are all career caregivers – a noble calling – kind and gentle, but firm when need be with the childlike adults whom they assist.

An auto accident wasn’t a path I would have chosen, nor would I have pressed the “select” button for a six-year continuing assignment with Alzheimer’s, but I have learned to accept those things I cannot change.  Life has taken me to this point where help is required and it is with gratitude and growing affection that I give thanks for Ben and David.  Their hard work and devotion continually touches my heart.  But even more, I am grateful that I am not stayed by some silly tradition from generations past.  I can, and do, enjoy and appreciate their friendship.

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