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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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My sisters and I have unusual birthdates.  Not because 2, 6 and 9 are unusual, it’s that all three numbers are in March, and had I not been born in a leap year, the day of my birth would have fallen on March 3 instead of March 2.  That one day would have made the three of us three years, three days apart.  Even without me messing up the numbers by arriving a day early, the closeness of the dates is still rather unusual.

Consequently, my middle sister, Janet, and I often shared a party:  a few of her friends and a few of mine.  This was acceptable until we outgrew parties with little friends, “Pin The Tail On The Donkey,” and the need for a party.  But do we ever outgrow that need for a day of celebration and recognition for our arrival on planet Earth?  Thinking about it in that manner, birth is really a very big deal, as is its yearly anniversary.

The first year of our marriage, Ken prepared a special dinner for my birthday.  As a former Navy cook, he liked to cook and had a lot of experience, serving me an entree of stuffed pork chops with complemenary side dishes.  What the side dishes were I don’t recall, but I will always remember the delicious pork chops.

Our old movie  camera and 35mm snapshots recorded the Kodak moments of our children’s parties with the neighborhood kids as guests.  All of them dressed in their Sunday finery, arriving through the side gate to celebrate each gala in the back yard where spilled drinks, ice cream and cake could be washed away with the garden hose.

Then as the old film commercial crooned, “Turn around, turn around…..” ending in something like “…with babes of their own.”  In agreement, it seemed that as quickly as our babies came into our lives, all of them grew up into adults and now have families — “babes of their own,” but the birthday parties continue, the family having extended into four generations.

Our daughter, Julie, entertainer extraordinaire, with Ken’s input and help, took it upon herself to host my birthday celebrations with lovely dinner parties at her home.  When that didn’t happen we went our for dinner; birthdays being something to place in a fond memory bank.

This year, my birthday was two weeks after the accident and was spent in the hospital.  Family came for a visit as did friends.  One of my younger friends, Christine and her husband John — a beautiful purple orchid in hand to mark the occasion — assured me that my neck brace would take away any signs of a double chin, or chins.  Of course, she lied, but I loved her for it.

“We’ll have a bar-b-cue at the ranch when you’re better,” promised Keith.  “My birthday is in May,” added our friend Don.  “We can celebrate together when the weather is good.”  “That will be something for me to look forward to,” I replied.  I needed that — a  happy time to think about beyond the neck brace, broken ribs and bruises.  So for the first time in my life, and with warm weather prevailing I celebrated my winter March 2, birthday in late spring.

In all the years of our marriage, there has always been a party for Ken.  June 10, is his birthday, or as some purest say, “the anniversary of his birthday.”  Some parties were smaller than others, but the important people were always there:  our family.  Other years, especially when time ticked off another decade, we had “grand” parties inviting lots of friends, as well as family.  Some were surprise parties, others were not.  In any event, he was definitely “the birthday boy,” finding joy in the celebration.

“Are you going to have a party for Ken’s birthday,” asked Ben, Ken’s caregiver of four months.  For a moment I was left without an answer.  Ken no longer knew “up from down,” nor did June 10, have any meaning for him.  Furthermore, he no longer had “wants” and all of his needs were met.  “A little party,” I answered, seeing that Ben didn’t understand my lack of enthusiasm.

Ben brought a party bag with cookies inside when he came to work on June 10, and I gave Ken a card and more cookies.  Our children called or dropped by.  If  it was convenient and the phone was close he would speak to them.  If he had to get up to answer, he didn’t bother, saying, “No.  Not now.”  They understood.

At dinner we sang “Happy Birthday,” presented him with a flaming candle stuck in a scoop of ice cream and cookies, and presents.  “Blow out the candle,” we coaxed.  “You blow it out,” Ken grumbled, not interested in the silliness of the exercise.  If birthday wishes were meaningful to him, it was hard to tell.  He opened the cards, read them aloud and tossed them aside. Quickly forgotten, he ate his ice cream and cookies.  Birthdays had lost their charm and  meaning.  Like all of the other pleasurable things in life, Alzheimer’s had taken away that last bit of joy.

However, in the midst of being sad about memory lost, I remembered a few lines from one of my favorite poems:   “Intimations of Immortality” by Wordsworth: “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting, the soul that rises with us, our life star, hath had elsewhere it’s setting, and cometh from afar…………”  Believing we have always been “us” — individual spirit children of God — living before in a pre-mortal state of being makes us eternal.  What’s more is that I continue to believe the same “us” will  go on existing after this life.  I find comfort that somewhere in time and in another place, Ken will remember and celebrate his day of arrival in that future place.  I doubt it will be known as a “birthday,” but it will be a day to commemorate which, surrounded by loved ones, will bring him, once again, joy.

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Throughout our marriage whenever I got the sniffles — or worse — a full-blown cold, Ken was at his worst.  A nurturer he was not.  “Mom — or mom-in-law,” he would plead into the phone, “Could you come out and help for a few days.  She’s sick.”  “She,” of course meaning me.  The mothers were wonderful and at their best as caregivers and baby sitters while he continued wringing his hands with worry all the while whining and wondering when I would get better.  Once I was on the mend and after the chosen mother had gone home, I often felt a little miffed that he was so incapable of  caring for me.  Sometimes I would tell Ken that it was too bad his investment in a marriage license wasn’t paying off:  Heaven forbid — his wife caught colds!  “Does an occasional bout with poor health entitle you to a refund?’  I teased.  It was a good thing I actually had a constitution of iron and was seldom sick.

In retrospect, I do believe he was terrified when I became ill.  He never said so, but I came to that conclusion because when I was in the hospital and “my primary care” was assumed by someone else, someone he didn’t know and a professional, he became a knight to behold.  My husband was the first one to arrive when the clock pointed to the beginning of visitor’s hours and he was the last one to leave when the nurse growled, “Sir!  Visiting hours are over!”

I was envied in the maternity wards as Ken sat by my bed being the best father and most attentive husband in the land.  He would pull his chair as close to my bed as he could get looking starry eyed and smiling while we talked.  Holding my hand in both of his, he periodically kissed my finger tips and told me how much he loved me.  I suppose the hospital knight canceled out the home klutz because when my colds were gone I always forgave him his incapability, and through the many years of our marriage I have concluded that’s exactly what it was:  Ken was emotionally incapable of stepping into that primary caregiving role.  A secondary support system was something altogether different, and in that role Ken shined like a new penny.

Following the automobile accident, and were he not stricken with a diseased mind, he would have been a permanent fixture next to my bed.  I missed not having him close by, and there were times during the twilight hours when I imagined him near.  With that thought in mind I drifted off into a deep sleep and dreamed about us.

We were celebrating; possibly my birthday which was in the first week of March.  Arm in arm, we were jaunty, each of our steps clicking in unison, tapping out a rhythm along the streets of San Francisco.  I suppose we were looking for the perfect restaurant.  He looked wonderful, his gray hair giving him an air of distinction — and to please me he wore a coat and tie.  He looked so handsome.  The weather was balmy, and I was dressed for an evening on the town; the two of us made a perfectly matched pair.  We were “us” in my dream, strong mature adults with grown children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren, enjoying every precious moment of our life together.  I felt good — and happy — even though we didn’t seem to be reaching any destination.

Block after block we walked, peeking around corners and passing many suitable places to eat, yet we kept going.  Suddenly, and without warning, we passed a darkened doorway and there in the corner was Ken.  Not the mature adult whose arm I had just held in my dream, but Ken the way he is — really is:  Ken with Alzheimer’s — confused and alone.  Were we meeting spirit to spirit? Or was my dream reminding  me that in reality Ken would not be my hospital shining knight, nor would he be my devoted secondary caregiver kissing my finger tips and telling me how much he loved me.  Alzheimer’s had taken that Ken from me, and coming out of the twilight where dreams can be momentarily bright and consoling — then gone like a puff of smoke — I was left to remember that my husband would not be part of my recovery.

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From the time I was old enough to remember hearing adults shout “Happy New Year,” I believed there was something magical happening as the clock chimed 12:00 on December 31.  Furthermore, I was missing it all because I was a child and had to be in bed early.  Then one year my parents went out with friends on New Year’s Eve leaving my sister, Janet, and me in the care of our older sister, Polly, who was 16.  At last, Janet and I knew we could stay up until the bewitching hour because Polly was caught up in her own reverie of sadness in not having a boy friend at year’s end. 

The two of us knew there must be noise to welcome in The New Year so Janet fortified us with metal dish pans and heavy spoons.  Polly didn’t care what we were doing, taking to her bed early.  My favorite big sister planned we would march up and down the sidewalk in front of our building (the fourth floor being our home) banging our dish pans at the first sounds of celebration.   At 12:00 we heard horns honking and whistles blowing in the distance, but that was all, so we high stepped our march and drummed our pans more vigorously.  Still nothing.  “Is that all?” I whined with great disappointment.  “Come with me,” ordered Janet.  I followed her up the flights of stairs into the kitchen where she took one of  Mama’s best cooking pots (the heaviest of her hammered aluminum cookware) and ran to the front of the flat overlooking the street.  Throwing up the window and calling, “Look out below,” she tossed the pot into space watching it fall down and down until it hit the sidewalk.  Still no magic.  If San Francisco had no magic, where could it be found?  Janet tried three more times with the same result, “Thud, clunk, clunk, clunk.”  We retrieved the pot (fortunate that it hadn’t taken out a drunk from the corner bar) put it back in the kitchen and we both went to bed still wondering where was the magic —  the celebration — this miraculous thing that changed one year into another — where was the old bearded man carrying the sickle — and the stork delivering the Baby New Year?

The next morning, Mama tried using the pot being puzzled about why the lid didn’t fit.  Among her many talents, the woman of our house was also an excellent detective.  After a few minutes of interrogation, then piecing together the events of the previous night she was less than happy.  Having saved precious dimes and nickles through long Depression years until there were enough dollars to buy a complete set of cookware, she cried over the bent and apparently ruined pot.  My father tried to reshape the damage by clamping one side of the utensil into a vise and pounding the other side with a hammer.  In doing so a two-inch zagged line appeared down one side of the traumatized pot.   The lid fit, but when Mama used it, a thin spray of telling steam escaped through the crack, forever reminding me and Janet that the magic wasn’t found by throwing pots from a four-story window.  That New Year did not begin on a happy note.  Even so I was still convinced that somewhere there must be wonderment — something spectacular — something special — happening at year’s end — and I would continue my search.

As young adults we gathered with friends, tossed confetti and serpentine, put on party hats and blew tiny tin horns.   Marriage and children brought us together with neighbors to celebrate the incoming year, while keeping our little ones close by.   As the children grew older we were free to house hop, visiting other friends wishing them well, ending with Sofia and Don at their home where we watched the ball drop at Times Square in New York.  Instead of confetti we tossed popcorn, exchanged hugs and kisses and wondered what the coming year would bring.   When our nest was empty Ken and I often took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to the city in the late afternoon of December 31.  Getting off at mid-town we walked up Powell Street, through China Town, and over the top of Nob Hill and down to Fisherman’s Wharf which was still sparkling with Christmas decorations.  We wandered the shops of Pier 39, had an early dinner, took the Cable Car back to Market and Powell, caught BART and were home before midnight — usually asleep as the clock struck 12:00.

The last time we celebrated New Year’s Eve was in 2006.  Our daughter, Debbie and her husband Mark, had moved to Ogden, Utah the year before.  Following Christmas, we flew back to spend time with them.  “Come with us,” Debbie urged as the end of the year approached.  “New Year’s Eve in Salt Lake is so much fun.  In a few selected buildings on Temple Square they have great entertainment until about 11:30, and at midnight the city puts on a fireworks display from the rooftop of a downtown building.” 

Ken’s AD was evident with considerable memory loss at the time, but he was aware enough that he still enjoyed life.  He remembered Christmas and its meaning and the Holidays in general — and me — most of the time.   At midnight the four of us stood among the crowd, huddled together, arms around one another as snow flurries melted on our cheeks while watching the sky light up in a spectacular welcoming of another year.

So did I ever find the magic?   I’m not even certain when my “Search” lost its importance, but about magic:  it doesn’t have to come at the end of the year, nor does it come in a puff of smoke, or out of a tall silk hat, or at the wave of a wand, or even with fireworks no matter how beautiful.  It comes in small things and in small ways, appearing so naturally it’s hardly noticed; and  yet it can be wonderment and often spectacular and oh so special, but you have to watch or you might miss it.   And what’s most important; rather than finding it at midnight of December 31, I have found bits and pieces, sometimes big chunks of it on any number of the 365 days that have made up each incredible year of my sojourn here on earth.  It’s life at its best and at its very worst.  It’s love and marriage — or not — love extended to our fellow-man in the way of devotion and service.  It’s also caring, friendship, success and failure, falling down and getting up, faith and hope, family, birth, a baby’s first smile, first word, first step;  it’s fear, anguish, adversity, worry, work, wealth and poverty, abundance and hunger, disappointment, unbearable sorrow and despair, pain so intense you believe you cannot survive, but you do, sickness and, yes, ultimately death.   But there is also magnificent happiness and joy beyond measure to be found.   Yes!   It is magic:  this grand experience of life is magic, and for those of faith, an even greater magic is yet to come.  So, Happy New Year — and during this new beginning of 2010, go out and find the magic for yourself.

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