Her eyes were fixated on the iridescent hue of the LCD screen in front of us. It was another episode of “Little House on the Prairie” playing on a retro TV channel. This would be the 4th time I’d seen this episode, and probably the millionth from her. Her husband sat quietly, resting underneath a blanket in a recliner that had become more his than anyone else’s. I sat on the opposite couch, laptop in hand working on some graphic designs while casually glancing at the LCD television to see which part of this episode it was that I’d remember now. Her husband moved, and she glanced over at the noise. What a situation this had become.
She had found out almost simultaneously that both herself and her daughter had cancer. Her daughter's breast cancer was detected early on, which allowed for preventative treatments to avoid chemotherapy, while her bladder cancer was a bit more serious and required treatment. It had been some months prior to this discovery that her husband slipped into an Alzheimer's-like dementia, forgetting where he was and how he got there, people’s faces, and major conversations and moments in peoples lives. But he recognized her. During several of her trips to the doctors, her husband always requested her presence, inquired as to where she was and when she’d be back almost every 3 minutes, a new conversation every time. I would reply with the correct answer, his acknowledgement being “she’s at the butcher?” a codename for the doctor that he obviously did not trust.
I came into the picture 8 months ago, assisting in any way I could to keep an eye on her husband and to drive him to his day program during the week. I started out as a driver twice a day making a modest wage, then stayed over at her daughter’s house to keep an eye on things until he went to bed, about an hour after I brought him home from the day program. It was a stressful time for everyone; she was staying with her husband at their own daughter’s house with her daughter’s husband because it was closer to the doctor’s than where they lived. Living rooms turned into bedrooms, family members and medical staff constantly coming in and out of the house to clean, wash, and care for the various medical issues that come with dementia. I accompanied her on various trips to the cancer center, occasionally giving blood during the long hours of the different procedures, discussing everything from football to politics and much more.
Her accent is unmistakable.
I found out all that I know about her through conversation, how she and her husband were from Germany and Austria and had fled to Northeastern Canada to escape the times (the 1940s weren’t so great) and to fill a position he had managed to land. Nights were well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit and days weren’t much higher. All this and they somehow managed to have seven kids, immigrate to the United States and raise their children in the Elmwood Village in the city of Buffalo, NY.
I remember the evening I was there when she and her husband celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary, something almost unheard of in today’s world of Kim Kardashian weddings and loveless affairs. It was saddening that he could not recall importance to that day, that he did not recognize how significant it was to be still married and in love with the same person for 55 years. It was this day that she told me of how they met, and how she still loved him.
How much harder could this get?
Both her and her daughter already had cancer, and now the man that she loved for 55 years, with whom she had traveled many, many miles, saving anything they could to eventually build a good retirement savings for this.
To be forced to pay for medical expenses when they should be on a cruise in Hawaii. It struck me hard, to try and imagine the pain of the disease battling with the pain of watching the person I built a life with slowly, slowly slip into a state of dementia, gradually forgetting each moment we had built together.
The day that the representative from the nursing home came to evaluate her husband was when it all became very real. She answered the rep’s questions; they looked her husband over medically, giving her a brochure of the building and services offered. It was at this moment that it became too much, too real for this strong German woman. She broke down. Of the entire 7 months that I had been assisting her daughter, taking her to the cancer center and discussing with her the details of her chemo and surgeries, I had not seen one ounce of weakness. Now, quite suddenly she reacted as if she had just been dealt a blow to the stomach, tears dropped slowly down her cheek as she stared at the brochure.
The glow dimmed as the show ended. I plugged in a small lamp for her next to the tv. Her daughter came home from work and I informed her of the night's events, said my goodbyes and left. Every night was a sobering experience.
The last time I saw her, I took her to the cancer center for an MRI, and we talked about the weather, the speed of service at the center, and how bad those MRI drinks taste that they make you drink. It was the following day about 2 months ago that she found out the cancer had spread to her lungs, and that it was only a matter of time. Her husband had been accepted into a home where his basic needs would be taken care of, but where he would never get the TLC that his family could give him. Sedation drugs controlled his outbursts now (which only happened when he couldn’t find his wife or he got confused about something).
I never did pursue more information about her life, the details of what it was like to travel out of Germany and into Northeastern Canada, and all of the adventures and experiences that would lie in between of what could have been a pretty good narrative of strength and triumph in the face of adversity. It’s not everyday you are a part of something that affects you so profoundly as this, humbles you to really cast out the unnecessary drama in your life (and there is a lot of it) and really do something to make that difference in someone else’s life.
In the age of unnecessary stresses, rhetoric, and greed, sometimes an account of an event like this needs to come out to ground us a little more as human beings. I hope it has done something for you as
The entire above story is true, and her name was Theadora.