Have you ever witnessed a love so strong that one couldn’t fully exist without the other? I have. It is sad yet beautiful at the same time. Let me tell you about one couple that have stayed etched in my memory and keep me believing that true love can exist.
It was back in 2006 when I met the Caldwells. Bill and Barbara were by this time living in the nursing home section of a continuing care retirement community or CCRC. Both of their health declining sufficiently and quickly enough that they had had to move out of their independent home. I was new to the community having just begun working as a speech pathologist for the assisted living and nursing home sections. I was first assigned to work with Barbara.
Barbara was slight, birdlike. So skinny I could wrap my thumb and pinky around her wrist and have tons of space. What she lacked in physical size she made up for in her strong personality. One of the areas I worked with her on was her swallowing. Barbara was a pistol. Brash at times. She pretty much did what she wanted but in a very polite, congenial manner so you ended up overlooking it. I think she learned that trick from her husband. She frustrated the living daylights out of me. I could not get her to follow any of her safety instructions, her exercises, never mind – get her to eat. I needed her to eat but she just wouldn’t or not enough. Her health was failing as she weakened from malnutrition and failure to thrive.
She had a New York accent but I later found out she was born in 1923 in Illinois. She had worked as a model in New York in her early twenties. Hence the history and possible cause of her not eating sufficiently. I was told that she met Bill while working on a modeling job. They’d married soon after he’d returned from serving in World War II. Proud they were as opposite as one could get but they fell in love just the same. They were inseparable prior to coming to the nursing home and every day you would hear her calling out for her Bill as she waited in the TV parlor for his return from physical therapy. Her calling for him sometimes aggravated the staff, truth be told. Personally, it was because you couldn’t console her or convince her that she’d be OK. Bill would be coming back, soon. It’s a hard thing when you can’t stop someone from feeling lonely or hurting. It’s a hard thing when you’re trying everything you’ve got but the person is still getting worse. The annoyance and upset more from feeling incapable. But I also believe Barbara was feeling some of this too. During those moments all she wanted was Bill to make her life solid and familiar again and he wasn’t around. She couldn’t get to him, independently. We were keeping him from her. We didn’t know how little time she had left with him. May be she did. Barbara died peacefully in her sleep with her Bill nearby in their room in August of 2006. They had been married 60 years.
Bill was an opposite to his wife Barbara. He had yellow still strewn through his white hair. She had salt and peppered hair. She could be brash. He was like honey in voice and demeanor. He could charm us all; the male version of a Georgia peach. I would always tease him that way. Bill had been born in Marietta in 1918. He used to tell grand stories of serving in World War II. Initially, he’d been refused by the United States for service. He said because he was too young. So he served in the Dutch Air Force before finally being transferred to the Army Air Corp. Bill also served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. The service had played a significant role in his life before he came home to a civilian occupation. I got to hear so many great stories from him about this time because after Barbara died, Bill’s health started failing again. He’d had a mild stroke. We were working on his language, memory and his swallowing. Yes, his swallowing.
Like a deja vu, I couldn’t get Bill to do anything I asked to keep him safe while eating. He’d tried to get his family to sneak him in steak. He wouldn’t take in enough fluids so in the end I had to bribe him on a daily basis to drink and do his therapeutic exercises with me. He’d tell you’ he’d do it then go right about not doing so. Then he’d give you the biggest, sweetest smile and tell you he was sorry. He just couldn’t help himself; Georgia peach dripping with Southern hospitality.
He had told me stories of having to be up all night during WW II, waiting for the air raid sirens to go off. As a result he had developed an addiction to coffee. The blacker like oil the better. No sugar or fluff. You didn’t have time for that when the siren could go off at any moment. You learned how to just drink it and drink it fast, regardless if it burnt your throat on the way down. I used pots of strong black coffee, donuts and a lot of reminiscing to try to get Mr. Caldwell better over several months. I finally had to discharge him from therapy when I couldn’t break a plateau. But that didn’t mean I didn’t keep an eye out for him.
I would always stop to talk with Bill, passing in the hall, seeing him in the therapy gym or spending some time in the room he shared with another gentleman I had as a patient. We’d joke. I’d let him retell his stories. But soon I got a feeling he was starting to lose his spirit. He started saying he was missing his Barbara. Myself and the staff would try to console him. Tell him Barbara wouldn’t want him to be sad; that she was still with him in spirit. It didn’t work. Orders for psychological services really didn’t work. Bill told me one day he not only saw Barbara in his dreams at night but he was starting to see her in his room and the hallways during the day. She was telling him it was time for him to come get her. I’d been working with the elderly for 12 years by that time. When I heard something like this, I knew the end was getting near. After another downturn in his health, Bill admitted to me, “I’m dying of a broken heart.”
I went and told the charge nurse about what Bill had said. We shared that knowing look between each other. Extra supervision and support were given to Bill for the next few days but he continued to get worse. His family wanted to know what more we could do. They weren’t listening. After observing him having a not so great day, the charge nurse told me to go sit with him and spend some time. She had a feeling. I did. I held his hand and kidded that he and Barbara had been pains sometimes but that they made me smile and laugh. He smiled and eventually drifted off to sleep. His roommate’s wife said she was planning on staying in the room that night. I thanked her for being kind to do that then I left for the day.
The hall nurse and charge nurse stayed that night too. Furiously, they called family members telling them to get in right away. Their father was asking for them. He was saying he wanted to go that night. Finally they came and had some one on one with their dad. But they left believing he’d be there in the morning. The nurses stayed in or near the room. The wife of his roommate later told me she moved bedside so she could hold his hand. She knew from his breathing he was going. She told me about his last moments as she held his hand. Bill had opened his eyes and asked where his children were. She told them they’d gone home. He was alright with that, having said good bye. He then turned to look at a corner in the room. He told her that Barbara was there. Barbara was getting impatient with him and needed him to come to her. He laughed a little about her being impatient. He told his companion he thought it was time. It hurt too much to be apart. “I’m going to go now. Please hold my hand until I do?” She did. Bill went peacefully soon after. He died 5 months after his Barbara.
I’ve mentioned before that many patients have remained part of my memory over these 21 years. They’ve taught me some immediate lessons as in my first story in this trilogy, the 100+ Cowboy. Others have taught me lessons that were both immediate yet took me awhile to fully understand and appreciate. The Caldwells’ story has done that. I thought true love was elusive and just a romance novel gimmick. It has been for me in my life. But watching the Caldwells in their last months on this earth together then apart showed me just how strong and amazing a true love can be. I know it can exist and continue to grow. I also know how rare it can be. If it happens in your life hold onto it and keep it precious. I’m still waiting but a part of me knows it can happen because of couples like Bill and Barbara. When it does, I hope I’ve learned enough from their example to grab onto it and never let go.
Photo Credit: Love This Pic