Recently I met an elderly lady shortly after she had back surgery. Three times a week, Ellen’s husband Bill was faithfully taking her to physical therapy. I watched as the therapist patiently sat her in a chair and set a timer on the floor in front of her. “OK, Ellen, lean over and push the button, then put your hands on the floor until the alarm goes off.”
Ellen leaned forward, reached for the timer, and put her hands on the floor. “Did I hit the button?” Ellen asked. The therapist assured her she had. After a couple times of being coached through the exercise, Ellen assured the therapist she understood and the therapist moved on to help the next person. Confusion washed over Ellen’s face as she tried to do the exercise on her own. Bill saw what was happening and moved quickly from his chair a few feet away and sat on a chair right in front of Ellen.
“Lean forward and push the button, Ellen,” he coached gently. “Good. Now put your hands on the floor.” When the timer went off Ellen kept her hands on the floor, but raised her head to look questioningly at Bill. “Hit the button again and sit up straight. Nice and tall now,” Bill said.
When they had finished this exercise the required number of times the therapist came over and taught Ellen the next exercise. “Put your arms straight out in front of you, like you’re sleep walking.” Ellen struggled to understand, first putting her arms out tentatively to the side, then over her head. The therapist patiently helped her get them into the right position, then instructed Ellen to keep her arms straight out while going from sitting to standing, then back again. Once again, as the therapist moved on to help someone else, Ellen blanked on what to do. This time, Bill was close by, ready to do what needed to be done. I watched as Bill sat in the chair across from his wife, made eye contact with her, and raised his arms straight out in front of himself.
“Put your arms straight out,” he instructed Ellen, carefully keeping eye contact. “Now we need to stand up. No, keep your arms out. Good job! Now we need to sit down.”
I watched as, in unison, Bill and Ellen did the exercise. Arms straight out, holding eye contact: stand, sit. Stand, sit. Stand, sit. Occasionally Ellen would say, “I already did that.” Bill would assure her that yes she had, but she needed to do more. I saw confusion on her face when she heard this, but it was quickly replaced by trust. If Bill said she needed to do it, she’d do it.
As I watched this unfold day after day, my heart was moved. This is marriage. The real kind. You know that part of a wedding where you say “in sickness and in health”? This is that. I’m sure decades ago when they promised to love and cherish, for better or worse, in sickness and in health neither of them thought that Alzheimer’s was in their future. It’s not the kind of thing you think about when you’re young and have your whole life ahead of you. You think of hearts and flowers and babies and sunsets. But this. This is something more beautiful than hearts and flowers. This is real love. Love that stands the test of time. Love that is patient and kind, that is not selfish and does not demand its own way. Love that is not resentful. In sickness and in health.
**While I used Bob and Barb from my Life of Bob blog in the accompanying photo, this is about a real life couple I met while in physical therapy. Names have been changed for privacy reasons.