If you notice George on the 5:41 train to Ronkonkoma, you might think, “Another salt-and-pepper-haired banker/accountant/lawyer heading back to the suburbs.” You might notice the gold band on his left hand and picture a three-decades-long marriage, the pair finally enjoying the quiet comfort of a roast in the oven and Jeopardy on the couch after the often chaotic kids-and-mortgage years.
You would be right, George will see his wife tonight, but not in their home, and while he will tell her about his day, she won’t be able to share about hers. Because, like just about every day for more than three years, George will be visiting his wife in a nursing home, where, at just 58, she is bedridden with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Josi was diagnosed in 2008 at age 49, and by 2010, she was told to put her affairs in order. George took four months off from work, and they spent that time enjoying life and each other. When he had to return to work, Josi was cared for during the day by family, including his sister-in-law who left her home every morning at 5:30 and returned when George got home from work. George made sure Josi was bathed and dressed before he left, including doing her hair and makeup. But in 2013, Josi lost her ability to walk, and George knew the time had come for the specialized care of a nursing facility.
When Josi had to leave their house, George brought their home to the nursing center. On the walls of her room are photographs of Josi as a vibrant woman, hiking in a Nevada canyon, exploring Italy, enjoying family gatherings. The room is softly lit with floor lamps and family photos are everywhere. A Mets pennant attests to their allegiance as Long Islanders and religious items to their faith as Catholics. Each season, George hangs different decorations from the ceiling—garlands of silk flowers, snowflakes, Valentine’s hearts. And of course, his presence is the most important reminder, as he comes “home” from work to see her each evening.
I first met George almost two years ago on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the only extended amount of time he spent away from Josi since her diagnosis. He had come to pray for Josi, yes, but his faith wasn’t marred by anger towards God. As we stood in Mass at the Holy Sepulcher in front of Jesus’ tomb, tears running down our faces, I knew George would become a special friend. About a year after we returned, Josi’s condition declined and I was blessed that he gave me the opportunity to meet her on one of his nightly visits.
I watch George as he sits at her bedside and holds her hand as they say their evening prayers. Prayers of thanksgiving for the gift of their marriage, the Lord’s prayer, a Hail Mary, and petitions to St. Peregrine, patron of the terminally ill. Though she sometimes has moments of agitation and grimacing, during the prayers Josi is calm, and her smooth hand grips George’s.
Theirs is a marriage seemingly frozen in time. Josi is here, but she doesn’t know her grandson arrived, that he is walking and talking and running. She can’t be part of Christmases and birthdays. There will be no retirement home in the Poconos. But, still, there is a vibrancy to George and Josi’s marriage. As I sat at the edge of her bed, just watching her hand in his, their intimacy is palpable. They revel in holding each other’s hand, the spiritual longing in that touch just as strong as their first longing for one another more than 30 years ago.
Could I do that? Could I love my husband so much that I would go to his bedside every day, setting aside myself in such a radical way? I let our petty challenges put little stress fractures in my marriage far too often. How does George stand tall under the weight of such unimaginable pressure?
Of course, it’s because of his faith. George is living out what St. Mother Theresa called “the paradox of love”—if you love until it hurts, the hurt goes away and there is only love. Seeing the sacrament of marriage distilled to its essence—selfless love—is a powerful witness for me as my husband and I enter our fourth decade of marriage. I pray that George’s example will encourage us to love each other better, to let go of our individual needs and love until it hurts. So maybe, one day, when we are holding hands as one of us prepares to leave the other, the true intimacy of our souls will mirror the love I witnessed in Josi’s room.