Last year at this time, Mom and Jim were residing in Florida. They made the decision to return to South Carolina in August, because as much as they love Florida, my mother really needed some additional support to care for her husband.
At the age of 92, our former WWII Navy pilot, could still come up with answers for just about any crossword. But his mind has been slipping, and what started as a difficulty remembering where simple things were - like his wallet or car keys - has slowly evolved in to a general confusion about where he is, what he's doing, and when he's going home.
Despite his confusion, Jim would almost always win in cards. And if you sang a tune from long ago, he'll know every lyric. When we were with Jim a few years ago in Florida, and he started reciting the poem "Casey At The Bat" from memory, the lot of us that had gathered around him, were gobsmacked.
As I've written before, Jim is from a long line of professional baseball players. Jim's Dad actually played with Babe Ruth for Boston in 1917; before playing for several other teams - including the Chicago Cubs. It was with the Cubs that his Dad made an unassisted triple play, which landed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jim's Uncle played professional baseball, too. As did his grandfather, who Jim says is the one who "died at first" in the famous poem. Jim would tell me that those were the golden days when ball players played not for some multi-million dollar contract, but for the love of the game.
(Although, he adds, it sure would have been nice if his family had made millions doing what they loved!)
Jim has always had an insatiable love of sports, and would watch games on TV - any games - just so long as there was a ball involved. Baseball, basketball, football, tennis ... golf.
Over the past few years, my mother has been Jim's primary caregiver as dementia has slowly taken over his brilliant mind. And while Jim has always remained the consummate well-dressed gentleman, with a bright smile, and joyful expression of "Hi-Ya Kiddo!", Jim's demise has been painful for everyone, especially my mother.
More and more, I've become aware of articles and news stories that highlight the very real issue of caregiver stress, and after witnessing it in my own mother - I know how frightening and crippling it can be.
The exhaustion from sleep deprivation due to round-the-clock care; the frustration and depression from the exhaustion and inability to do things for yourself; the guilt that you think about doing things for yourself - and the worry that no one can take care of your loved one like you can. Add to that, the stress over the expense of care should you even consider it - can run thousands per month.
Mom had resisted putting Jim in to a nursing facility not because of the expense, but because she loves him and treasures his companionship. According to mom, "Jim gives me purpose, and he is always so happy. I hate to do it to him ... he is such a kind and wonderful man!"
And he is.
But a few months ago, mom was at a breaking point. Every time we would talk with her, she would collapse in to tears because she was so tapped out. And finally, she took the advice of what every doctor, nurse, and health care professional had been telling her ... she sought help and put Jim in a facility where he would be cared for, round-the-clock.
It hasn't been an easy decision for mom, and several times she has mentioned taking him out and bringing him home. But since Jim has been in a nursing home, mom has been able to spend some time on herself, which it turns out has been critically necessary.
Mom, who tries to make the the best of every possible situation, has started singing when she goes to see Jim. According to my Aunt Grace who has witnessed this before, residents will light up when my mother starts singing, and people who were moments earlier, sitting in a comatose state - will begin tapping their foot, clapping their hands, or singing along.
With the gift of music, it seems something deep in their minds is sparked.
"Your mother has such a gift with people," my Aunt has told me.
Indeed, she does.
I know it.
And Jim knows it, too.
This past weekend, our beloved Jimbo had a stroke. After spending the weekend in the hospital, the decision has been made to administer comfort-measures, only. He was transferred to hospice today, and mom is with him - by his side, holding his hand, and nurturing him. Today when I called, she was tucking blankets around his chin, fluffing his pillow, and keeping the phone near his ear so people could tell him how much they love and appreciate him.
When I spoke to my mother yesterday, she told me that when she went in to his hospital room - although he could not speak - Jim's eyes made contact with hers, and she said that his eyes were so full of love, and gratitude. She said that it honestly felt like his soul connected with hers, and their souls said to each other, "Thank You." And when I talked to my mother tonight, she said that Jim had been trying to lift her hand up to his lips so that he could kiss it.
The thought of these sweet gestures make me weep tears of gratefulness.
Oh, what a gift these two have been for each other!
Jim's first wife, Pat - who was also a dear friend of our family - passed away in November of 2000. And for the past 15 years, Mom and Jim have been together. They've traveled all around the United States, and spent more than a decade in Florida. They've laughed together, danced together, swam together, done crossword puzzles together, played cards together, and of course - sang together.
I am so grateful for the role that Jim has played in my life, a close friend to our family for the past 35-years. And I am so grateful of the grandfather that he has been to our children. Almost all of our children's memories of Jim involve the beach and laughter. (And getting whooped in cards.)
But mostly, I am so grateful for the love that Jim has brought in to my mother's life. I am so grateful that for the past 15 years, Jim has been my mom's best friend - someone who unexpectedly has given her so much purpose, joy, and adventure. I'm so grateful for this intelligent, gracious, kind, patient, sports-loving, well-dressed gentleman, who has adored my mother and treasured her for the gift that she is; just as she has treasured him for the gift that he has been to her.
Yes, this is the face of companionship...
It is my prayer that Jim, and my mom, feel all of the love surrounding them. And that for Jim - there is no pain... just peace, and comfort, and faith.
Faith that he he has his toes in an ocean of love...
And the tide is rising.
(Pam, Stan, and Kimball - you, too, are in our hearts. xox)