As Joe left the room to rest, his son, Jack, was holding his mother’s hand. In less than an hour, Jack called out to Joe in a soft voice, “She’s gone.”
Joe returned to the bedroom and looked at Lois. Her face was soft. All the wrinkles of 81 years were gone. The disease had gone away and left her in peace.
After 61 years, Joe was alone. Lois was no longer there. She who had been at his life’s center no longer existed.
At age 83, habits are hard to change, and the habit of love becomes encrusted in our hearts. Loneliness is a companion only of grief.
Thus began the rest of Joe Stevens’ life, and left this courtly, soft-spoken man with a question that only he could answer: What do I do now?
It is a creepy thing, Alzheimer’s disease. It’s never in a hurry. It crawls into the brain like a worm. It makes its victim first lose the car keys, then lose the car, then lose reality. With Lois Stevens, it stayed hidden for several years, then became noticeable four years ago and progressed to where after two more years, she began to mentally live alone amid her family.
As it first became apparent that something was more serious than simple age-related forgetfulness, Joe moved them from Riverside County back to Spring Valley. That was where they had once operated a dinner-theater club in Casa de Oro, then a restaurant, the Oxbow Inn, until 1997.
Trying to cope with Alzheimer’s, Joe asked his doctor, “So what do I do? What can I do?” The doctor replied, “Well, there are two or three drugs on the market. I haven’t seen much success with them. I would advise you not to waste your money.”
He asked another doctor, who told him, “Find a support group. You’re the one who’s going to need help.” Joe found and joined a group consisting of older men fighting loss and loneliness.
Last December, Lois fell in the kitchen and suffered a concussion, and the accident seemed to push her disease into its final stage. Over the next two months, she deteriorated until she became unresponsive.
Today, Joe revisits the still-raw memory of losing his wife less than three months ago. He describes the day that the end happened. He pauses to quiet the quiver in his voice and squeezes his eyelids. He says their granddaughter, with whom Lois was quite close, spoke softly to her and said, “Grandma, I love you. It’s OK if you want to go.”
An hour later, Lois quietly took her leave.
Now, it’s the time all widowed people dread — three days later, the memorial service is over, people have gone home and the house is eerily quiet.
For Joe, even a stricken Lois was company, because she required care, and that was a sort of companionship.
“She was there, but not really there. But just the presence is not like loneliness. After she died, she wasn’t there, and I didn’t have anyone, or anything to do.”
He took stock. “I had never lived alone. I started thinking about what I should do. My wife loved to take cruises, and we’d taken quite a few trips, road trips and things like that. I thought of all the things that we hadn’t done that I might like to do. I started thinking about maybe buying a motor home and taking off. Then my son said, ‘Dad, don’t make any decisions. Give it a while.’ ”
Regardless, he decided he didn’t want to do any of those things alone. He thought about finding companionship but wouldn’t haunt bars to find it and did not attend church, so he didn’t know how to go about it. But then, a way happened. …
“My son’s daughter, she’s 23 and has a new boyfriend, a great guy and he’s got a job.” Then Joe remembers he’s a grandfather — “That’s a plus,” he says, chuckling.
“I ask her, ‘So, where did you meet Zack? And she said, ‘I met him on the Internet.’ I said, ‘Really?’ She said, ‘Yeah. I got on the Internet and went into this eHarmony.com.’ ”
Joe banked the information and later started to think about it. He could do that, too, look for a partner. But first he had to deal with the reality that Lois had been dead only a few weeks. What would the children say? Would they resent his “disloyalty” to their mother?
“Disloyalty? It crossed my mind, yeah. Lois and I talked about things. I took care of the finances and investments. She’d look at all the (financial) papers and say, ‘I’m going first. I’m not going to let you leave me with all of this mess.’ We talked about if one of us died, and she said, ‘I know you’ll probably get another girlfriend. Just don’t let her wear my clothes.’ We kind of joked about things like that.”
Was there a subliminal meaning to that comment?
“To ‘Don’t let her wear my clothes’? I don’t know.”
Joe took the plunge, filled out the online questionnaire for the website and sat back and waited.
Ken Fousel, chair of the support group for older men that Joe had joined, says of him, “He’s a gentleman and quite in control of himself. Being open to a new relationship, as he has done, is an important part of the recovery process.”
Joe immediately got 32 “hits,” profiles of women in the area who matched the online criteria he had written. He had a pleasant dinner with one woman, but it was on the second meet-up that he found another woman with whom he seemed to mesh. She was a widow 10 years younger.
“I kind of clicked with her, but it also scared me, because I thought I’m just on a rebound here. We’ve had a few dates and are planning to get together next month for maybe a three-day trip.”
Do you still talk to Lois?
“At the cemetery I did. I told her about this lady. After all those years, nobody would ever push her out of my heart. Sometimes at night I just think about her. I’ll be up there Sunday; it’s her birthday.”
You know, if this got serious with this woman or someone else, there would be big adjustments in every way.
“Oh, I know.”
All of a sudden you’re next to someone who snores, and you’re not used to that. Or, she’s someone who likes heavy garlic and you don’t. It’s tough to make those adjustments at 30. How must it be in your 80s?
“I don’t know. It might be harder when you’re 30. It may be easier when you’re in your 80s because I think maybe you’ve lived long enough to understand that people are different, and you’ve got to give and take. I’ve thought about that a lot.”
He first approached his son with the news. Jack said, “That’s good, dad. I’m happy for you, and I hope it works out.” Then his son also said, “Dad, mom left us a year ago.”
“I didn’t say anything to my daughter and granddaughter who live in Oregon, and I was apprehensive because it was so quick after my wife died.”
He decided to make a special trip north to talk to them. “They both just said it was great, just great. My daughter said, ‘Dad, no matter how it turns out, go for it. You got maybe another 10 years to live, and you should enjoy them. Mom would say it’s OK.’
“I was so relieved.”
He is familiar enough with this current lady to know he likes her very much and they have some likes in common, but it’s too early for the dislikes to emerge. But it’s not too early for him to think about what guys in love think about.
What intimacy level do you anticipate with whatever woman you choose?
“Sex? I don’t know. Sixty years ago, sex was pretty important, but at 83 and almost 84, it’s not the important thing in life. Are you going to publish all this?”
We’re talking about real life here.
“Yeah, I suppose. … I told my urologist that I was seeing a new lady. I said, ‘I get urges occasionally, but …’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I can take care of that.’ He said, if I wanted, he’d give me a prescription. If it happened, Fred, it would be a real bonus.
“Lois and I were in love. The physical part was really big. Now, it’s like my lady said, I think there are different kinds of love. I think if anything happened, with her or with someone else, maybe I could fall in love, but it would be a different kind of love than when you’re 22.”
Have you thought about remarriage in general?
“It’s not on my mind, but if something developed that way, I’m not against it.”
As the saying goes, do you have a new bounce in your step?
“I have something to look forward to.”
Do you have any second thoughts that maybe you acted too quickly?
“I’m 83 years old, and I loved my children’s mother for 61 years. The answer is ‘no.’
“I will always feel sad that my wife had to go through all that. But I’m not sad for myself anymore.”
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org