Ralph Luedtke smiles as he looks across the breakfast table at his wife. He pats her hand that’s resting on the surface.
Dona does not speak or look at him because she may not be there. She took leave of their shared lives and home several years ago.
The Luedtkes live in Cardiff, within sight of the ocean, in a home that’s part of an upscale complex they developed. Given a choice, 90 percent of San Diegans would probably abandon their own houses for the one the Luedtkes live in.
But the house is not the home it once was. The staircase is blocked, sealing off four bedrooms on the second floor. The large family room has been turned into a mini dormitory. It has two beds, one of the hospital variety. As the house has been battened down, so have the lives of these two people, Ralph and Dona (pronounced “Donna”). He is 85, she almost 83.
In 2004, Ralph drove to pick up his wife in Rancho Santa Fe, where she ran the garden club. Not finding her there, he drove through the tiny business section, thinking she was on an errand. He stopped when he saw her walking.
“I said, ‘Honey, what are you doing here?’ And she looked at me, and said, ‘Who in the world are you?’ That’s the first time I was aware of something.”
Hearing that, what went through your mind?
“I didn’t know what to think. I was flabbergasted. I just told myself she was having a bad day.”
The human mind does few things better than denial. When life is smooth and going the way we like, a disruptive reality is as welcome as a telemarketer at dinnertime.
Ralph and Dona were high school sweethearts in Wausau, Wis., 66 years ago, back when prosperity and normalcy were replacing depression and war. In those days, making out in the back seat of a ’40 Ford was often the precursor to an early wedding and a jump-start to the American Dream. And thus they jumped, two crazy kids from the wrong side of the tracks.
The years squeezed together. Ralph spent three years in the Marines and went to fight in Korea while Dona became a registered nurse. She also developed tuberculosis and recovered in one of the sanitariums that were common at the time.
Ralph went to work for Proctor & Gamble and quickly rose to become a key marketing troubleshooter mainly based in Chicago. Money followed, as did two daughters. Their marriage worked, both as a romance and an equal partnership — not always common in that pre-feminist time.
However, Ralph remembered San Diego from his time at Camp Pendleton, and he got a bad case of surf and palm trees. He cashed out his considerable stake in P&G and decided to make a living growing flowers, a business of which both were monumentally ignorant.
When presented with the idea, Dona said, “Honey, we’ve got everything going for us,” and pointed out the good life they were enjoying. Then she shrugged and said, “Oh, well. Let’s do it.” They bought 5½ acres in Cardiff, where they built big greenhouses and went into the flower business in 1967.
Ventures like that are where 401(k)s go to die.
It was equal parts stupid and crazy, except it worked. Ralph and Dona as a team were considerably successful until imported flowers gutted the market 20 years later.
Having not forgotten how to be resourceful, they dismantled the greenhouses and built 10 upscale homes on the property, where today they occupy the biggest.
Ralph’s muttering competitors probably called him brash. His friends … well, they’d call him colorful. With a cheery, blustery big voice, he attacks problems like shoppers do Walmart the day after Thanksgiving. If depression attacked, he’d sweep it out of his mind with a broom of positivity.
But not Dona’s problem. He couldn’t attack that. Something softer was called for.
Dona showed signs of forgetfulness in the years after the Rancho Santa Fe incident: a lot of things such as leaving the refrigerator door open. It was easy to rationalize them as the absent-mindedness of a person nearing 80 and possibly the onset of a little dementia.
Did she get irritated at her forgetfulness?
“Didn’t seem to,” he says. “We never discussed what was wrong with her. I never brought up her mental problems, and she didn’t either.”
The goal was to jealously protect their nice life. She even continued to perform as the token Lutheran in a tap dance troupe at St. John’s Catholic Church in Encinitas.
Finally, it couldn’t be denied that something was wrong. “We were in a hotel in Italy when the phone rang about 2:30 a.m., and a guy says, ‘Is your wife’s name Dona?’ I says, ‘Yeah,’ and he says, ‘Do you know where she is?’ I says, ‘Yeah, in the next bed here.’ He says, ‘You better turn on the light because she’s not in your room. She’s down in the office.’ She had got up in her nightgown and walked down to the office, so after that I really had to watch her.”
In 2010, the truth was unmasked. Dona’s dementia was finally diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is sneaky. It’s slow-moving and doesn’t speak its name. It teases with hints but finally moves in and takes over the house. It’s in no hurry. It knows it will win.
As Ralph talks, he’s patting Dona’s arm that’s still resting on the table. He reaches over and adjusts her wig, one of several he’s bought. She’s looking straight ahead, either seeing or not seeing, no one can say. Ralph says her wandering has curbed, probably because of difficulty in walking. She has lost weight, and her limbs have shrunk. When she walks, her head slumps forward, which Ralph says is an indicator of accelerated decline.
He looks at her approvingly. “The most heartwarming thing is that she realizes I’m her companion. I know she feels that, and sometimes she’ll reach out and rub my arm. It’s unbelievable. She’s showing her love for me, you know.”
At what point could you not directly communicate with her?
“Probably going on two years now. Yeah, she was doing pretty good up to then.”
Could she feed herself and take care of her person?
“Not everything. She could feed herself. No more.”
I ask him to describe Dona, thinking past tense. But he thinks of her as present tense. He’s certainly not in denial, but he doesn’t surrender easily. His image of Dona has never changed.
“She’s a beautiful lady and a very smart lady. I’ve called her precious darling Dona for many years. I couldn’t have had a better partner. We pulled that wagon together.
“She’s just a sweet gal, and you know, as long as I’ve known her, she never curses or swears. It’s unbelievable how compassionate and lovable this gal has always been. It’s just been magnificent to have somebody that you really admire. She’s always taken care of me, and I take care of her.”
Ralph’s main diversion is going to community gatherings and performing as “Uncle Ralph” with his concertina, which is a small cousin of the accordion. Very 1950s Midwestern. Very German.
Do you ever look at her and say, “Honey, I wish I could talk to you again”?
“Not really, because I don’t want to irritate her, and we all think that she understands pretty much what is going on, but she can’t communicate back to us.”
Really? Do you think she does right now?
“Yes. You know, like yesterday, I had a physical exam, and when I left, my daughter came over. ... When I came back, she said, ‘Mom was agitated. She knew you were gone.’”
Will she wonder who I am? (It’s uncomfortable to look at another person as an object and talk of them as though they weren’t there.)
“I would imagine so.”
You know, Ralph, you obviously can afford nursing help or a nice care facility.
“Yeah, I can, but I’d sooner do it myself. I’m here. I’m available. I ain’t going anywhere. I appreciate the opportunity.”
He insists on taking care of Dona himself. He feeds her, spoon by spoon. Meals on Wheels delivers two meals a day, but he cooks her breakfast and weekend meals. His days have a uniformity that would be maddening to the less committed.
“The first thing, like this morning, I got her up around 7:30 and then I take her to the bathroom, get her all changed, clean her up, and then I put the Depends on her, put fresh clothes on her, and then get her over here to the table and try to give her breakfast. At about nine, she’s already nodding off. She sleeps 16 to 18 hours a day.
“Last night, I made hamburger and the coleslaw and sauteed onions with melted cheese on the hamburger, and that was our meal. Then, we had moose-track ice cream for dessert, got big chunks of chocolate in it, and then we had chocolate cookies from Costco, the big chunks of chocolate, delicious stuff, and that was our meal.”
Do you ever wish that, for her benefit, the end would come?
“No, never. It’s not up to me. I’ll tell you: Every morning that I get out of bed, I say, ‘Thank you, God, for letting us have another day together. I really appreciate it.’ I say, ‘Thank you for our food, our home, our money, our clothes, whatever we have. We know we got it from you.’ And every morning, I say, ‘Thank you, God, for another day with my precious darling Dona.’ ”
Ralph asks to have their picture taken in the living room. He gently lifts Dona to her feet and guides her as she shuffles along, inches at a time. Seated, he leans over to kiss her and asks, “Kiss?” He has to ask several times, but finally, she responds awkwardly, drawing out the word: “Sure.”
He asks if she can say “Fred.” Again, slowly, not looking at me, she breathes the word: “Freeed.”
Nothing is more humbling than to be faced with how much we do not understand.
Sometime on Thanksgiving Day, as you count your blessings, think of an elderly man in Cardiff and the woman to whom he is patiently feeding turkey.
He is also counting his.
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org