Stella and I have a different life than the one we shared until 12 years ago. She was so involved in life, was a great mother to our three kids; did everything by herself. She was well-dressed, had manicured nails and wore her signature Oscar de La Renta perfume. The house was always clean; you could eat from the floors.
She was 60 when she started to do things like leaving the gas cap off after filling the car’s tank, parking the car in neutral and finding it had rolled into in the neighbor’s yard or coming home with new dents in the car’s body. Then things progressed until one day she got lost on her way to our Fresno home and ended up in front of a farmer’s house in Easton several hours later.
That last one is the thing that made me face the truth I had pushed aside. Stella had Alzheimer’s disease; it was progressing and life was never going to be the same.
That night was a turning point that is so vivid in my memory. I had called the police to help me search for her, and the farmers had called them about a suspicious car on their property. Police let me know they had found Stella. I told them to tell her that everything was OK and that I loved her. She was busy blaming them for her situation.
Still, two more years passed as we protected her and tried to cushion her life from responsibilities and stress. Stella’s world got even smaller. Communication became more difficult for her, and her frustration increased. She lapsed into speaking half-English and half-Greek. In her agitation, she broke plates when she could not be understood or needed attention.
Finally, she and I went to San Francisco for tests that might give us a diagnosis and a better path for going forward.
Stella hated the pressure of the tests, and told the doctors she could not take them because she forgot her glasses. Stella had never worn prescription glasses. At the end of a long day and the news I dreaded, we rode BART back toward our hotel. She left her shoes on the train and walked barefoot alongside me.
In the years that followed, we have made many changes to adapt to her illness. Our home has been structurally modified for Stella’s physical comfort and ease of wheelchair mobility, and we are dependent upon a routine that keeps her in the best health and physical safety.
After several years of caring for her myself, with loving help from our girls, Sophie and Nina, Stella now has a caregiver six days a week. The structure of our day makes our lives manageable.
Monday through Friday I am up at 5 a.m. and take a long walk, raining or sunshine, while Stella sleeps in.
At 7 a.m. I wake her, give her a shower, brush her teeth, dress her, and fix her hair and makeup as best I can – and, over the years I’ve gotten pretty good.
When the caregiver arrives, she prepares a soft breakfast for Stella. Choking is always a threat. I get ready, then leave for work. I am home by 6:30, and have Stella in bed by 8:30. Each morning and evening, I recite the Lord’s prayer to her. I know she feels his mercy in that prayer.
Sundays with Stella is our alone time. I make her favorite egg-white omelet for breakfast, and the kids might stop by for a visit. They hug her tightly, and sometimes her muscle-memory gives a little squeeze back. Maybe her spirit is truly there for just a minute.
Stella stopped talking completely four years ago. On the rare occasion, her usually-blank expression will give way to a brief smile in my direction. Sometimes her eyes brighten up when she looks at our son, Jason, and she will gesture with her hands in a Greek way that asks, “Where have you been?”
When I am desperate to hear her voice – any sound from her – I turn the cold water on her feet and she yells out. Terrible, I know.
I miss the travel we used to enjoy together. Our one luxury was staying in the nicest hotels. Now, the only luxury she enjoys is the finest robes I can buy for her comfort.
I still travel sometimes for work, but it doesn’t really matter where I stay. It’s that old song, “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed,” I tell my daughter on the phone. She laughs; I try to, too.
At 72, Stella is a beautiful woman, still. No wrinkles. She weighs today what she did on our wedding day, 50 years ago next July 1. I married her for her beauty, and I admit to that selfish quality.
But it is much more than her beauty that keeps me at her side now, when so many tell me it is time for “the professionals”’ to take over her care.
I got over crying long ago; now this is my life. I believe marriage is a contract, and our contract is still in effect. It is for life.
God wants me to do this for my family. I want to be an example to the grandkids, so they know that Grandpa did this for Grandma. That’s what I can leave them.
My comfort comes from Matthew 28:20: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” God will give me the strength I need to fulfill my contract. It is for my love, for my Stella.
Paul Dictos is Fresno County assessor-recorder.