For Mary, simply staying awake for more than a few hours at a time is an accomplishment. But Mary’s sleep comes in small chunks, one of which typically ends at about 2 a.m. That’s when she nudges her husband, Don, who dutifully rises from bed, coaxing his own 90-year-old body to life.
Mary and Don then switch on a small, battery-operated light shaped like a candle and sit together on the couch in a corner of their small apartment in an assisted living facility. Don takes Mary’s hands in his own and, in the flickering light of the faux flame, the couple relive the trips they’ve taken together over a lifetime.
They recount their awe at the majesty of the Alps. They recall the Costa Rican rainforest, so lush and full of life that the moisture-thick breeze could have been the jungle’s own breath. They smile at the memory of trips to Maine with their children, their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children.
It is a ritual that wears on Don, who still prefers to do the bulk of his sleeping at night. But he treats the nightly sessions as his duty, just as surely as he did when he carried coded instructions to fellow American troops as they fought their way through Europe in World War II, or when he single-handedly captured nearly two-dozen German soldiers, a feat that earned him the Bronze Star, or when he and his buddies relieved Satan of his command by liberating the Dachau concentration camp.
These moments are the tender fruit cultivated through 70 years of marriage, a milestone the couple celebrated May 14 with friends and family who traveled to Fairborn, Ohio, from as far away as California, Maryland, Arizona and, in my case, Huntersville, N.C.
Mary and Don are my grandparents.
They also are my heroes.
Grandma’s mind has grown as tired as her body, sometimes leaving her in a fog that only she can see. But in those middle-of-the-night moments with Grandpa, she’s as alert as that 20-year-old bride who said “I do” to a lifetime with Donald Ritzenthaler.
Grandma and Grandpa couldn’t have imagined in 1941 that 70 years later, death would not have parted them. And make no mistake, it will take death to keep them apart. Grandma and Grandpa lean on one another just as assuredly as they do the aluminum walkers that steady them as they shuffle across the floor.
But my grandparents do more than support each other. They define the singularity of the word “couple.” Seeing one without the other is like looking at life in black and white, like hearing a symphony without strings, like eating chocolate that tastes like wax.
That inseparability transcends the vows my grandparents shared 70 years ago. They’re not still together because they’re supposed to be, but rather because they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The evidence is in the shared glances that silently convey what thousands of words never could. It’s in the laughs they share when Grandpa brandishes his still razor-sharp wit.
And it’s in the tenderness of an exhausted man holding his wife’s hand in the middle of the night, simply so she’s not alone.