“Til Death Do Us Part”

Uncategorized July 3, 2014

A subtitle to this blog should be “perceptions”.  I have now been at the Palm Springs Air Museum over six months, two more than planned.  But events and circumstances being what they are, I remain stranded.  What I could perceive as a failure for moving on, is mitigated  by outside circumstances and new opportunities.

One opportunity has been to get to know some of the docents better.  With the summer season upon us and visitor traffic down, there’s time to talk more at length.  This morning, a distinguished USAF retired Colonel who works  a couple days a week in the B-17 hangar, was seated alone, the three other docents in the area, seated in the nearby cafe.

I always took Dean as someone a bit aloof, not so much in attitude but my perception. That word “perception” throws people for a number of reasons but over the years, I’ve learned that what we sometimes see (read: mostly) about someone else is usually false.  Our own insecurities can trip us up.

A few weeks ago, the woman docent, in whose house  I’ve been boarding, bought and read Dean’s self-published book about his experiences in wartime Korea and Vietnam.   Several days she read tidbits from Dean’s book.  One morning  I used that as an opportunity to initiate a conversation with him about publishing.   The barrier dissolved.

Today, seeing Dean sitting by himself, I approached him and asked how he was.  It was not a platitude.  I meant it.  “How are you?” I asked looking him squarely in his eyes.   Little did I know where his response would take us.

“I’m so tired.  I was ready to leave here and go home about fifteen minutes ago,” he said.  I asked why.  What I heard caught me off-guard.  Dean described a wife who among other physical ailments, suffers from dementia.  I was surprised and asked him how old he was.  Shocked at the number “83”, I told him his youthfulness belied that.  I couldn’t imagine his wife being anything but  similarly buoyant.  It was hard to imagine such a vital man, shackled by a life at home that’s eating away at him.  “How do you cope?” I brazenly asked.  “It must be hard.”  This former Air Force Colonel who dealt with blood and guts multiple times in service, was sinking into his office-style chair, defeated.   Dean went on to describe the pain and frustration of coping with someone he’s lived with for over fifty years, turning into a stranger.  “I get so angry and frustrated when our conversations go round and round.  I say something and she asks about it five minutes later.  I know I shouldn’t get mad, but some times I can’t help it,” he said.  The vision most young married couples have at the alter of gracefully aging together, in reality, is more like the battle-scarred plains of war long left behind.

Aging was a theme I was recently hearing from other docents.  Talk of home life comes up in the most unusual ways.  Bob, another octogenarian, told me how he used to do volunteer work a few evenings a week.  “I had to stop that recently,” he began. “I can’t leave my wife alone anymore. She’s bed-ridden and the nightly desert winds scare her.”   Asking how long this has been going on, he replied “Eight years.”  No complaints.  It was just the way it was.  Again, here was a man, youthful in attitude and life perspective, now coping with a spouse who was demanding more and more of his time and mental energy.

Someone once said “Aging is not for the faint of heart”.  I am witnessing this all around me.  I realized that for some of these people volunteering their time at the air museum, is time away from the reality at home and a reminder of a time when their vitality was as strong as the warbirds some of them flew.  War for many of the older generation was about good vs evil, saving freedom and protecting the innocent.  It was dirty and messy but their youth kept them hopeful.  Now they face a war of a different kind and for many, it’s scarier than anything they’ve faced before.

A wife and docent whose husband also volunteers time at the museum, told me matter-of-factly that she was diagnosed with Alzheimers.  What upset her most were the number of doors of former friends, shutting her out.  Their  ignorant fear of somehow contracting it abruptly ended years of friendship.

“Til death do us part”, that abstract concept when young people marry, has now, in some of these lives, returned to collect on that vow.  Dean, wearily admitted that hospice may be a next step, sooner than planned her doctor had told him. “That to me is even scarier than this,” he said sadly.  “I don’t know how I will handle that.”  Death will, at some point, come to collect all of us.  What is it like to be at that stage?    A man I once felt resistance from, shared a bit of his heart and soul with me today.  “How are you?” is a question that will always carry weight.

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For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

Comments 4

  1. Cynthia says on July 3, 2014

    Having worked with spouses facing the disappearance of their loved one into dementia and having lost my own father to Alzheimers disease, I applaud you for writing on this subject with such tenderness and insight.

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on July 3, 2014

      Thank you Cynthia. One can only begin to imagine what it was like seeing a loved one “disappear” from your world. Now you know why I’m sticking with this project in spite of the lack of money. This tour is as much about the human spirit as it is about the art created.

  2. Joe and Betty Graffis says on July 3, 2014

    Chris when you say how are you, you are looking him in the eye, and you are taking time to listen to how he REALLY is. Not many people do that these days. It’s just something said in passing. Just one more thing about you that made us want to call you our friend!

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on July 3, 2014

      Those are very kind words Betty. Thank you. Learning to listen to people is something more of us need to do. I may be some crazy artist (who now only wears his kilt) some of the docents (men in particular) might label in some wacky way. But I give them time to open up and I pride myself in letting them feel safe. They need to know I do care.

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