When we first moved to California, I found our young son had secretly developed an evening routine of, after lights out, watching our elderly neighbours in their living room from his top bunk. Explaining to a five-year-old why we shouldn’t peer into people’s homes was tricky but it also reminded me that it was about time we properly introduced ourselves to the neighbours. The next day, Jean gladly invited us in for tea while Tom sat in his torn recliner, a beer in hand, watching the news. The boys politely inspected the dated TV with a quizzical look, wondering why on earth it was so…big?
Tom and Jean, both 86-years-old, bought the house next door to us when it was first built in 1965. They paid $15,000 for a brand new house in, what was then, a distant suburb of San Jose, California. Fifty years later and their house is smack-dab in the middle of Silicon Valley, feeding into one of California’s most desirable school districts, and regardless of it’s original 1965 features, carrying a hefty price tag of nearly a million dollars.
Over the next few months, I spent snippets of time getting to know Jean better. She would hear us playing outside and come over to chat for a few minutes until we were interrupted by Tom, suffering from severe Alzheimer’s, who would inevitably start wandering down the street looking for her. I noticed Jean looking more and more worn out and I wondered how much longer she could really do this alone. Knowing just how much their mortgage-free home is worth, I finally asked Jean what was holding her back from selling their house and moving into one of the many assisted living complexes nearby. I couldn’t understand why someone would settle for a life of lonely isolation when they have other options available to them. After she admitted to me that she wasn’t very happy and that her sick husband is now just a stranger to her, I couldn’t help but ask the question: what’s holding you back?
It seems so simple! Why not go where someone else can wake up at 4 AM to make bacon for your deranged husband? Where someone else keeps track of his ten pills a day. And where there’s someone else to help if today is the day that the unfortunate Alzheimer’s rage gets the better of him? Why stay lonely and sad when the alternatives are so attractive?
Jean could never give a good answer to these questions — she just didn’t think it was wise to leave.
And who am I, all 30 years of me, to tell this woman that she should sell her house and uproot their lives? That she should admit she can’t take care of her man anymore and that she needs help? So I quickly admitted that I have no idea what it’s like to be in her shoes, stopped trying to convince her and decided to simply be a friend. I listened to her proudly tell stories of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I took her garbage cans out so that she wouldn’t have to.
Sadly, the day came when old age and dementia got the best of Jean. No longer was she mentally able to care for herself and most certainly not her ailing husband. Her children had the unfortunate task of being given power of attorney over the care and wellbeing of their own parents and reluctantly, or in the case of Tom, violently, the couple left their home and moved into a furnished assisted living apartment. It wasn’t long after this that Tom, who was often found wandering in search of their “home”, was deemed a risk to himself and was given a room in the Alzheimer’s unit. With Tom no longer in her care, Jean was able to stop serving everyone else and take care of herself for once. She was energized by the company of other seniors and she joined her new friends in many of the community activities. She was finally living! When I heard the news, I wanted to pat myself on the back and shout a big “giiirrllll! I told you so!”.
And then more news came. Two weeks after Tom had left their shared apartment, Jean suddenly passed away. She had enjoyed just a few weeks of having no one but herself to care for, and then life was over.
My first reaction was to think that Jean had spent all her days caring for Tom, only to be short-changed when it came time for her own happiness. It seemed like she had given all of herself and left nothing for her own benefit. Of course, it would be easy to think that. Easy to see the injustice of it all and believe that she sold herself short. That it was too little, too late.
But perhaps it wasn’t that at all.
Perhaps Jean was right all along and I was just a naive 30-year-old that still has a lot to learn. Perhaps she found purpose in caring for her husband that propelled her heart to keep ticking past its prime. Perhaps her selfless service, to a man who hadn’t met her needs in years, was not martyrdom but simply a case of living out ones marriage vows with grace and love. And knowing that our bodies are designed to survive, perhaps once Jean was no longer needed by anyone else, her soul lacked the motivation to deny death’s call.
Our lives are made up of the relationships around us. And Jean, through her life and death, reminded me that living for yourself isn’t worth surviving for. Although it’s human nature to be selfish, we need to be needed. Society promises us that our life has the greatest chance of success when we love ourselves first but Jean’s life says the opposite. Her story reminds us that to find purpose in living, and to grasp the will to survive, we must first love and serve those around us.