by Florrie Munat
In the fall of 1968, my husband-to-be Chuck and a fellow teacher defied their high school principal’s instruction that faculty members remain inside the school during a student demonstration that had drawn a phalanx of Chicago police dressed in full riot gear to the street outside. As the students and the police marched toward one another, Chuck and Jim rushed outside and planted themselves between the two groups. After pleading with both sides, the men managed to successfully defuse the confrontation. Now that was brave.
Of course that act of bravery happened many years before Chuck and I heard a neurologist utter the words “Lewy body dementia,” and we found ourselves waging a battle from which we would not emerge victorious. Eventually the Lewy bodies would win. Yet Chuck continued to be brave.
The lingering cognitive and physical effects of his stroke, plus a difficult early stage of Lewy body dementia with hallucinations, wanderings, and delusions had led me to the regretful decision to place Chuck in a skilled nursing facility where he spent the last six years of his life. I visited almost every day, and he continued to reach out for life’s simple pleasures – including car rides, afternoons spent at my apartment watching boats and seabirds in the harbor, coffee and lunch dates with friends, and spending family holidays together. After those early stages had passed and he had recovered a great deal of his cognitive awareness, he could have stayed in his room at the nursing home, but he chose not to. He chose to get up and get dressed and, with great physical effort, to leave the facility. He chose to be brave.
But by March of 2009, his life had been diminished by Lewy body dementia to the extent he could barely get out of bed and was losing the ability to feed himself. Once again, he chose to be brave. In the presence of his doctor, the director of nursing, and me, he explained his careful decision: he would stay in bed and eat and drink only as much as he wished. We all heard the clarity and conviction in his voice, and we endorsed his plan. The doctor and I wanted to involve hospice. Chuck agreed.
After an aide had gotten him settled back in bed that day, I told Chuck I was going home to call hospice. He looked at me and said, “Be brave.”
Those two words meant the world to me. They meant he understood that his decision would profoundly affect not only himself, but me as well. I made those two words my mantra.
A little less than three months later, Chuck died peacefully and painlessly, just as he had hoped and planned.
A good teacher
During Chuck’s six years in the nursing home, I had traveled, but not far and never for more than a few days. In the last two years of his nursing home life, I had not left home at all. He and I had always loved traveling together. We had six beautiful trips to New Zealand to visit our former foreign exchange student and his extended family; we participated in many Elderhostels in the United States and abroad; we loved our summers spent on an island off the coast of Maine when we lived in New England; and once we’d retired in Washington state, nothing suited us better than getting in the car and heading off to explore the American West. Four months after his death, I decided it was time for me to begin traveling again.
I planned a simple trip to Chicago – where he and I had grown up and met – to stay at the homes of two college friends. After the confusion and tension of passing through Seattle airport security with masses of travelers, at 7:30 a.m. I found myself walking to the end of a nearly empty concourse where my departure gate was located. I purchased a cup of tea and the newspaper, and sat down at a table in the middle of the concourse.
I began to think of the trips Chuck and I had taken together and how enjoyable they had been. I thought of the trip that laid ahead – the first I’d taken since he died – and was struck by the realization that never again would we travel together. Feelings of sorrow and loss were beginning to overwhelm me when I noticed a young woman walking toward me. She was wearing a backpack, jeans, and a green t-shirt with white lettering. As she came closer I read the words on her T-shirt: “Be Brave.”
He had found me. Way out there at the end of Concourse A, he found me. And I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to be feeling so sad. Good teachers are like that. They never stop teaching, and they make sure we learn the lessons we need to learn. So I began my trip and the next chapter in my life, determined to be brave.