Sunday, June 4, 2017

Part Two - The View From Inside

Love in translation

It was 1962 and, for 17-year-old David Hilfiker, it was not love at first sight.

Marja, the Finnish foreign exchange student, intrigued him on an intellectual level, not an emotional one. An unquenchable feeling of curiosity compelled him to ask Marja out, just to learn more about her. From the beginning, he made sure to let the young woman know that he was not motivated by amorous feelings of any kind.

“He was just interested in me because I was the foreign exchange student, and he told that to me very plainly when he first introduced himself,” Marja says.

Her reaction the first time she saw David—a handsome man standing at the front of the classroom, talking animatedly with the instructor, a briefcase under one arm—could not have been more different. “I remember thinking, ‘He looks so sweet. I wonder what it would be like to be married to that man. Maybe we would live in the suburbs and have two children.’”

By the end of the year, David’s curiosity had given way to a deeper sense of connection, and the two officially became a couple just two weeks before Marja had to return to Finland. Seven years and countless letters later, she would obtain the answer to her love-at-first-sight-fueled hypothetical.

The two celebrated their union on June 12, 1969. They married in Minnesota, but planned the ceremony to coincide with the summer solstice, Finland’s biggest holiday.

Over the course of four decades, the couple rode the highs and lows of life together. They crafted a family of three children and multiple grandchildren, they spearheaded community outreach initiatives making use of David’s skills as a physician and Marja’s talent for teaching, and they learned how to cope with his depression, and her doubts about her abilities as a mother.

Reflecting on his relationship, David says, “I think about the 43 years we’ve spent together, making love, taking walks, doing chores, raising children—all of those things that normal people think about their wives.”

But “normal” was left by the side of the road the day that David visited Jens at Buckingham.

David is still in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, so those who aren’t around him on a daily basis don’t see the cognitive slips that creep into his day-to-day life. But friends and family notice the differences; the little ways that Alzheimer’s is re-defining what normal really means for David and his wife.

There are many times when David looks upon his wife with sadness, knowing the uncharted challenges that lie ahead—challenges that she will likely have to face alone, as he will be “out of it.” He knows she will be an amazing caregiver, but fears the heavy burden his disease will inevitably place on her shoulders.

“It’s very painful, to look at this woman that you love and to know what’s coming for her.”

Small town sweethearts

After just a few dates, Rick confesses to being completely “smitten” with his future wife.

Rick and Phyllis June had known each other for four years, but it would take a chance meeting at a local watering hole to kindle a deeper relationship between them.

Rick’s parents owned the popular tavern where Phyllis June’s mother worked. One day, when Phyllis June came in to visit her mother on the job, she and Rick struck up a conversation. Both were fresh off a recent divorce and found they had a good deal in common.

Despite his other cognitive losses, the image of his future wife on their first date remains firmly fixed in Rick’s mind. “I will never forget. She had on a red crushed velvet blazer, navy blue slacks and a white blouse. Her hair below her waist. Her green eyes. Her smile. Her smell.”

The two continued to see each other for five years before getting married. At the ceremony, their flower girl was Phyllis June’s daughter, Tia, from her previous marriage, while their ring bearer was the son of one of Rick’s closest friends.

Eleven years later, in a quaint act of kismet, Tia and the ring bearer would themselves get married.

Community has always been immensely important to Rick and Phyllis June. They’ve lived in the same area for their entire lives, serving as EMTs and volunteers at a local health clinic for individuals without insurance.

Their passion for helping their neighbors mirrors the passion they have for each other.

“We have been married for 30 years and we love each other as much today as we did the day we first met,” says Rick. “We are not only husband and wife, we are best friends.”

The couple’s loving bond has served them well as Phyllis June has had to take on more of a caregiving role for Rick. She knows her husband so well that, when he forgets the words he’s looking for, she can often anticipate his needs and finish his sentences for him.

It’s a rare relationship that has been (and will continue to be) tested as Rick’s Alzheimer’s progresses.

He is somewhere in the moderate phase of the disease. With the help of his specially-trained therapy dog named Sam, Rick can still manage on his own while Phyllis June goes to work—sometimes running squad for extra hours, to make sure they have enough money to cover Rick’s medical bills.

“Sam’s done more for me than any medication could ever do,” Rick says of the steadfast German Shepherd who officially became a Phelps in 2012. “He’s not going to cure my disease, but he has certainly changed how I live my day-to-day life.”

The two formed a special bond the moment they first laid eyes on each other.

Alzheimer’s service dogs are selected to match the temperament and specific needs of their cognitively impaired handlers. Bob Taylor, Sam’s primary trainer and the founder of Dog Wish, a nonprofit that provides service dogs to people with psychiatric conditions, admits the animal was an “unusual candidate.” Unquestionably intelligent and very loving, Sam lacked the ideal level of maturity for a service dog.

In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), Rick and Sam share a unique connection, the depth of which surprises even Taylor himself. “I have found very few dogs that I have been that excited about. Sam is perfect for Rick and that’s all that counts.”

The clever canine offers Rick both emotional and functional support, taking some of the day-to-day caregiving weight off of Phyllis June, whose no-nonsense demeanor has served her well as her husband’s increasing impairment seeps into their daily lives. When asked how she copes with Rick’s advancing illness, she offers a simple reply: “I live it one day at a time.”  (Click to Continue)

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Part Two - The View From Inside

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