Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Somewhere I have read, or heard, that nothing is more important to personal happiness than one's choice of spouse. This seems so obvious on the face of it that one may wonder, "So, what else is new?" But have you really thought about the importance of fostering an environment of devotion?
"Devotion" has its Latin roots in the word "devotus"-to "vow." This means to promise, yes, but more particularly, to "center" your attention or activities on something or someone. To make something precious to you, to favor it with all your energy, to sacrifice your own comfort or preferences to satisfy someone else's needs-that is true devotion. With the exception of instinctive mother-love for helpless infants, humans don't have an innate talent for devotion. It is a character trait to be learned-reinforced by lessons on loyalty and good faith. My story today is about my friends, Helen and Robert Poor, and the lesson they taught me about "devotion."
Helen and Robert were my neighbors-and truly for years I knew them only slightly. We didn't interact often. I was busy with family and career-they were retired, and on their own time. But, as they lived only half of a mile away, we often passed on the road or met at community gatherings. As time passed, they became very special friends.
They lived on Roberts Island for twenty-five years, in a small rented house. He worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory-she raised herbs and flowers to sell. After retiring, Robert joined Helen in her efforts, and their little homegrown business began to take off. Annually, they held wonderful sale events-plants, seeds, flowers (dried and fresh). All was so professionally done-and if you bought Helen's seeds you could be assured of successful crops. Our common love of gardening brought us closer together, and I began to enjoy visits into their home.
Helen was always so cheerful-a bright elf-like lady, with silky white hair tied back under a baseball cap. She was funny, earthy in a ladylike way, and Robert was her right-hand man. He patiently did all the heavy lifting-digging, laying drip line. He was her perfect foil-short, a little burly, rather droll-careful to defer to her in conversation.
Their home was modest-tiny by most accounts-and rather unkempt. I remember stacks of papers and books-plant lore and U. C. Davis studies. The kitchen ceiling was rigged with hanging boards for drying flowers and herbs. They spent the best days of their lives enveloped in the scent of rosemary, sage, basil and thyme.
Although "outsiders" to Roberts Island, over the years, Robert and Helen had established a special place in the hearts of our little community. Robert enjoyed playing Santa Claus at our Farm Center holiday parties (he had a great natural grey beard!). Helen shared her plant lore with everyone-including our daughter. They had not been blessed with children, and Robert and our Rachel became buddies.
About ten years ago, I began to notice subtle changes in my friends. There was the Christmas when they declined our invitation to Open House, strange, because they had always enjoyed it so much! Then at what was to be their last plant sale, held one bright September day in 1998, I remember Helen speaking sharply to Robert-in a tone of voice so unusual for her. I recall how he blanched and turned quietly from her anger.
A few months later I learned what was going on. Alzheimer's Disease was taking Helen away. Robert had hidden it from all of us as long as possible.
If you have never lived through this disease, it is hard to explain how tragic and devastating it is. The afflicted person literally goes backward, mentally and physically, slipping finally into a vegetative state-forgetting even how to breathe. As it progresses, the person suffering with it loses all resemblance to the person you have known. It is hard to manage, can be filthy, and its horror falls most upon the loved ones who must watch helplessly, knowing the inevitable outcome.
Robert acknowledged our offers of assistance-but took care of Helen himself. He didn't invite company, and we respected his privacy. Only once did he ask me to help him. He called, needing to go to town for a medical appointment. Would I be so kind as to sit an hour or two with Helen? Of course, but I feared for what I might find. I should have known better than to doubt Robert.
Helen's bed had been moved into their living room, situated so that she could see out the big picture window. Priscilla curtains gently moved as a fresh breeze brought the sunlight in. It was all so clean and light! No sign of sickness or despair anywhere! Flowers on the table, soft music on the radio. . . . I turned to Robert, and he smiled. "I've been doing the best I can," he said softly.
Helen was beautiful. He kept her that way. Her long white hair shimmered on the snowy pillow. She was immaculately clean, absolutely comfortable, and so very peaceful.
I took her cool hand, and Robert said, "Thank you so much-I'll be back as soon as I can." He left, and for those two hours we waited, Helen and I. She never moved, just stared out the window.
I reflected on their life together-over fifty years of all the commotion, cares and turmoil of ordinary experience. How much they loved each other. How faithful Robert had been.
How DEVOTED he was.
Just a few months later, we learned that Robert had finally called on the local Hospice group to come help him at home. His beloved Helen didn't spend one day in a hospital. At her death, Robert respected her wishes, and there was no service. I went by to express my condolences, and he welcomed me into that bright room once again. He was weary, but not bowed. He told me his beloved Helen was in his arms at her last moment.
My experiences before, and after, Helen's illness have taught me not everyone can do what Robert did. Furthermore, no one should be faulted for admitting the need for strangers or professionals to take the place of family under such trying circumstances. Emotionally and physically most of us are not equipped to provide such care.
But we can all learn the meaning of the word "devotion" by knowing this story. We can realize that the tragedies of life can be transcended by human love and loyalty. And we can try, as Robert said, to "do the best we can."