David E. Steiner
Retired USAF, Teacher, Dad, Grandfather, Curmudgeon
Wife and Mother
"She married me in 1961, she said, because I made her laugh. I tried to make good on that for the next 52 years."
Reprinted from The Allenspark Wind, 2013.
My wife Mary died peacefully in her sleep on the morning of June 25th, 2013 at about 3:30 AM. She had been in home hospice care for nine days, twelve years and fifteen days after a stroke and 53 wonderful years together.
She was born December 27th, 1934 in Owensboro, Kentucky to Gonzaga Aloysius and Bertha Coomes. She never had a birthday present until we married. G. A. or Doc Coomes, as he was known, was a farmer and whiskey taster and tester of both legal and illegal alcohol. He worked for the Glenmore Distillery whose best known product was, and is, Kentucky Tavern bourbon. She was the 4th of five children, the last two of whom were girls who became registered nurses. She attended nursing school in Hamilton, Ohio and was first in her class.
After briefly working in Chicago, she joined the Air Force in 1959 as a 1st Lieutenant because an officer nurse was much better paid than a civilian R.N. She was assigned to Harlingen Air Force Base in Texas, a navigator training base with 2,500 young men, most of whom were single, and less than a dozen nurses. I met her because I was an instructor, also active in local community theatre, and the hospital commander wanted to put on a show. He thought, correctly, that the way to get me to do it was to get his cutest nurse to ask me. At the Officers Club one evening someone told me Lt. Coomes, at the bar, wanted to talk to me. When she turned and looked at me I knew I would be spending the rest of my life with her. I remember that moment very well. She was sitting at the left hand end of the crowded bar…
She married me in 1961, she said, because I made her laugh. I tried to make good on that for the next 52 years.
We moved ten times with the Air Force, graduate school and retirement, to Texas twice, Michigan, Oregon, California three times, Guam and twice in Colorado. She did most of the work in raising two boys as my flying kept me from home. She worked as an orthopedic ward charge nurse to pay for my Masters degree in Michigan and continued to work as a labor and delivery nurse in Oregon as I finished a Ph.D. She was a Red Cross nurse on Guam teaching prenatal care and continued to work in labor and delivery in California and Colorado, a total of 36 years of full time nursing.
When she retired she served on the Allenspark Senior Advisory Committee and was appointed by the governor to serve two terms on the Colorado State Commission on Aging. She served on and chaired the Boulder County Aging Advisory Council and was the first president of the Aging Services Foundation serving Boulder County. She was the smartest woman I ever knew.
When Mary had a stroke she was 66. I was not completely surprised. She was being treated for high blood pressure and she had breathing problems from years of smoking. But I was not, and I don’t think anyone can be, prepared for the job that was ahead of me in caring for her.
Although her right leg no longer worked, her right arm lost its ability to write and her speech was often halting as she searched for words, there was never any question about my ability to care for her, or my resolve. I took “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health” as seriously as any vow I ever made.
The first year after an event like this is full of hope. We weren’t quick enough getting Mary to the medications that might have improved her recovery, even using a helicopter. I was unaware of how crucial time element was. I learned too late. For six months she was diligent in working with therapists, and like everyone in this situation we hoped for a recovery that would include the ability to walk. But as time passed it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen. As the months and years went by I learned my new job as a 24/7 caregiver.
I was fortunate in many ways: I was retired and had a good income. I had shared in household chores. I knew how to cook and clean, to make beds, grocery shop, do laundry and I enjoyed ironing, as Mary did not. While I did not write the checks to pay bills I was aware of our finances and investment and insurance situation. In those days we still wrote checks.
I had my own health problems and while not severe, they were chronic and I became acutely aware of the importance of my remaining healthy. A bad cold made caregiving much more difficult. I learned to take much more interest in staying as healthy as possible. I knew that if I became ill Mary would have to be in a nursing home. She had been a registered nurse, briefly in the Air Force and then in labor and delivery for many years and had retired just two years before the stroke. When she retired she served on the Allenspark Senior Advisory Committee and was appointed by the governor to serve two terms on the Colorado State Commission on Aging. She served on and chaired the Boulder County Aging Advisory Council and was the first president of the Aging Services Foundation serving Boulder County. She knew she didn’t want to be in a nursing home. My primary goal became insuring that she would have the best quality of life possible, at home.
Every caregiving situation is unique. I cannot think of a single piece of advice that would cover every situation. I found that I had very little time for myself and that the time I did have was precious. I tried not to waste it. I found ways to increase the time by using as many labor-saving devices I could afford; better cleaning tools, more wastebaskets, organized work spaces, drawers, cupboards and closets. I kept the most used things close at hand, as I found I did the walking for two people. I learned to use the computer much more and as the technology improved I used email and especially Skype much more as we kept in touch with family and friends we could no longer visit in person. Holding a book was a problem and e-readers seemed to solve that problem, but eventually keeping track of characters and plots in books became too difficult. For someone who had read a mystery book almost every week for 40 years that was a difficult moment.
When it became clear that she wasn’t going to be able to walk, the VA provided a powered chair, first a generic model and then a chair fitted to her. We moved to a handicap accessible condominium near open space and cement paths where she could go in her chair and enjoy a little independence. She took along a walkie-talkie in case she needed help. I learned to look for things that would allow her time without my hovering. Pockets on the side of her chair for tissues, a folding cup holder, a wrap for her shoulders she could remove. I found some things simply by imagining what I would want if I had to be in a wheelchair.
It was all too easy to become routine bound. I had a van with a wheelchair lift and we were able to go to many places, always making sure of their accessibility. Taking advantage of the mobility available was a challenge, but important.
Her inability to walk had bad side effects, as her health began to fail she became more dependent on oxygen, which limited her mobility even further. In the 12 years I cared for her she never complained and until the end enjoyed every moment watching her children grow and prosper. She was determined to die at home, in her own bed, and after only a few days of home hospice care, she died peacefully. It was my privilege to care for her in those 12 years and I am so grateful for the time we had and the help I had from all of the health care professionals over those years, her physician, her therapists, her CNAs and social workers. I learned from her and them, how very precious life is.
The stroke in 2001 put her in a wheelchair but she never complained. She retained her sense of humor and regarded any problem as a challenge to her intellect and determination. It was my privilege to care for her until she died because I knew she would have done the same for me.
She was admired and respected by everyone who knew her and loved by those who knew her well. She held strong opinions and was a shrewd judge of character. The character of her children is a testament to her example. She leaves behind two loving sons and daughters-in-law, five grandchildren and a husband who will love her and miss her every day for the rest of his life.