This is an excerpt from "Where Does the Wind Go?" a novel comprised of cathartic journal entries capturing Audrey Shafer's experiences as her husband battled Alzheimer's disease.
Donald was born the second son of John and Rose on Sept. 13, 1932, in Escanaba, Mich., located in the upper peninsula near the shores of Lake Michigan. At age 12, Donald acquired a driver's license, so he could better care for his mother. He took a great deal of pride in driving her to the doctor and to do her shopping. She died a week after his 17th birthday in a mental institution from problems she developed during menopause.
Perhaps due in part to his mother's illness, Donald and his father, a self-employed owner of an appliance store, developed a close and loving relationship that Donald never forgot, not even as AD erased his other memories. Early on, Donald came to see his father as a super hero who would accompany him to school to ward off bullies. Donald said that one look at his father's well-developed chest and muscles, and the antagonists would melt away.
Living in the upper peninsula, Donald and his father spent most of their time outdoors, especially fishing. He told me stories of watching his father wrestle with him and ultimately land a huge sailfish and about the time his father accidentally hooked Donald in the eye and ended up carrying him to the hospital.
When his father died in 1981 of a heart attack at the age of 77, it left a void in Donald's life that was never completely filled again. To keep that connection with his father even after death, he would often wear the belt buckle that his father made for him and always hand a picture of his father near his bed so that he could see it when he went to bed and when he awoke in the morning. Once, after Donald had already been diagnosed with AD, I forgot to hang his dad's picture in the bedroom. One day Donald came to me with tears in his eyes and said, "My dad, I don't see him."
After graduating from high school, Donald served in the Army and the merchant marines and eventually came to work aboard freighters that traversed the Great Lakes. It was during this time that he met his first wife, Mary Ann, when his ship docked in Sandusky, Ohio, and the two caught each other's fancy at Cedar Point amusement park.
A short time later, they were married and had four children — two girls and two boys. In 1987, Mary Ann experienced failing kidneys, and Donald drove her back and forth to the Cleveland Clinic three times a week for two years for the necessary dialysis treatments. Despite his constant care, Mary Ann died in 1991, and for the first time in 38 years Donald was alone. The loss devastated him, and he lost his motivation and his ability to concentrate. He told me he would often cry when he talked about activities they participated in. I remember once how he showed me a picture of Mary Ann and him, and he said, "This was my life. Everything is gone."
Our relationship began on Oct. 10, 1993, at the swimming pool at the Greentree Inn in Sandusky. We were immediately attracted to each other. We spent hours at that pool in the following days and weeks. Besides having lost our spouses after long and loving marriages, we discovered we were Duke Carnegie graduates, so we had something in common to talk about. I remember him telling me that after completing the course he realized he needed to spend more time listening to other people. As a result, over time, he acquired a special gift for listening.
Donald was 61 at the time; I was 63. He was six-feet tall; I was barely five feet. He appeared so quiet while I was so vivacious, wearing my life happily on my sleeve for all to see. But after we began to meet regularly at the pool or at Red Lobster over lunch, I was the quiet one who listened intently to the stories he would tell about his life, his family and his friends. I'm so glad I did because even then, although unknown to me and him, AD was taking hold.
From the beginning, Donald taught me patience. He encouraged me to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life. Everywhere we looked, he would point out beauty to me, and gave me even more for which to be grateful.
I remember the first time he invited me to his home to watch a video recording of "King of Hearts," a movie about a town that is about to be invaded by a foreign army. Before the townspeople flee, they open the gates to the local insane asylum, and when the army occupies the town, it was to deal with all the "crazies." I really didn't understand the movie at first, but I remember I laughed. Maybe I was laughing at Donald laughing at the movie, I don't know. I did so love his laugh and his sense of humor.
On my 64th birthday, Donald proposed to be in the hot tub at the pool where we had first met. He told me that it was like being in heaven when he met me. We both missed being married, and it gave us a purpose to get up every day. For my part, I looked forward to seeing him every day. He put faith back in my life. Our lives were no longer lonely. We were a bright, shining spot in each other's lives.
On Nov. 26, 1994, 14 months after we had first met at the swimming pool, Donald and I had a storybook wedding before 350 guests. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he took my hand, and we ran down the aisle together to the song "Pretty Woman." Donald said he wanted people to know we were young enough yet to enjoy being married. Later, on our way to the reception, the limousine we were riding in made a couple of special stops — one at the swimming pool where we'd met and another at the Red Lobster where we had shared so many Dutch-treat~~ lunches. At each place, I was presented a rose and a note from Donald. It was so beautiful. It was so perfect.
When the day was done, I remember asking Donald if he had a good day. "I haven't had a bad one yet," he told me, his eyes sparkling and the laugh wrinkles on his face lifting his glasses off his nose.
But the bad ones would come. They most surely would come.