I received a wonderful gift this week, the following letter:
For nearly 20 years, I have kept a copy of your Valentines Day story about Jim and Wynne Way, mostly because I have collected good writing for many years. But I am about to teach a college class in feature writing and I want to tell you that I plan to start the first class next week by reading the beginning of this story. As a long time journalist, I know how hard it is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Reporters often get assignments to find a way to mark what they view as a boring holiday or anniversary and in the process fail to see the beauty of the human spirit. You found that in the Ways and shared it with us.
I loved the story so I included it in my new book, Great Americans. Here it is:
25 TRUE LOVE IS MADE OF THIS
Still crazy about her
And ever near, one man’s daily visit
Feb 13, 1998
Fifty-five years ago, Jim Way went to the library to borrow a book on telescopes.
“I borrowed the librarian instead,”' he says.
It was London. The war was on. Things happened fast. A few weeks later, she wrote him a note and signed it: ``Yours as long as you wish, Wynne.''
``It was the wish that endured,'' he says.
Tomorrow, as he has done nearly every day for nine years now, Jim Way will drive the five miles to a nursing home to spoon-feed lunch - pureed chicken, spinach and apple sauce - to his beloved librarian, his valentine of 53 years, a woman who hasn't recognized him, and barely uttered a word, in six years.
His wife is one of two million Americans with Alzheimer's disease.
Jim, 81, cared for Wynne, 79, for eight years in their Drexel Hill home before moving her to Saunders House, a long-term care facility next to Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood.
He only relented when he could no longer lift her out of bed himself, when she'd wander outside in her pajamas the moment he went to the bathroom.
``It was impossible,'' he said. ``I had to wash her. I even had to wipe her bottom. I'd put her to bed. Before I was out of the room, she was out of bed, falling over. ''
He arrives every morning at 11:30. Coming to see his wife is anything but a burden. As he walked in on Wednesday, carrying old, beautiful pictures of Wynne, he explained:
``I enjoy coming. I look forward to seeing her. '' He spread the photographs out on a table in the lobby. ``I'm still crazy about her even though she . . . ''
His voice trailed off.
For the first four years, Jim never took a day off. He'd come seven days a week, feeding her lunch and dinner. ``We had a really tough time getting him to do anything but this,'' said his son, Geoffrey, who visits with his father here on Monday nights.
Now Jim will take two weeks off a year, one to return to London, one to visit a warm beach in winter for a few days with his sister and cousin. He also faithfully rides his exercise bike, walks the malls in winter and reads voraciously. And every Thursday now, he spends the day at the Philadelphia Art Museum attending lectures (yesterday's was on Van Eyck) and then lunching with his old colleagues from Wanamakers, where he rose from floor sweeper to merchandise manager, traveling the world buying merchandise, and always taking along his wife.
On Wednesdays, Wynne gets her hair done in the beauty salon at Saunders House. At noon, Jim greeted his bride. His voice was sweet, soft.
``Hello, Dear . . . Wynnie . . . Wynnie . . . ''
He pulled her chair into the elevator.
``Come on, Sweetie,'' he said. He gently touched her cheeks, then lifted her jaw, trying to get her attention, to let her know he was here.
This woman whose children insist she could once spell anything and who was so robust she could out-wrestle her oldest son - now a black belt in karate - until he was 15, a woman who always had perfect hair and perfect nails, sat in a geriatric recliner, beneath an afghan blanket, pink slippers on her feet, her blue eyes still soft and clear. Her mouth hung open. Her face was red with a rash, a reaction to a medicine. She looked at her husband, but her expression was as blank as the elevator wall. She was silent.
The doors opened on the second floor and down the long hall he pushed her, greeting all the nurses and staff, of whom he is so fond.
``Every lunch, every dinner, you can kind of set your watch by him,'' said Pam Kamariotis, the registered nurse on the floor. ``He's so dedicated. He will sneak kisses. What he does is incredibly uncommon. Just a really nice thing to see. ''
Jim pushed the recliner past his wife's room, which he fills with stuffed animals and flowers and photographs of their three children and seven grandchildren, just in case, somewhere inside her diseased brain, she recollects these things that were once so dear and familiar.
He pushed on to the solarium at the end of the hall to feed her lunch.
``This thing gets heavier and heavier,'' he says.
Jim is a small man, 138 pounds, who suffers from osteoporosis and only this winter - after a bout of shingles impaired his vision - gave up night driving and his dinnertime visits this time of year.
A tray of food is waiting. He puts a long paper bib over her head that covers her chest and lap. He grabs a handful of napkins. He stands beside her and begins to spoon-feed her at 10 minutes after noon, mixing the chicken with the applesauce and putting a little lemon water ice on the tip of the spoon.
``The lemon makes her pucker and helps her swallow,'' he says.
He spoons it back in as it keeps falling out of her mouth, down her chin, over and over. He spoons it in, scraping it back up her chin, or off her bib, back into her mouth. So gentle and faithful.
``Come on, Sweetie. ''
He kisses her and cuddles her, even when she's covered with glop. He is happy to kiss her. Delighted to have the chance.
``Maybe I didn't do enough of it when she was home,'' he says.
He carries two poems in his wallet, poems about the endurance of love. The final line of the second poem reads: ``over time and grief prevail recollections - all she is. ''
She starts to choke. He gingerly wipes her mouth. They keep a suction pump in her room now for emergencies, a recent development.
``They say the smile is the last thing to go,'' he says. ``We've already decided - no tubes. ''
After the pureed solids, he cleans her up, carries away the dishes and dirty napkins, and turns to glasses of apple juice and iced tea. He puts on a new bib and, spoon by spoon, feeds her the liquids, both the consistency of honey. Anything thinner or thicker and she will choke.
At 1:13 he puts down the spoon. One hour and three minutes. He cleans her up again. Kisses and cuddles her.
Then he sits beside her, quietly, and holds her hand.
After a few more minutes, he wheels her back to her room, where he leaves her in the recliner. A nursing assistant will change her and put her to bed. He puts on his cap and zips his jacket and heads home to Drexel Hill.
“I am a teacher who is forever searching for present day 'heroes' for my students to learn about,” Chris Detwiler, a 5th grade teacher, wrote after this story appeared. She talked to her pupils about loyalty, love, and the effects of Alzheimer's disease, then 13 fifth-grade students at Walton Farm Elementary School wrote to Jim Way. He responded with thank-you notes to each, leading to a yearlong exchange of letters.
Wynne Way passed away in the spring of 1999, and Jim, who had been healthy, died two months later. That prompted me to research and write another story about the very real phenomenon of dying of a broken heart.