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Recalling a lifetime of love

Couple relishes what's left despite Alzheimer's

Published: Friday, May 30 2008 12:03 a.m. MDT

Marilyn and Russell Romney were married on Valentine's Day 1950 in Salt Lake City and had six children together.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

MURRAY — In the back of the carriage, the man draped his arm over his sweetheart's frail shoulders and listened to the horses as they sauntered through the park.

While the short trek in the shade of the tree-lined path will be something Russell Romney talks about for the rest of his life, Marilyn Romney has likely already forgotten.

But to focus on that, her children said, would be to miss the point entirely.

"She might not specifically remember it," Carolyn Evans said Wednesday afternoon, as she watched her parents ride off, "but our whole purpose is to give her joy."

Joy is what the Romneys' children said their father has given their mother for more than 50 years. The couple was married on Valentine's Day 1950 in Salt Lake City and had six children together.

"They were always in love," their youngest daughter, Leisa Card, said. "They were happiest being together. That was pretty romantic — more than fancy restaurants or the Florida Keys."

But eventually, what was always happening finally happened: time. "Old age" set in, their health faltered. Russell's body started to deteriorate as Marilyn's mind began to fade.

Alzheimer's strangled Marilyn's memory, and a stroke choked her speech. Her children said she seems to remember some things from her past, but how much is unclear.

Perhaps she has forgotten the summer evenings at the family's cabin in Kamas, when her husband would take their children out on the lake in the red boat he built himself. Maybe she no longer remembers the road trips with the kids stuffed in the station wagon, the sandwiches stuffed in the cooler.

But she has not forgotten her husband.

"You can see in her eyes that she still recognizes him," Evans said. "She lights up."

In December 2006, the couple's declining health forced them into separate facilities. Russell moved into an assisted living center that allowed him more independence, while Marilyn required full hospice care.

Even as it becomes increasingly difficult for him to move, Russell still visits his wife weekly. Some days he does all the talking, occasionally she offers up three or four words. Other times they just sit, her head propped on his shoulder.

No one knows how long that memory stays with her each time her husband leaves.

Perhaps she has already forgotten the shirt with the pearl buttons her husband wore for Wednesday's carriage ride. Maybe she has forgotten how her nails were freshly painted.

As the horses clopped through the park, he kept his "sweetheart" close to him, under his arm. "She and I have been a two-horse team for nearly 65 years," he said.

Their children giggled and snapped pictures. Perhaps the ride meant just as much to them — some of them grandparents in their own right, all of them coping with their parents' declining health.

"You go through their personal effects, and they're still alive," Mark Romney said. "It kind of draws out what would be a normal grieving process."

The carriage ride, followed by a picnic in the park, was set up by family members and hospice care providers. A simple gesture that was anything but simple. Not once in a lifetime, just once more in a lifetime.

At 80 years old, Marilyn's mind continues to slip, and Russell has a respiratory condition from which he "won't recover."

But that's life, said Sheri Swanson, who works for the Romneys' hospice provider. "We're all terminal." Sooner or later, it seems, everyone stops remembering things, everyone stops recovering.

Then all that's left is living.


E-mail: afalk@desnews.com

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