From years of grieving comes the promise of joy.
Carol Miller and Jeff Warner said goodbye to their respective spouses a little more than a month apart last summer. Rick Miller died Aug. 11, three years and three days after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Adelia “DD” Warner’s death 33 days later came seven years after she, Jeff and their family members learned she had the same disease.
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Like so many others who spend years watching their loved ones ebb away in every respect, their ordeals ended. And they were ordeals.
“I began grieving the day he was diagnosed,” Miller said. “That day, in the hallway of the doctor’s office, he said to me, ‘I’m sorry.’”
For the next three years, she spent her days taking care of him, later visiting him when he needed specialized care outside their home.
Likewise, Warner cared for DD as long as he could. But she, too, required help beyond what he could give. A lineman for the Turlock Irrigation District, he dealt with her illness at home after working on high-voltage power lines during the day. One concentration lapse can be deadly. When she no longer could stay at home, he spent his weekends visiting her in Bay Area care facilities. Miller and Warner found it draining, physically and emotionally.
“I liken it to a seven-year drought,” Warner said. “They gradually lose everything, and all of your energy goes into taking care of them.”
During this time, Miller and Warner attended sessions at the Alzheimer’s/Dementia Support Group, becoming not only participants but mentors to others who take care of loved ones. Miller has written three booklets of poetry, each bearing covers drawn or painted by her husband, to help other caregivers cope with the disease. In fact, Warner said, people seek out him and Miller for advice.
“We’re dementia magnets,” he said, even today.
They became friends, and at one point, Warner took Rick Miller fishing and discovered they had mutual friends, including a woman who taught in the Sylvan Union School District with Carol Miller prior to Carol’s retirement in 2008.
Then the illness progressed in both of their spouses. Carol Miller watched as Rick took his last breath at 62. Jeff Warner did the same as DD took hers, at only 59 years old.
Although they didn’t realize it immediately, they were free. They were free from the enormous weight of caring for their spouses, of waiting for the inevitable, of seeing their mates exist in body only.
Free in ways they had forgotten existed, including how be happy again. Free to be alive themselves.
Neither of them thought this would happen, though: They fell in love. With each other. They’re engaged. They’ll be married in May.
They stayed in touch after their spouses died. They realized how much they had in common, how many of the same things they had been through.
“We talked on the phone and I suddenly realized we’d be talking for more than an hour,” Carol said.
Every phone chat lasted longer than the previous.
“I felt like an eighth-grader,” Warner said. “I asked her if she liked me. It was all so new. I’d been in social isolation.”
There was an event at her church, and he asked if he could go along.
“We just sat there and talked,” Warner said. “There was music, people, food, but we just sat there and talked.”
They talked more and texted. And when he went to Southern California for Christmas, he sent her photos of his grandchildren. He realized at that point he was smitten. He texted her, “I miss you.”
“I thought, ‘What’s he sending me pictures for? We’re just friends.’” Miller said. “Then that text came in – ‘I miss you’ – and I thought, ‘What’s happening here?’ He broke my heart wide open. It had been shut tight, and he broke it open.”
“My heart was burning right after Christmas,” he said. He proposed on New Year’s Day. She accepted.
Indeed, they are giddy. They smile. They laugh. They are like schoolkids again. But don’t consider it a whirlwind romance even though they will marry less than a year after saying goodbye to their spouses.
“We don’t have to feel we didn’t do enough for them,” Miller said. “We did everything we could. We were there. We were there when they took their last breaths. Now, it’s OK for us to care about each other.”
They will continue to help others at the Alzheimer’s/Dementia Support Center. He’ll continue to work at TID. She plans to use the yoga instruction certificate she earned before Rick’s diagnosis and begin teaching.
And come Saturday, how will they spend their first Valentine’s Day as a couple?
“We’re going to spend it together,” Warner said. “Dinner with friends later, but we’re going to spend the day together.”
The years of grieving giving way to well-earned joy.