LOVE FOUND A WAY by Tina Wagner Mattern
Are you a soft touch for love stories? Well, I have a doozy for you!
Several days ago, Jeanne Gustavson, my neighbor and dear friend of over 30 years, returned from a mysterious week long trip to Chicago. Last night she came over with a bottle of Fireball and a box of Kleenex, poured herself a drink and said, “Sit down; I have a story to tell you you’re not going to believe.” Absolutely captivated, I pulled up a chair. Jeanne is a sweet, quiet gal in her late 60’s. I knew she had been divorced for a long time; had been caregiver to her mother for many years until her death in 2012, and as far as I knew, was content living an uneventful life alone with her little dog. But now, seeing the happy tears sparkling in her eyes, and hearing her say, “It’s a love story”, I was spellbound.
“Fifty years ago,” Jeanne began, “I was a freshman German major at Loyola University's Lakeshore Campus, in Chicago, where I grew up. Not long after the first semester began, I met Steve. He was a beautiful black man, a senior, and we began dating.”
And with that intriguing beginning, her story unfolded….
“Steve was tall, handsome, and extremely intelligent; a gentleman in every sense, with a killer smile. His wit & outgoing personality is what attracted me first, but it didn't take long for me to fall in love with him, and he with me. His aspiration was to become a teacher or professor of German.
Because I came from a very bigoted family, and in a time when civil rights were still being fought for, my hope was to ease Steve into the picture by having a pool party at my home. When my mother discovered one of the guests was a black man, and that we were dating, she was outraged. Soon the whole family knew and was aghast as well, questioning my sanity and respectability. When I told Steve, he empathized and tried to soothe my jangled nerves. He was ever the optimist and felt with time my mother would eventually come to like him. But that opportunity never arose. One day I was called out of class to the Dean's office. Bewildered at this summons, I soon discovered my mother had been there attempting to have the school expel me or keep me from associating with Steve. Needless to say this didn't happen, but it created a tumultuous relationship with my mother.
Steve and I dated secretly for about 7 years. Even though he graduated in 1972, lived on the south side of Chicago and held down a job at the Adler Planetarium, he kept coming back to the Loyola campus to see me. Through those years we carried on as normal a relationship as we could. My closest friends met him, enjoyed his company, and liked seeing us happy together.
When I graduated with a liberal arts degree in 1975, I was not accepted by the program in Illinois that I had been planning on. My hopes of becoming a physical therapist were dashed, so I decided to enter Loyola's nursing program instead, and was accepted. The next 2 years were demanding and time-intensive. I was working part-time in a few nursing homes as a rehab aide and still hoping to be accepted by a physical therapy program when I graduated. Steve & I rarely saw each other, but we talked on the phone almost every day and our love for one another continued.
Eventually I graduated from nursing school and procured a full time evening shift nursing job and this is when my world turned upside down. My “days” were evenings opposite Steve’s and everyone else’s. I worked every other weekend with no consistent days off. I began to wonder how in the world I could continue managing a long distance relationship. Feelings of being overwhelmed in every sense began to build. I realized very quickly how little I knew about caring for people with various diseases and disabilities, or how to teach them to care for themselves.
One night Steve called me at work to say hello; It had been an especially nerve-racking day, I was exhausted; the overload of work, the lack of time to spend with him, my family’s adamant refusal to accept our relationship, suddenly it was all too much. Something inside me broke…I closed my eyes and said, “Steve, I love you but I just can’t do this anymore.” And with those words I ended our 7 year relationship. It was not my finest hour. It was a callous, heart-rending, wretched action that I have never stopped regretting. I never saw or spoke with Steve again.
Life went on. Forty two years later I retired; my mother had passed on and suddenly I had time to spare, time to revisit precious memories of my years with Steve. I decided to find him.
Hearing stories of people finding relatives and lost loves, I thought, how hard could this be? So I began my search last fall, but soon realized it would not be easy. Every lead ended in failure. One rabbit hole after another. It was as if he had disappeared or never existed. I came close to quitting, but then I made one last attempt and found his niece online. The address was recent, so I wrote to her, explaining who I was and my relationship to her uncle. Thankfully, she responded, but told me Steve, now 71, was in a nursing home. She said she hadn't seen him in a few years and told me he had difficulty walking. In her letter she didn’t specify why, but gave me the name and address of the nursing facility.
I wrote him a letter, an apology 40 years overdue; with the hope he might forgive me, that maybe we could restore some semblance of our many years relationship. But after several weeks I didn’t get an answer. Not willing to simply give up at this point, I called the nursing home, but knew that with the health privacy laws, they wouldn’t tell me much. “He is alert and oriented and fine,” I was told. I explained that I had written him, but he that he hadn’t answered. She responded, “He can't”, no explanation why, and directed me back to his niece.
This time, rather than write, I phoned his niece and told her what they said. She seemed confused and told me she was going to call the facility herself. I asked, “Please call me back with whatever you can find out.” But she never did.
At this point I made a decision. I was going to Chicago; cost be damned. I didn’t tell anyone I was going except for my closest neighbors, but was purposely vague about why. Not knowing what would happen made me reticent to tell anyone my real reason… I was going to see Steve.
Butterflies, butterflies! I was so nervous sitting in the waiting area of the nursing home. The Social Services Director came down to meet me. “You're here to see Steve?” she asked, with a quizzical look. “Yes” I said, explaining that we had been college sweethearts and showed her a couple of photos I had; one of handsome Steve back in college, and one of us together. She broke out in the biggest smile and said “I'm going to go help get him up myself”. Little did I know that Steve hadn't received the note I had sent, alerting him I was coming, nor did I know I was the first person to visit him in 10 years.
The director brought Steve down to me in a special geriatric chair, looking very different than the man I knew 50 years ago. He had had 2 strokes which left him severely disabled. But his mind was sound; he knew me! Even though I had also changed, he recognized me immediately. I put my arms around him and he clung to me as we both cried happy tears.
Over the next hour 42 years melted away. I was 18 again; he was 22, and we discovered we were still crazy about each other. We've been and stayed the true loves of each other’s lives. The next 5 days were filled with loving, tender moments. Some of the sweetest of those included memories I had forgotten, but he remembered. We teased each other, I made bad jokes, we laughed and suddenly, clinging to me, he began singing the old tune, “I love you a bushel and a peck”. In all the years I had known him, I had never heard him sing. Touched, “I asked him what made him sing that all of a sudden. He shrugged and said, “You make me want to sing.”
As wonderful as it was to be with Steve again, I soon learned what kind of existence he had been living. The care he had been receiving was extremely lacking. Although his strokes happened years ago, I'm not sure he received rehab or why it was stopped. One of his legs is severely contracted, as is one of his hands. His grooming, once impeccable, was sorely inadequate. I spent over an hour cleaning his hands, the contracted one especially, washing away dirt, cutting and cleaning his nails, applying lotion and massaging the contractures. Everything in his room was dirty. His bed was broken and days later, when I left, remained so. The portable phones I was told could be used to communicate with him were broken each time I called. And making Steve’s life there even more depressing and frustrating are his two roommates. One screams continually, the other has his TV full-blast 12 or more hours a day. The noise is deafening. “How do you stand this?” I asked Steve. He just said, “It’s my life.”
Over the 6 days I was able to spend with Steve, I learned that his family doesn’t visit and he has no living friends. His life consisted of watching television, eating and sleeping. This was not quality of life. His personality had been subdued & buried deep within. But in the few hours/days I was there snippets of the old Steve came out; his sense of humor, his laugh. Finally, realizing I didn’t want to be apart from him ever again, I asked him if he would consider moving to Oregon to be closer to me and he said “Yes. I would follow you anywhere.”
Well, Jeanne made it happen; she rescued Steve from the horrible nursing home where he’s been without hope for 18 years! She hired a private medical transport van to drive them to Portland and he’s here. The transport cost her $14,000, not to mention her airfares to Chicago twice and all the other expenses so far. She needs expensive medical equipment for him: a hospital bed, a lift machine (he’s a paraplegic and can do nothing for himself) and a Geri-chair. She’ll also need to hire help because she can’t move him alone to bathe him daily or change his bedding; he’s a big man. So the financial burden of Jeanne saving her long lost love is certainly daunting, but the most important thing is this: he’s here, now with her.
I have been blessed to help Jeanne care for Steve and witness the incredible love that flows between them. I’ve watched Steve’s eyes follow her as she moves about the room, straightening his covers, adjusting his pillows. I’ve heard them laugh like little kids together over some silly private joke they share, and I’ve heard him whisper, “I never stopped loving you,” as Jeanne bends down to kiss him, her eyes shining with tears.
So, ask me if I believe in miracles? Of course I do, I’m seeing one unfold before my very eyes. Jeanne and Steve are beginning a whole new life together because despite nearly 50 years lost, love has found a way.