First, I need to tell you about Arnold, a self-described “Spare Tire Preacher”. Do you know what that means? I sure didn’t when I met him.
“Oh, you know…when a minister from one of those churches “out a ways” needs a day off…they call me. I’m just an old spare tire…so they can have a day off now and then…nothin’ special, just an old spare tire with a little bit of tread left on me.”
We met in June of 1995 – in Iowa. I moved out there to help a friend and her husband open a café. We each wore many hats in order to make this dream come true… one of my hats said that I was the baker. My friends had lived there for three years and Arnold had become family to them…like a father, or an uncle.
He heard that I would be baking a pie every day for the café, and although we were already becoming fast friends…my pie-a-day assignment sealed our friendship.
All summer long, we remodeled one of the old, vacant buildings on Main St. We had a booth at the local Farmer’s Market on Saturdays so the town-folks could meet us and know what-in-the-heck was going on down at the old vacant insurance office next to the old theater. We sold fresh-brewed, iced, herbal teas dispensed out of one-gallon glass jars, along with fresh-baked cookies and muffins that we were testing out for our grand opening.
Each Saturday Arnold came down to sample our wares and give us his opinion – which was always the same. “These are the BEST I’ve ever tasted!” He was sweet, gentle, kind. White haired with calm blue eyes, humble, generous – it was completely outside of his vocabulary, outside of his consciousness to utter harsh or angry words. It wasn’t that he just kept them stored up inside; he was simply full of love.
In his younger days, he and his wife had owned a nursery together. It was their pride and joy. They worked hard, hard, hard – but they so loved the work and they so loved each other…his eyes always sparkled when he told me stories about the place and about his wife. When Arnold found out about my own love for plants, well, then the stories really started coming. Stories about fruit trees that he nursed from tiny seedlings, stories about grand trees he had met in the midst of his work as an Arborist. Arnold was the kind of Arborist who believed the sole responsibility of such a position was to do whatever was necessary on behalf of the tree he’d been hired to doctor. He always said, “The tree was my boss…not the landowner.” He loved plants, adored trees as if they were family. For Arnold, they were family – and without me saying so directly, he knew it was the same for me.
Arnold was in his 80’s when I met him. I finally convinced him to take me along on one of his Spare-Tire-Preacher assignments. He kept saying, “Oh…it’s nothing, really. I just do my best so the people can have their Sunday Service.” But I knew, in the way that you know when you meet someone with an enormous heart, that even though “going to church” was not my style…I knew that I would be touched by Arnold’s words.
It was hot and steamy, as it is in Iowa in the summer. We drove out to a little town…out in the middle of that land of lush, green farmland with rich, black, soil peeking out on the edge of fields mostly chock full of corn or soybeans.
For me, this field trip with Arnold was a grand adventure. Born into a secular Jewish family, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d ever set foot inside a church. And, I’d only seen “country churches” like the one we were approaching, on TV or in the movies. It was a classic, old, white clapboard church with a tall steeple, complete with a thick, well-worn rope for ringing the church-bell. The grand oak tree in the churchyard whose arms reached out long and low, was ready to hold as many children and their families, as wanted to climb into her gnarled embrace.
Arnold’s sermon was full of love and praise for we, the well-meaning, but sometimes problem-causing humans who came every Sunday to be reminded of how to start again and simply face toward the Light. His eyes watered with almost overflowing tears, his face shone with love for every single person there, and they felt it: simple and profound.
As I began to spend more time with my new friend, he spoke more about his life, and most importantly, about his wife. Whenever he spoke of her, his entire demeanor absolutely glowed. He loved her in a way that I’d never experienced myself, nor even come this close to as a Witness. In the beginning of our friendship his mention of her was only a few words, but even then, the deep and enduring love he felt was instantly apparent.
I was shy, and, as with much of social practices in the Midwest, the approach of anything was slow and steady. That is the pace at which I learned about Arnold’s beloved wife.
In the fall of that year we opened our café and Arnold came down every morning to “make sure that the pie was ‘up to snuff’.” While tenderly patting his belly he’d say, “I just came from seeing my wife and she wondered if maybe I didn’t need to taste your pie every single day. I told her someone had to taste them to make sure they were just right.” His smile was infectious and soothing. My day began at four in the morning with a pretty hectic baking schedule, so I looked forward to Arnold’s daily visits around 10-o-clock, to make sure the day’s pie passed his test.
Sometimes when Arnold sat down, I’d pull up a chair for a few minutes. “My wife’s hair is so beautiful,” he’d say dreamily. “I brushed her hair for her, this morning. She loves it when I brush her hair, it’s almost like she’s purring.” Slowly, over all these months of little bits and pieces from him, and from my friends who’d introduced me to Arnold, I began to get a wider picture of Arnold’s life with his wife.
For much of the time, I’d imagined that he was coming from their home when he spoke of her, spoke of telling her a story or a joke, of watching her laugh or hearing her wonder if he really needed pie EVERY DAY. While it’s true that his morning did originate from their home…she no longer lived there.
Arnold’s wife was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. I learned from my friends, that Arnold cared for his wife at home for a very long time. He fed her and bathed her and carried her from kitchen table to living room chair to their bedroom. Every day and every night. For over ten years. And finally he could no longer lift her safely…for either of them. I cannot imagine the crushing heartbreak that crashed upon both of them when they faced this stark reality. They had no children of their own…that nursery, those plants, those majestic trees – they were their children and although they lifted their spirits every day – they could not lift Arnold’s wife when she needed to use the bathroom or go to bed at night. And finally Arnold couldn’t either.
By the time I met Arnold, his wife had been in a “home”, to use the word he used, for maybe five or so years. Arnold’s love for her and his incredible intimacy about every detail of her being was so enormous, that when I heard him speak of her, I heard her voice, I saw her eyes twinkling, I sensed her purring as he brushed her hair.
The thought had been rumbling around in me for some weeks now, and finally, in spite of my immense shyness, and not wanting to burden him with any more than he was already carrying, finally I asked. “Arnold, could I come with you when you visit your wife? I really want to meet her.” Instantly his eyes filled with tears – a few escaped and rolled down his cheek. “You want to meet her? Oh, she’ll be so excited. She’s been wanting to meet you. I’ve told her all about you…and your pies!” And with this, he smiled a broad and glorious smile.
We agreed on a day and time when he would finally get to introduce me to his wife – and his wife to me. Just as he’d been speaking of her to me, everyday, he’d also been telling her stories about me, and the café. It was time for we who both loved this dear man, to meet.
At this point in my life, although I’d heard of Alzheimer’s, sensed the fear and tension in the voices of people who spoke of it, I had never met anyone with a family member afflicted by it – and I certainly had never met anyone that was in the throes of the disease, themselves. At least in my circle, and I suppose in our culture at large, at this time…the middle 1990’s, people just didn’t speak of it. Alzheimer’s was mostly something that people did not want to speak of. All of this swirled about within me as Arnold and I drove toward his wife’s “home”. I say it swirled…but it was not something I was consciously thinking about, it was more that my mood was a little more timid, a little more quiet, than other times I’d spent with Arnold. I noticed this…but it was subtle.
After some minutes of silence Arnold shared that when he told his wife last evening when they’d had dinner together, that he was bringing me to meet her today, she was “absolutely overjoyed…beaming with delight.”
“I finally get to meet the ‘love of your life’,” I smiled at him. Boy did he smile back.
As we got out of his car, I realized that the picture I’d had in my mind of her “home” was not at all what we were approaching. This looked a lot more like the “Lutheran Home for the Aging” where I’d visited my 95-year-old Swedish friend, Teodore, at the end of his life. To hear Arnold speak of his wife and their mornings and evenings together, when he said “home”, I saw an individual home…not this small scale, institutional kind of “home”.
We walked down a hallway and Arnold gently knocked on a door that looked like all the other doors along the hallway. As he carefully opened the door, he called out to her with such love in his voice, it brought tears to my eyes. “Here she is! I told you I’d bring her for a visit!” As we entered the room I realized there was a lot that I had imagined incorrectly.
Her room was small but thankfully had plenty of natural light; one window centered in each of three walls. She sat in an unusual chair with her back to us. Arnold sang out to her, “I brought our friend Lauren! Here she is to meet you!” We circled around to face her and in that one moment all my imaginings washed away like someone had poured water on a freshly painted watercolor painting.
Arnold’s wife was propped up in a chair that was an odd cross between a wheel chair and a barber’s chair. Her body was twisted unnaturally into something that kind of seemed like she was sitting in the chair…but not by her own doing. And. She did not move. At all. No part of her moved; not her eyes or her mouth. No movement. Arnold continued cooing to his beloved wife. He spoke to her just as he’d recounted so many conversations to me. Told her about his morning, about our drive over to see her, about the pie he’d just had. He looked at me with tears in his eyes. “She is so happy to finally meet you,” he murmured to me.
Slowly I approached her. She was beautiful in her stillness; shoulder length hair that was a warm, soft white. Gorgeous blue eyes…deeply blue. I began to speak to her, doing my best to speak to the presence, to the soul of this woman who was still alive, but not able to join us in the way that I, at least, was used to being joined. I told her how long I’d been wanting to meet her, told her how much I enjoyed hearing Arnold’s stories about their nursery, and that the best part was hearing how much Arnold loved her. As I spoke, he gently brushed her hair. He finished with a most tender kiss on her forehead saying that it was time for us to leave.
I don’t remember our drive back to the café, where it was now time for me to prep for the next day’s morning bake. I had journeyed to a place I’d never been – and had no context for what I’d experienced. I do remember that when Arnold dropped me off, he turned and thanked me in a barely audible whisper. His beautiful eyes were glistening with tears.
The next morning, just like clockwork, Arnold came in for his pie. He was so excited to tell me about his visit with his wife that morning. I had a little time to spare and sat down with him at his table. “She was so happy to meet you,” he sang out. “So happy!”
“How do you know, Arnold? How do you know that she was happy to meet me?”
It wasn’t that I doubted his word…at all. I simply didn’t understand what I’d witnessed. He told me that because he’d been with her for so many years, so many years before this illness had climbed deep inside of her and taken so much of her with it, he knew her in the most subtle of ways. “She was especially happy this morning…it was because she met you.”
“But how can you know that Arnold?” I asked, tenderly.
“Oh, I could see it in her eyes. You’d be amazed at what you can see when you look into someone’s eyes. When she’s happy, there’s a sparkle there. I know it when I see it. Lauren, my wife and I have known each other for a very long time. There is a language that she speaks with her eyes. I know what happiness looks like in those beautiful blue eyes.”
I visited Arnold’s wife just that one time. Life at the café became more complicated…my first Midwest winter roared into my world and it consumed me in ways that I could not have imagined. And then I moved away from Iowa, from the café, from Arnold and his beloved wife.
In that one visit, for those twenty or so minutes, I was witness to a kind of love, a kind of communication, a kind of presence so profound that I am still sitting at the feet of those two teachers each and every day. Twenty years now, I still sit at their feet.