I first met Paul after his wife Mary introduced us. Mary worked at the gift shop of a local hospital. She was 79, Paul was 80. Paul suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and Mary didn’t think he would receive quality treatment in a nursing home. She loved him too much and decided that she would take care of him until his death. Paul was totally dependent on Mary. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk and couldn’t take care of himself independently. She was his lifeline.
Mary had to move Paul using a hoist. It was a time-consuming process. If she needed to get Paul to bed, exercise, or the bathroom, the hoist was used. Otherwise, Paul could sit in his wheelchair.
Without a doubt this is my favorite picture of the story. This is easily my favorite photo that I’ve ever taken. To me this photo sums up the monstrous grip that Alzheimer’s Disease has on its victim. More than that, this photo screams undying love.
Paul and Mary had met when they worked for the State Street Marshall Fields in the 1930s (I think). Paul worked security at Fields and would always make sure to visit the candy maker’s floor and scoop up handfuls of the tasty candy. My wife worked for Fields, in their Rockford store, so I thought a box of Frangos would be a nice gift to thank them for allowing me to spend so much time with them. I think I had been coming to their house for about three to four months at the time I took this picture. On this day, I gave them a pound box of the candy that my wife picked up for me. Mary wanted to give him some of the candy right away (I honestly never thought they’d have the candy while I was there). So she chopped up a bunch of the mints because he couldn’t eat the big pieces. What happened next forced me to choke back tears and would, ironically, come back to haunt me later in life. Paul tasted the mints and immediately, began to weep. Paul had a moment when he remembered. It had to be that. But those memories were trapped inside of him. He continued to cry. That was the only form of communication he could express.
I still remember Mary saying “He knows.” It’s that fresh in my mind today; it was that powerful. So she leans over and whispers into his ear, “Paul, I love you more than anything.” It was such a beautifully-tragic moment. It resonates in my soul to this very day.
This photo became my closing picture to the story, in a sense. I much preferred this photo as a closer than the one that I used in the published story. I shot this photo very early in the project which I ended up working on for about eight months. I was nearing the end of shooting and we had been working on designing the section, which I believe was a four-page special section. The writer Karen Warnke (Thibodeau) was brought into the process kind of late because the original writer got a new job and bailed on the story. We were pushing hard to get the story published shortly after Christmas (I think).
On New Year’s Day, I received a phone call from Mary and Paul’s son, Peter. I was the first non-family member they had called. Paul died on New Year’s Day; Paul and Mary’s wedding anniversary. Mary had told me that they had their usual ritual. She would exercise his limbs, and get him ready for bed. Since it was New Year’s Eve, they stayed up a little later. At midnight, Mary said she knelt down, kissed Paul and wished him a happy anniversary. He died in his sleep.
I really struggled with how to handle this as a friend and journalist. The story had to be changed. I ended up shooting a photo of Mary taking an evening walk, alone and that became the closer for the story. I think the photo of them sitting in front of the window is more fitting. I did go to the funeral, but did so as a friend, not a photographer. I question that decision, but as a person, I did what I would want to happen if the situation was reversed.
Here’s the cruel irony that I was referring to earlier about Paul and the Frangos. My grandfather was diagnosed with dementia, though I’m pretty sure it was Alzheimer’s. There were way too many parallels. Either way, my grandfather was trapped. He was Paul. My grandmother put him in a nursing home, one she used to work at. I remember the first time that grandpa met my first-born, Zach. “Z ” was just a few months old and we wanted grandpa to see his great-grandson. When he held Zach for the first time, he began to weep, uncontrollably. I could barely keep it together. Watching my grandfather helpless and trapped was more than I could handle. It was way too much like Paul and the Frangos. It was the last time I saw him alive. I couldn’t bring myself to visit him again after that. I wasn’t strong enough. The dementia/alzheimer’s ended up taking his life. I honestly don’t remember how long it was when I last saw him to when he died. I miss him terribly.
I’ll continue to share more of my work as the weeks progress. If I can figure out how to scan negatives without a negative scanner, I’ll have a lot more work to share. Otherwise, it’s what I have prints of. I never saved any of my digital work. I think I knew my time was up in the photojournalism world when the digital conversion began. A part of me will always be a photojournalist, but I’m a teacher now. This is just part of that journey that has helped me find true peace and happiness.
Guess what? Tomorrow-new music Tuesday! Until then……Peace!