Now, most of us think that about our spouses at one time or another, or perhaps, much of the time. But recently, I was witness to a awe-inspiring example of my wife’s super-heroism. And, since I have a blog column, I get to write about it.
I met Cheryl nineteen years ago, and something clicked in the first two minutes. I know what I saw in her, but I’m still astounded that she saw anything in me worth hanging on to for the next two decades. All I really brought to the table was an unwavering promise of love and devotion.
My pet nickname for her is “XO”, which is military shorthand for “executive officer”. For you non-Navy types out there, the relationship between commanding officer and executive officer is a unique one. The CO sets the policies and doctrine, and bears the ultimate responsibility, but it is the XO who does all the grunt work to make it happen. That’s what Cheryl did, and does, for our little command of two. For a long time, she did it so well and so thoroughly that I was blind to most of it. I went along, blithe in how easy and convenient our life was.
Now, I’m a dolt about many things, but I do catch on eventually. And sometimes, like the old joke about the mule, it takes a two-by-four between my eyes to get my attention. I began to realise that all that ease and convenience had a name. Cheryl Benson.
As if taking care of our household wasn’t enough, she was also tending to her father, Royce. Royce was one whom, as I described in my Robert Young story, demonstrated the quiet heroism of the everyday man. He worked hard and supported his family, providing his two daughters with the proper guidance to become decent, contributing citizens. He was intelligent, honest, generous, and devoted. Like all of us, he had his foibles and shortcomings too, but he was a man, in the finest connotation of the word.
And Cheryl adored him. He lived twelve miles away from us, since becoming a widower sixteen years ago. She always spent a great deal of time with him, more than I did with mine---but the nature of my familial interactions was different. A few years ago, she began to devote increasing amounts of time tending to him, and like many husbands, I began to resent a bit taking a back seat. Cheryl pulled out the two-by-four again, and I realised that, as Royce’s health was failing, she wanted to get the most out of whatever time they had left. I understood that.
Two weeks ago, Royce was admitted to the hospital. The next day, he received the doctors’ diagnosis---between congestive heart failure and a total renal shutdown, he had two weeks to live, maybe three. There was nothing they could do. Cheryl and I were in different places when we got the word, and we both rushed to the hospital. I got there first.
I found him sitting up in his hospital bed, eating pudding. He was remarkably accepting of his situation. He had lived almost eighty years, raised two fine daughters, who were happy and led good lives, a grandson leading a successful career in the Army and a granddaughter who had just graduated college. He had no regrets. We had about half an hour together, before anyone else arrived, and we spoke the things that men speak of at a time like this.
One thing that all of us have in common is that we will die some day. What is unique to us all is the manner of our passing, and in a way, Royce was given a blessing. He had two weeks to make his final wishes known, to say what he wanted to say to his family, to be met by old friends. My only real contribution was to use my knowledge of military protocol in arranging to have his grandson---Cheryl’s son and my step-son---brought home on emergency leave from an Afghanistan war zone. (And Rick’s girlfriend, who worked out direct contact with him, pushed it even harder than I did.)
Things happened fast, and this was where Cheryl ducked into a telephone booth and emerged in her blue tights and red cape. As Royce dictated his instructions for his funeral and for the disposition of his effects and the names of the people who would need to be contacted, Cheryl copied down every word. When Royce was sent home for hospice care, Cheryl rearranged the household furniture and oversaw the installation of a hospital bed and medical equipment. She took instructions from the nurse for the administration of medicines and basic nursing care.
She notified friends, distant family, the financial people and the legal people, the government officials, the funeral home, and ensured all of Royce’s plans were set into motion. She moved into his house.
For a few days, Royce was lucid and advised her when he could. But after that, his awareness eroded with each passing day, and Cheryl was left to manage as best she could. The house filled with people---her sister and her husband and their daughter, Rick and his girlfriend, old friends, social workers, hospice caretakers, and me, of course. On top of everything else, Cheryl took on the rôle of hostess.
As her father’s mental and physical state declined before her eyes, she nursed him, tended to him, comforted him, fought him when he tried to remove the tubes, and stroked his brow when he couldn’t sleep.
Some of you might be thinking, well, that’s what a daughter is supposed to do for her dying father. But unless and until you’ve been in that situation, you have no idea how staggering all of that is. I was there, and I didn’t grasp it until much later.
You see, all of us---her sister, her brother-in-law, her niece, her son, and I---helped. A little. We did some minor things, and then left to handle the business of our own lives. But Cheryl was there around the clock. I brought her toiletries and changes of clothes from home. And once or twice, I actually got her to leave the house for a meal.
But otherwise, it was her---and all her. In the wee hours, she sat there alone by her father’s bedside, alert to his every groan of pain or request for water. She changed his urine bag and adjusted his position every two hours, to prevent bed sores. Nodding off for a few minutes at a time was the only sleep she got. She refused to take her medications for her own physical problems because they would make her drowsy. She was worn to a frazzle---physically, mentally, emotionally---and somehow, she managed to hold herself together.
And all the while, she had to watch the strong, forceful man who had raised her deteriorate and slip into oblivion. The knife twisted.
At about ten o’clock in the morning, on the first day of this year, Royce died. It happened after Cheryl had sat down on the couch to rest her feet for a minute, and she fell asleep for a half hour, the first sleep she had gotten in forty-eight hours. She feels that she failed him.
It’s difficult to argue with Cheryl; she’s usually right. But this time, she’s wrong. And Royce would have been the first to say so. In that half-hour talk I had with him, he told me how intensely proud he was of Cheryl, and in his final days, she lived up to that pride in spades.
Me, I want to pin the Medal of Honor on her.
The work wasn’t over. More notifications. Bills to pay. The records of a man’s life to bring to a close. And the planning with the funeral director.
As I write this, the funeral was to-day. Royce was a veteran, an Army man, and he had asked me to be a pallbearer and to wear my dress blues. The local Army base could spare only two soldiers to serve as the honour guard, so it was also my privilege to head the honour guard and present the flag to his family.
As for the service itself, one thing I know is how to handle ceremonies and the funeral director was an old hand, with forty years’ experience. The whole thing went off seamlessly, without a single hitch. Not so much as a hiccup. But that, also, was more Cheryl’s doing than anyone else’s. She planned, consulted, checked, and double-checked. It was precisely the send-off that Royce wanted.
So, yes, I married a super-heroine. A super-hero’s greatest feat is inspiring others to be better people, and she has done that, as well. There are at least a hundred ways I can make her life easier and I’ve planned out at least the first half-dozen or so, and I’ll add the others to the list as I think of them. I’ll probably back-slide some at first, mainly because I can be obtuse to a lot of stuff, but I won’t quit.
I owe it to her to be a better husband . . . and a better man.