Note: this is the second in a series of occasional columns about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The first column featured Debbie Fisher of Yelm who helps veterans recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries through horsemanship.
When Joseph Beaulieu woke up this morning, he planned his day around how to care for his wife, Christy, as he has done every day since 2005.
It wasn’t so difficult in the first years after doctors diagnosed the 1967 Lakefair Queen and popular second grade teacher at Evergreen Forest with frontal lobe dementia, a lesser-known progressive deterioration of the brain similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
But now, in the latter stages of this incurable disease, Beaulieu is being physically and emotionally challenged with her immobility, incontinence and mutism. Up until last September, Christy was still whispering to Beaulieu, her husband of nearly 25 years, but has now stopped speaking entirely.
He is determined to keep her at home under his own care because, “I would feel like I abandoned her, putting her in a home.
“She still has this big smile for me, and I believe she still knows who I am,” he says. “When she’s not there anymore, then I’ll consider it.”
Beaulieu grew up in Raymond, the son of a gypo logger nicknamed “Frenchy,” who eked out a living in the woods. The family of five lived in an 800-square-foot shack where they cooked and warmed themselves around a wood stove.
Frenchy wouldn’t let his kids work in the woods, insisting they get an education and make something else of themselves. Beaulieu says his dad used to say, “I’m showing you how not to live.”
Ironically, Frenchy did teach Beaulieu an important lesson about how to live.
During his junior year in high school, Beaulieu’s mother came down with tuberculosis and was moved to a sanatorium near Seattle. Every weekend, the whole family piled into a vehicle and drove to visit their wife and mother. Even though they couldn’t afford it, they stayed in a motel because, “Dad was completely devoted to mom.”
Beaulieu found a similar undying love for Christy.
He proposed to her in front of her surprised classroom one afternoon while wearing a frog suit and asking the students who should kiss the frog to make him a prince? After getting the kiss he wanted, Beaulieu ripped off the frog suit to reveal a tuxedo, whereupon he knelt and proposed, and pointed to the limousine waiting outside.
Christy wouldn’t answer. She demanded that he take her home first, where she changed for their date and revealed that she had suspected a proposal was coming. She presented Beaulieu with a key chain inscribed with the exact date, and on the other side, a single word, “yes.”
Since his wife was diagnosed with FTD, Beaulieu has tried to maintain a normal life for Christy, doing all the things they used to do. She loved going to the many community events that Beaulieu’s professional roles required him to attend, as well as his softball games. He bought a 19-foot motor home to care for her at these events, if necessary.
As her memory has faded and the language problems deepened, going out became more difficult, but Beaulieu was determined to keep her physically active and socially stimulated as long as possible. He makes sure she exercises every day and eats enough, sometimes even helping her to remember to keep chewing her food.
The experience has made him a more patient person. Christy simply does not respond to being hurried. But he doesn’t complain because there’s nothing he’d rather be doing.
“I have no doubt, if the roles were reversed, about how well she would be taking care of me,” he says. “And the fact is, I love her.”
Beaulieu sings these words to Christy, who used to be an accomplished violin player, every night, hoping she can hear him: you are my sunshine, my only sunshine / you make me happy when skies are gray / you’ll never know dear, how much I love you / please don’t take my sunshine away.
Beaulieu says he often thinks about his marriage vows, “ in sickness and in health until death do us part. I now understand what those words really mean.”
I think Frenchy would be proud.
George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, can be reached at 360-357-0206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.