4 Lasting Lessons From A Love Story That Defied All The Odds

Photo: naïri | Canva 
Saga of two lovers

In the heart of a retirement community, in a tower called Hope, lives a warrior woman named Chris. At the age of 89, she embarked on a journey that defied the restrictions of time and the daunting challenges of a world gripped by COVID-19.

Chris’s story began decades earlier in the Second World War, tasting hardship in the potatoes, gruel, and fear she shared with her mother and four siblings. It was a time of scarcity, of fathers absent due to war and hard-working mothers who knew little about what was happening and less about what came next.

It ended with six months of daily devotion outside the window of the man she loved. 

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Four key lessons from a love that lasted the test of time

1. Love overcomes disease.

I met Chris when her husband of 68 years was already two years in the care of a facility and battling Alzheimer's disease. Bert, once a man of vibrant movement and lively blue eyes, had lost the smooth movement of one foot following another and shuffled between a wheelchair and the recliner near their apartment door. Chris was his unwavering support, the helping hands, the familiar smile, and the voice to guide him through the day.

The Chris and Bert Show was simple but calculated. Since Bert’s fingers and arms had surrendered to the disease, Chris fed him pureed food from a favorite blue spoon, and what he missed, she caught. Eating, speaking, and socializing, she was the caregiver, companion, and lifeline.

Several months before Bert fell from the cliff of his disease, his wife and proxy ensured the threads of conversation remained unbroken by prompting him about the day of the week and the name of the street while taking over the wallet, doctor’s visits, and keys. Sensitively, she eased his knitted brow and soothed his fears.

The day came when Bert’s memory contorted to paranoia, and he might have succeeded in throwing her over a balcony the way he had tossed the blue spoon yesterday. Chris remained undaunted by the new phase of Bert’s condition, unmoved by his return to childlike simplicity, and matched his deterioration with renewed warrior commitment.



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2. Love is best done on purpose.

With police and social workers involved, Bert’s move to a care facility was out of her hands, but Chris continued a daily ritual of returning him to their apartment, telling the world he was still in her heart. She walked the 800 meters to him each morning, wheeled him home and back, morning and night, living life as she always did. Together.

Their world revolved around simple pleasures: walks marred by the occasional bump of the wheelchair on a crack in the sidewalk, encountering a goose family, French language cartoons, and conversations cutting across time. She continued to reenact the past and bring her husband back to their life, if only for a moment. A story anticipated to bring the tic of a smile, the quiver of a hand, or light to his beautiful blues brought Chris meaning and purpose.

Sunday mornings and Sunday's best also brought the hope Bert’s response could be as reverential as times past, the hymn sung in the church might evoke the memory of a familiar pew and bring Bert’s baritone, eyes, and smile to life. But Chris’s strong faith was in inverse proportion to the steady retreat of his memory.

Suddenly, the COVID-19 rules of March 2020 broke Chris’s routine into little pieces she couldn’t capture and wouldn't accept. First, she was blocked from the hallway and door to Bert’s unit and couldn’t feed, change, or take him “home.” Bert barely ate, his health declined, and bedsores appeared.



3. The way love truly grows.

When Chris met Bert

Bert grew up in Almelo, a town southeast of Amsterdam, and at 14 years old, in a high school hallway, Chris saw his smile and swagger as if she were seeing him for the first time. They became inseparable, riding bikes to no particular place, him getting to know her unshakeable spirit, and she discovering he could fix anything. They weathered the storms of war and the hardships of immigration to Canada. When Bert’s moonlighting landed money for bricks and mortar, they were a team, sharing hammers, driving nails, and building a home with their hands.

I believe inside every woman is a princess and a warrior. The princess wears pretty clothes and longs for someone to rescue and take care of her, and the warrior defends her people, fights for her home, and braves a burning building to save her family. A vision fuels the warrior’s power, the determination to reach a goal, do the right thing, live life her way, and march forward when her fear screams stop. Chris was both a warrior and a princess.

Photo: 9nong via Shutterstock

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4. Love is more than brave.

Chris was FLINK. I learned the Frisian word, Flink, as I sought to describe Chris’s humor and grace while being solid, energetic, capable, smart, and brave. She was just the person you want on your team, the friend on your side through a bad patch or when your life grinds to an Alzheimer's halt.

When COVID-19 restrictions prevented her from seeing Bert, the flink in Chris found the fence around Bert’s building and prompted her to hoist her five-foot-3 frame to the other side. Yes, determination and warrior energy to continue chuckled at the occasional tumble of climbing fences until she was discovered. When the facility called, they complained, “She is deluded, in denial, and an unwelcome distraction.”

When it was clear the fence could not contain her love, a conversation resulted in a gate to satisfy Chris’s simple manifesto, “He spent his life with me, and I am spending mine with him.” So through warm June and bone-chilling December days, bare fingers or gloves, from 10.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m., Chris stood outside Bert’s window.

Outside this window, we visited Chris and Bert through the Covid months. Here, she blew bubbles, serenaded him, and, on his birthday, wrote a poem and pressed hearts and crimson balloons to his window pane.

Chris continued to ignore and deflect staff complaints and criticism. She accepted the occasional shut-out of drawn curtains while advocating for bedside privilege. But Chris won on the day when she was accepted as a volunteer personal support worker.

elderly man sits looking ouyt the window

Photo: Ground Picture via Shutterstock

COVID-19: 0, Flink: 1

Bert slipped away on December 25, 2020, at 12.05 p.m. quietly and discreetly, without the fanfare of his booming personality. In an apartment that had witnessed their joys and sorrows, Chris listened to her children’s stories and shared the memories of births, deaths, and a life well-lived. Subdued but humorously, they described the failures and successes of family trips, Bert’s proclivity for prevention medicine, his inability to say “no” to anyone in need, and his habitual misuse of English words and phrases.

I wished I had known the man who misunderstood words, was easygoing to a fault, and could laugh at anything. But my deep love that day was for the Flink warrior, who climbed a wooden fence to be with her lover, and the man by my side, her dutiful son, who helped her find the gate she could walk through.

As I reflect on their love story, I’m reminded that sometimes, the most extraordinary love stories are those of ordinary people who defy the odds. Chris’s determination, unwavering love, and warrior spirit are a testament to the power of love unbounded by, continents, disease, pandemics, and fences. In Bert and Chris’s story, we find love overcomes obstacles, climbs fences, and refuses to be limited or confined. A reminder that love, in its purest form, knows no boundaries.

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Reta Faye Walker is a therapist who specializes in healing relationships. She offers one-on-one sessions, couples retreats, and courses to help couples get back on track.

This article was originally published at Unpublished. Reprinted with permission from the author.