When Richard Bieth first met his future wife, he was not all that impressed.
For one thing, as a nurse in training at a Peoria hospital back in ’59, Helen had a thermometer in her hand every time she popped in to see him when he was a 24-year-old patient there. And even later, when his mother tried pushing the relationship, Bieth just “didn’t really like her” all that much.
Moms and time, thankfully, have a way of changing the heart. And in the 61 years since Richard and Helen have been married, he admitted, “she became my rudder.”
And “if she had not married me, I would probably be dead,” he added. “I am lost without her.”
That’s why, as Helen gradually succumbed to the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease and Bieth had no choice but to move her into a nursing home, he made it a point of visiting every day, eating meals with his beloved Helen and spending hours at her side, even when “I’m not sure she knows who I am.”
That’s also why, when the coronavirus pandemic forced nursing homes to isolate residents on March 9, Bieth continued his daily drives to Bright Oaks Assisted Living and Memory Care in Aurora, where he would always leave a card, usually containing pictures of the couple in happier days, at the front door for employees to deliver to Helen.
“I thought it would just be a week,” he said of the governor’s stay-at-home order. “This is madness.”
And it’s the families of Alzheimer’s or dementia patients “who absolutely suffer the most” during this coronavirus lockdown, he noted, as critical memory loss has already excluded loved ones like Helen from the unprecedented reality the rest of us are experiencing.
Still, Bieth never passes up a chance to connect with his bride – even when he can’t be near her – because there is always the hope something he says or does will “jar her memory.”
And he got that chance in a more personal way on Monday when Bright Oaks, which began a partial lockdown three months ago and has had no coronavirus cases, according to staff, held a “Hello Parade” that allowed family members to drive by the facility and see their loved ones who gathered outside the front doors as the sky grew dark and the rain began to fall.
But even the weather could not dampen the enthusiasm of these residents, or their loved ones who gathered in a 60-car line on the east side of River Street then slowly drove through the portico of the care facility that sits right off Sullivan Road in Aurora.
This parade was a much-appreciated way for families to see the residents in person, to wave and honk at them, to smile and blow kisses, to exchange words of hope and love they’ve not been able to do for more than seven weeks, unless through the screens of smartphones or first-floor windows.
So you can imagine the excitement as, one after another, the vehicles crawled past their audience – some standing, some with walkers, others in wheelchairs – with signs, streamers, balloons and hearts decorating the cars that also included plenty of children and even a few dogs hanging out the windows and sun roofs.
“Hi Grandpa, we love you!’ shouted a multitude of Jack Costello’s 16 grandkids as they drove by in car after car.
“I miss you. I love you,” Carol Child’s husband Don loudly proclaimed from his car to his wife of 64 years as she sat 10 feet away in a blanket-draped clinical recliner.
Bieth drove by twice, as the first time he was not able to spot Helen sitting in a wheelchair in a back row. But the second time around, he waved happily as Helen’s 97-year-old friend Dorothy Kmoch, who has visited her weekly, took photos from the passenger side of the vehicle.
Two pictures of Bieth and Helen were glued to a white poster taped to his vehicle, with the word “ITALY” written at the bottom in colorful letters, an acronym I found out later that is carved into their wedding rings and stands for “I trust and love you.”
Among those who had family members show up were World War II veteran Clyde Sebby, who celebrated his 100th birthday on Easter Sunday, and Carolyn Cowherd, known as “Grandma” at the center and whose late husband Henry has an East Side elementary school named in his honor.
Alfonso Saltijeral had about 30 family members throw out words of love and encouragement as they drove by, as did Jack Costello, whose wife of 65 years, Roseann, was able to finally see him in person, along with a couple dozen kids and grandkids.
Then there was Erna Weigt, who at age 99 got to see her newest great-grandson, born three weeks ago, for the first time. And one of the last to drive by was Chris Lirot, who took a few minutes off from his job with the city of Aurora to see his mother Donita Vester, snapping pictures and lighting up her already lovely face.
While it wasn’t possible to catch a lot of the smiles behind so many masks, it was easy to spot the joy.
“There was not a dry eye anywhere,” said Bright Oaks Executive Director Kendra Johnson, who hopes to have a repeat of the event if the nursing home lockdown continues into the summer.
Tears came to my own eyes more than a few times as I witnessed the parade that included multiple go-rounds, as some wanted to catch just one more glimpse of a beloved mother or father or grandpa or husband or wife.
And as I watched, I couldn’t help but think that, as sweet as the Bieth’s love story is, each vehicle that drove under that portico carried another equally compelling tale we will likely never hear.
Time may have been what Richard Bieth needed to fall in love with a pretty young nurse. But during a pandemic that is keeping the sick and elderly from their families, it is not on their side.
“This will get us through until things lift,” said Helen’s grateful husband of this parade in a spring rain. “I am not ultra-religious, but it really is in God’s hands.”
Please read the original article at the Chicago Tribune magazine.