EVANSVILLE, In. (WEHT) – It’s something that most people aspire to but some fail to attain: a loving marriage where each spouse is devoted until death do they part. Earlier this year, a devoted and determined Evansville man was able to grant his wife’s dying wish, thanks to a group of volunteers that asked for nothing in return.
This is a story of love, loss and living up to a vow.
It is mid-April and the house is silent. Four dogs lay sleeping; not even the distant hum of a lawnmower startles them. Jerry Lawrence saunters into a corner room of his north side home. The room is dark, illuminated only by the white glow of a computer monitor.
He begins typing.
The staccato strokes of the keyboard begin to produce words, then sentences, then paragraphs.
“We die in many ways.”
“Some fear death. Some await it.”
“Some see it as the beginning of something better.”
Lawrence has always enjoyed writing. Words, he says, provide endless possibilities. This essay, this expression of the soul, however, is one of his most personal entries yet.
“I’m writing for Maturity Journal,” Lawrence said. “It’s got about a 40,000 circulation.”
You can’t have love without loss but in that loss is the true test of devotion. Lawrence’s story begins near the end.
They spent more than 40 years apart but made up for lost time in one decade. Jerry and Delores Lawrence met in high school. They graduated from the old Central High School in 1961. The two were friends but little did Jerry know Delores, better known as Dee, had a crush on him.
“I was too self-absorbed to even realize it,” Jerry said with a playful grin.
Dee went onto marry an Evasnville policeman. It was a loving marriage that ended prematurely with her husband’s death. Jerry would also get married but became a divorcee. After spending much of his life working in the cut-throat Chicago broadcasting industry, Jerry came back to Evansville. Jerry and Dee would meet again at their 45th high school reunion.
They exchanged vows a year later.
“I would say that people who are married even 50 years, they’re very lucky to have what Dee and I have had for nine,” Jerry said. “we were kids together. We were apart for 45 of our most important years. We were making up for that.”
Cod sandwiches, church on Sundays and game nights in the living room, the two did everything together. They had a particular affinity for going out to eat, visiting seemingly every restaurant in the Tri-State region together.
Their vows actually meant something.
“When [Dee] first got incapacitated and could no longer walk, I went into the room and she started crying. I said, ‘what’s the matter honey?’ She said, ‘I’m afraid that you won’t want me anymore,'” Jerry said has he choked back tears. “I said, “I’ll never leave you. I’ll never split with you. I want you. I want you because of who you are inside, not because of what you are outside.'”
Last year, Dee suffered two strokes in three hours. She lost the use of her left arm. She lost the ability to take care of herself. She shed 130 pounds in a matter of months.
As her body continued to wither, she lay in a nursing home waiting.
“I told her, ‘If I go, there will be no one to take care of you. You’ll be in a nursing home for the rest of your life.’ She said, ‘no, I don’t want that. I want to die with you, with you here and these puppies,'” Jerry said.
There was a problem, however. Dee’s condition required daily, essentially constant care. Faced with health problems of his own, Jerry couldn’t provide such a high level of car. Compounding the dilemma was Jerry’s trouble in finding nurses who were willing and able to take care of Dee. Such care was needed just to bring Dee home and for months Jerry couldn’t find it.
His phone then began to ring.
Jerry’s house near Central High School is located at the center of a cul-de-sac. It would provide the best view of what happened on February 13th, the day before Valentine’s Day.
An ambulance slowly appeared at the crest of the hill. It turned into Jerry’s driveway, as he stood near the threshold of the garage. His eyes were already beginning to glisten. A door opened. Two wheels hit the ground, then four.
Dee was home.
“Hi sweetheart! Hi baby! Hello!” Jerry said as the stretcher rolled by. “Welcome home!”
After eight months apart, the two could finally live as one.
“Baby I love you so much,” Jerry said to Dee as he went down for a kiss.
“I love you more,” Dee replied.
“More? You can’t do that!” Jerry said.
The paramedics and three nurses then carefully and methodically hoisted Dee off of the stretcher and onto a bed. A paramedic then told Jerry that Dee told him to, ‘get this show on the road and let’s have fun,’ as she was loaded onto the ambulance at the nursing home.
“You know why she says that? She’s not scared of passing away,” Jerry replied.
As the ambulance left Jerry knew Dee was finally in caring hands.
“Welcome home. Thank everybody here. They did this for you,” Jerry told Dee.
Armed with Windex instead of a stethoscope, one nurse was cleaning the trim around a door. Another nurse was moving laundry from the washer to the dryer. Another nurse was organizing Jerry’s bedroom.
This is how nurses Jody Sutton and his wife Kim spent their Valentine’s Day.
“I stopped to get some medical supplies and I picked up a dozen roses,” Jody Sutton said.
The roses weren’t for his wife. They were for Dee.
“I knew Jerry would be too busy to think about it or have time to do it,” Jody Sutton said. “As I was standing at the counter to pay for the medical supplies, I saw the roses there and thought, ‘yes!'”
The team of nurses cleaned the Lawrence’s home from top to bottom. Not only was this done to help make the environment more medically sterile, it was also done to help Jerry relax.
“This is the first time in basically two years that he’s been able to do nothing,” Jody Sutton said.
In the other room, Dee lay peacefully as the constant hum of medical equipment churned on. For Kim Sutton, the scene invoked emotions about her own marriage.
“[Jody and I] play the ‘what if?’ game. What if it was me in the bed? What would you do?” Kim Sutton said. “Without question, every time [Jody] says I would take care of you. And I would take care of him.”
Kintina Chapman, the manager of the cardiac ICU at one of the Deaconess campuses, is also at the Lawrence home. Prior to this night, she didn’t know Jerry. She didn’t know Dee. But when something came across her Facebook newsfeed she knew she had to act.
“As soon as I saw it and read it, I posted it to our unit’s Facebook page. I said this is something we need to do,” Chapman said. “I’m fortunate that I work with around 50 really good nurses and they are always willing to help and go out of their way to do things. I knew if I posted it on our unit’s Facebook page that we would have volunteers. I just didn’t know how many.”
At wit’s end and wanting so desperately to bring Dee home, Jerry put a classified ad in the Evansville Courier & Press. However, before the ad was featured in the Sunday paper, Jerry’s plight caught the attention of editor Tim Ethridge. Ethridge detailed the couple’s plight.
Within an hour of the story being posted, Jerry had dozens of calls.
“I wanted a soldier but I ended up getting an entire army,” Jerry said.
Jody and his wife Kim were among the first to call.
“My heart is so full of love for [Jody] because even before he knew who it was, he told me to call, call, call,” Kim Sutton said.
Jody, a nurse working in the anesthesiology unit, helped take care of Dee before she had a feeding tube installed in her stomach. Prior to administering the medicine, he told her to think of the happiest dream she could. She said she’d dream about being home with her five puppies.
That short conversation stuck with him, Jody said.
“You can’t listen to Jerry and Dee’s story and not be touched. It’s the deep love in marriage that most people aspire to yet most people fail to attain,” Jody Sutton said. “[Jerry] placing the ad was courageous.”
“This has been a love story that has been amazing to bear witness to,” Kim Sutton said. “The love that he has for her and the love that she has for him… it’s been amazing to watch.”
For Jody, the reasons for volunteering his time and money to Dee’s care were personal. For Chapman, it was just the right thing to do.
“I don’t have any deeper reason than that,” Chapman said. “Jerry’s conviction helped my conviction. I’ve never done anything like this before. One of the things in the ICU every day is death. A nursing home or a hospital is not where people expect to have their final days. For him to have enough passion to do his best to have her home, someone had to help.”
More than forty nurses answered the call, helping to provide hospice care for Dee at no cost to Jerry. They provided care for Dee and counseling for Jerry, even as reality began to sink in.
“It just really hit me. I know I’m going to lose her for sure,” Jerry said after Dee had been home for a couple of days. “I never went past the point of getting her home. It was getting her home to die but I never paid attention to that. I just wanted her here.”
They treated the Lawrences as if they were their own family members. One nurse even sang to Dee in quiet, hushed tones.
“Isn’t that the sweetest thing?” Jerry said.
For two weeks, day and night, the nurses provided the most compassionate of care. By that point, the Valentine’s Day roses that Jody bought for Jerry began to wilt.
And so did she.
“I feel an emptiness. It started at 11:35 today,” Jerry said.
Dee passed peacefully on February 24th. Her dogs surrounded her. With his wife’s hand in his, Jerry whispered his last words to the love of his life.
Thank you. Goodbye.
“Loss is not something you can experience until you first have love, otherwise you don’t have have loss,” Jerry said. “I have a loss now.”
A week later, dozens of friends, family and other loved ones packed Browning Funeral Home for Dee’s memorial service. Tears of sadness weren’t allowed, Jerry said. The ceremony was a celebration. It’s what Dee wanted.
“When you lose someone close to your heart they become a memory. Soon, those memories become treasures. Dee was my treasure,” Jerry said in his eulogy.
They played her favorite songs and even toasted plastic cups of wine in Dee’s honor. The nurses who helped Dee in her end days wouldn’t miss it for the world.
He thanked every single one of them.