Couple lives ‘long goodbye’

FAIRMONT – A photograph rests on top of the television of Francis McNerney’s third-story room at Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center. Pictured is Francis and his wife Mildred, or Millie, as he calls her. They are smiling, and she is leaning into him as they take a train ride through the Stillwater area for their 50th anniversary.

Francis was 21 years old, selling shoes at Penney’s after serving overseas in the Philippines, when he met Millie, who needed some shoes for her new job at the sweet shop and bakery in Fairmont.

She caught his eye from the beginning.

“She was a new girl in town, and she was a nice girl,” he said, “so I followed it up.”

Whether the instant attraction was mutual, she never said, and he’ll never know.

Millie McNerney was diagnosed 11 years ago with Alzheimer’s. She no longer speaks, except with her eyes and to smile at his stories.

“They say this is the long goodbye, and I guess it is,” Francis said. “We’ve had 11 years of it, with her drifting away. But she’s very happy here and content, and that’s the main thing.”

He spoke fondly about his years with his wife, their wedding at a little church in Millie’s hometown of Wilmont, the three boys they raised and put through college, their three grandchildren, their three great-granddaughters. He described her cooking and baking, the never-ending supply of chocolate chip cookies that her boys would gobble down, even after they had kids of their own.

“She never minded. She just made more,” Francis said.

He also spoke about when she got sick, his desire to fix her and the realization that he couldn’t. He described his struggle to take over the cooking, partly because of inexperience, and partly because Millie didn’t want to turn over the responsibility.

She would get up in the middle of the night to take meat out of the freezer to defrost for the next day, even though Francis already had meat defrosting, so when she came back to bed, he would rub her back until she fell asleep, and then he would quietly sneak into the kitchen to put the meat back in the freezer. In the morning, she never seemed to remember what had taken place just hours earlier.

For two years, Francis cared for Millie at home, but then he was diagnosed with cancer, and “everything fell apart.” The cancer treatments left him weak and unable to care for his wife, and then he started having falls. For a while, she lived in Des Moines with one of their sons, but she wanted to be with Francis, and it didn’t work out.

For the past two years they’ve been living at Lakeview.

“I like it here,” he said. “It means that we can be together.”

Stepping his way down the hallway from his seat on his wheelchair, Francis moved toward the activities room to meet his wife, whose room is on the opposite end of the hallway. Millie was waiting in her wheelchair, a distant look on her face, until she saw Francis, and a little smile touched her lips. Around her neck was one of the necklaces Francis won for her playing bingo at Lakeview.

“You look nice today, Millie,” said Francis, complimenting his wife when he saw her for the first time that day.

“Your little hands are cold,” he said as he took his wife’s hands in his own, after the staff helped get the McNerneys’ wheelchairs as close together as possible.

“Cold hands, warm heart,” he said, smiling.

Decorating the room where they met were hearts and cupid cutouts in red and pink, a sign of Valentine’s Day.

Today the McNerneys will be together, but throughout their 63 years of marriage, many of their Valentine’s days were spent apart. Francis worked for many years as a rural mailman, while Millie was a homemaker and waitress at The Oaks and then The Sirloin House. She often had to work on weekends and always on Valentine’s Day, so Francis would babysit their boys, keeping them up late, so they would sleep in and give Millie more time to rest in the mornings.

“We enjoyed our kids. They were fun little people,” he said.

Though their lives were busy, they still found time for each other. They went ballroom dancing, driving to the Colosseum in Worthington, socialized with friends, and traveled together.

“I’m glad we didn’t wait to enjoy life until we were retired,” said Francis, squeezing Millie’s hand, his eyes rarely looking away from his wife.

That’s how they communicate now.

“I hold her hand, and I talk to her, and she’ll kind of respond with her eyes,” he said. “She doesn’t say anything, but she seems to know I’m there, and that’s all that matters.”

It’s a love story that touches not only the McNerneys but the staff at Lakeview.

“He is just so in love with her, through sickness and in health,” said Julie Ufer, activities director.