Editor’s note: In 2011 Carol Wood received the Elizabeth Zintl award for leadership at the University of Virginia. Her remarks on that occasion, for colleagues who became friends and extended family, were reformulated for Hospital Drive.
Those who know me well are aware that I like telling other people’s stories, but not my own.
The old reporter in me much prefers listening to talking.
But I’d like to share a story with you, although I do so with some trepidation.
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I knew I loved Bill Wood when I married him 29 years ago.
I loved his wit, his charm, and his kindness.
The way he knew the title, author and lyrics to just about every piece of music imaginable. It didn’t matter what the genre—classic, jazz, rock and roll.
I loved that he was this great dancer and could waltz, jitter bug and do the Carolina shuffle really, really, really well.
I loved that he knew the names of every baseball player since the game started and their winning records and that he’d kept his favorite cards in old shoe boxes under the bed at his mother’s house in Luray, Virginia.
I love that he took me to a Baltimore Oriole’s game on our honeymoon.
I loved that he was a beautiful tennis player who had a killer serve, yet was the most gentle of sportsmen.
I loved that he was more often than not one of the smartest people in the room, but seldom let on.
I loved the editorials he wrote and how he analyzed everything. And I do mean everything. I loved how he edited my copy and was a meticulous grammarian and an ace speller.
I loved his predictable gray Brooks Brothers suits and blue oxford-cloth shirts, his baseball ties, and his dozens of pairs of Bass Weejuns that were, he often said, his hedge against a Weejun strike.
I loved that he was a liberal who called himself a moderate.
I loved that he read four books at a time—tomes on politics, world events or biographies. And that he read four newspapers every day.
I loved that he could talk to anyone—no matter who they were or their station in life—and make them feel like the most important person in the world at that given moment.
I loved that he was always defending the underdog.
I loved that he loved my son, our son really, and instilled in Zach many of his own traits—including an extraordinary work ethic, an open heart, and an impish grin.
I especially loved that when he was diagnosed with dementia five and a half years ago at the age of 62, he shrugged and said he’d had a good life—we’d had a good life.
I loved that while he was the one on the brink of losing his great mind, and I was quietly spinning out of control, that he steadied me and kept us on an even keel.
I loved that he never once asked “Why me?” or got angry or cursed or threw things. Some of that he left to me.
For the first year, I cried every morning while heading to work.
The car became my private confessional—a place where I could get angry and curse and ask God, “Why him, and why not me?”
I knew that I could be happy puttering in my garden, but Bill?
He was someone who needed his brain working at full tilt. He needed sparring partners, people who challenged him and his ideas.
The doctor told us Bill had a type of dementia that was taking direct aim at his ability to speak, to read, and to write.
And two more things: his ability to comprehend and to make decisions.
They said he would probably be mute in a few years.
I remember telling Bill that we had been given a snow globe in which—when shaken—we could see your future. Not many people got that opportunity. Maybe this dementia was a gift.
So we marched through the first two years, seeing changes, but keeping hope that they would be slow moving.
I watched as his handwriting began to slip away, his spelling, his ability to drive and to tie his tie.
He still went to Barnes & Noble and bought books—lots of books, too many books—but they lay helter-skelter around the house, open but unread.
Sometimes I would find him trying to read, but the ability was seeping away. He would read a title or a headline to me, but the fine print became a challenge.
Because he was so smart, Bill was able to compensate for a very long time, choosing substitute words from the “Oxford English Dictionary” that was his brain.
When the doctors tested him, they were continually amazed by his communication and social skills.
At one point, the tests indicated he had dropped to a third-grade level on reading and comprehension, yet he still seemed like Bill, able to carry on some semblance of a conversation and to be his engaging self.
Clearly, there were differences: He called the office one day and asked if he could speak “to the woman who sleeps in the bed next to me.”
There were signs everywhere and I was keeping close watch, but I wanted to hang on to normalcy for as long as I could.
There was still much to celebrate. Our first grandchild was born: Will, now 5, who was named for Bill. And two years later, our beautiful and wild granddaughter Julia, now 3, who when she visits likes to jump on our bed and sing “Jingle Bells” at the top of her lungs to wake up her PopPop.
Almost imperceptibly, the disease marched on. Sometimes catching me by surprise. As the old Bill began to fall away, his core remained.
His sweetness. His laughter. His jitterbug wiggle. His gentle touch on my arm.
He would still tell me he loved me. But my name had long ago been erased.
It didn’t matter. He knew who I was and greeted me every morning when he woke up and every evening when I got home from work with open arms and a smile.
Last year, my friend Shelly asked: “Have you fallen in love with Bill Wood all over again?”
I had not thought of it that way, but on reflection, the answer is yes. It is a different kind of love. And he needs me in a different kind of way.
Today, his grandchildren have hop scotched past him in their abilities.
Will said recently he thought all the information in PopPop’s brain was being sent into his little mind. And he wondered out loud why PopPop walks so slowly and why I sometimes treat him like a baby.
* * *
So why am I telling you all this? And in such a public venue rather than across a table while we sip a glass of wine together?
It’s because we are all members of the University community—the University family—and these are the things you share with family. The realities of life when things are tough and you need to ask for help.
In fact, many have become part of our extended family. They have embraced Bill and me and kept us on that even keel when we felt our boat tipping precariously.
They have cajoled Bill and made him laugh. They have bucked me up and made me giggle. They have given us strength.
We came to the University in 1993 when Bill was recruited to be the founding executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. It was a job that Bill loved, but still, we expected to stay maybe three years, five at the most.
For the first two years, I continued to work for Landmark Communications in Norfolk and headed there for work and friends every chance I got. To have my hair cut, to go to the dentist and the doctor, sometimes even to do grocery shopping.
In 1995 a job opened in University Relations and I was hired as the director of news services. The search committee consisted of some familiar (former and current) University names. They became my personal resource center and I jingled their phones whenever I needed anything—including advice on how to avoid mistakes. They became trusted colleagues and dear friends.
I had found a new a caring community to supplement the one I’d left behind in Norfolk. The University had become our home.
* * *
Bill and I have a long Chinese bench at the end of our bed, which I have dubbed the cocktail bench.
It is here I have sat with friends drinking wine and sometimes eating dinner, while Bill, tucked under a quilt, smiles happily and drifts off to sleep.
We have a large, white-tiled shower that rains down gently on Bill.
It is here that I have bathed him while friends stood sentry lest either of us should fall.
We have an army of umbrellas and ancient Adirondacks set out by the back door, and a CD player with Bill’s favorite music.
It is here that I have grilled while Bill enjoyed the company of our community of friends.
When dementia comes calling, life changes, but it doesn’t end. Come see for yourself sometime, and join us on the cocktail bench.
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