The Long Goodbye


Light from the dashboard threw a pale glow on the haggard face of the aging man. Gripping the steering wheel, he peered into the night. Let's see, now, he thought, wrinkling his brow, how could it take me twelve hours to drive sixty miles?

Earlier that day he'd driven south from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, toward our small town, but somehow he'd taken a detour, ending up three hundred miles east in a neighboring province.

"You need to retrace your path," a stranger told him. "You need to turn around. And head west."

But the detour continued. Five hours later he arrived in Edmonton, a city far to the north, and now he was standing on the side of the road rubbing burning eyes in bewilderment. In his hand was a piece of paper with directions to another city far from home. Climbing back into the car, he turned up the radio. Someone was missing, possibly lost. Someone who was sick.

Twenty-four hours later, George Martin quit searching for home and pulled into a tiny service station in a town east of Edmonton. Exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, he approached the woman behind the till. "I left my wife somewhere and I don't know where," George said through cracked and bloody lips. "But I have her sweater here."

When two of his children arrived to pick him up, George looked at his daughter Janis and said, "Oh, thank goodness, they've found you."

For thirty-six hours, search parties had scoured the country by land and air, looking for the retired garage foreman who'd driven away from the Red Deer Regional Hospital during some tests. Officials watched at border crossings. Radio and television stations aired the alert. Prayer chains formed.

And at home his wife waited.

Hoping.

Fearing the worst.

When George came through the door, she embraced him tightly. "Ah, honey," smiled Avonelle, "you took the long way home, didn't you?"

But George wasn't really home. As the poison of a dread disease began to spread through his body, he felt like a stranger in his own house, not knowing that Home waited too far down the road in a land not made with hands.

Years before the doctors diagnosed the problem, Avoneile had her suspicions. When he burned up the car's motor for lack of oil, she began to wonder. When he stood in a doctor's office, wondering what he was doing there, it began to dawn on her. One day he jumped suddenly to his feet and insisted on making a delivery-though he'd been retired for years.

And then she knew. George had Alzheimer's.

"It took me a long time to get the keys away from him," she remembers with a laugh. "I finally discovered that if I told him it was my turn to drive, he was fine with that."

For three and a half years Avonelle cared for him constantly at home. She watched his strong body shrivel into a skeleton. She read the stories of Alzheimer's wards. Places where dignified saints wear diapers and swear like sailors. Where families stand with tearstained faces wondering at the strangers they once called Daddy. Or Mommy. Or sweetheart. Places where God-fearing partners clutch their sanity, clench their teeth, and walk away. For good.

But not Avonelle Martin.

"There was no other option," she says now. "Decades ago I vowed I'd be there for him whether he was sick or well. It wasn't always the easy thing to do, but it was always the right thing."

One day George made a visit to the hospital and never returned. Sick from exhaustion, Avonelle went home and for the first time in years had a good night's rest.

The next day she began a seven-year pilgrimage of daily visits to care for her man. To hug and kiss him.

To sit on his lap and talk.

To take him out for walks and ice cream. To feed him and change him.

She also grieved deeply. "I'd be thinking about George, about our early years together, and the memories would come back." She recalls. "I would break down and cry and cry." On one occasion, she stood in the rain outside the hospital and trembled under a load of despair.

"I thought, I just can't face this another day! And I turned and ran back home and got in bed and pulled the covers over my head."

She laughs about it now. "But after a couple of hours, I found myself going back up to the hospital. I walked in the same way I always did."

Like a magnet, her smile in the midst of turmoil drew other patients to her. Doctors and nurses sought her advice. Her pain seemed to prepare a shoulder for others to cry on.

Four times she walked beside George through the valley of death, only to have him recover and defiantly live on. But at last, the withered shell of a man began to crack. Bedsores dug deep and turned gangrenous. Parkinson's disease curled him up stiff in a fetal position. Each heave of his chest became a gurgling fight for air. For three eternal weeks, Avonelle fed her dying husband with a dropper.

Then it was over.

One August night she said good night for the last time. "The doctors said he must have had 'ministering angels,"' says Avonelle with a broad smile. "I'd like to think I was one of them."

Angels like Avonelle shine like stars in this dark night of me-ism, of selfish rights and easy divorce. Surprisingly, their marriage was not exactly engraved in custom nor cradled in the support of friends and family. "That's right," she admits with a grin, "we...well, we eloped! It was a little more common in those days." But the roots of her unusual courage and loyalty run deep.

In a kindergarten Sunday school class, she received a small plaque with the words "Be Thou Faithful Unto Death." Though she didn't understand them, the words would become her life motto. At the age of twenty-one, for the first time, she believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and she made a vow that would shape the rest of her life: "Lord, as long as I have breath, I'll be a missionary right where I'm at."

Neighborhood children became her mission field. And amazing things happened when Avonelle prayed. A Russian boy believed in Christ before his did was deported. The three children next door became Christians. Then their atheist parents. And after fourteen years of marriage, George too gave his life to Jesus. Avonelle started Bible studies and later, as a church deaconess, she began visiting the sick and shut-ins.

Did she pray for George's healing? "Oh yes. But my main prayer for George was: 'Lord, he's in Your hands. The timing of his life and death are Yours. Whatever You have in mind, I believe You love us both, so I trust You completely.' I guess I learned to commit it all to the Lord from the very beginning."

"I am a simple person," agrees Avonelle. Not simple-minded. But I have a childlike Faith in God. I believe that if He said He'd do it, He will. And I just carry on with that. But I also want people to know that l m no better than anyone else. That always seemed important to me--that I'm no better than anyone else."

Callaway, Phil. Laughing Matters. Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2005, p. 92-96.

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