Fred Dickey's Island of Human Drama
Marine combat vet's biggest achievement: comforting his wife through Alzheimer's
Marine combat vet's biggest achievement: comforting his wife through Alzheimer's
By Fred Dickey June 19, 2017 San Diego Union-Tribune
Randy Rundle is an up-to-date man. His career in the technology industry makes the iPad an extension of his arm. He gets as many text messages as phone calls.
He can be found every weekday morning sweating at Crunch Fitness in El Cajon alongside a troop of grunting pals. Afterward, they head to a nearby McDonald’s for coffee — at the senior rate, of course.
Perhaps he’ll be doing the same at age 100; that’s only seven years distant.
His daily regimen is low-level Schwarzeneggerian without the preening. “I use the exerciser, the exercycle, the treadmill and a rowing machine. I spend about an hour and a half working out.”
On weekends he relaxes with a lighter workout in the gym at his retirement complex.
The gym stuff is interesting, but there’s a bigger part of Randy, one that’s as old as loyalty, as steadfast as compassion, as durable as love.
Randy didn’t back off when life told him to step up.
It was 2007. The children of 79-year-old Tess Rundle gathered around her hospice bed in the living room. At the center was Randy, her husband of 59 years. Hands reached out to touch her, the last chance to connect with the mother and wife who had glued their lives together.
And then it was over. Randy turned and went to the kitchen, where he could cry alone.
Tess’ struggle with Alzheimer’s disease had ended, as it did for Randy, because for more than 10 years he had made her struggle his own.
It seems like Randy’s mental sharpness stopped aging a couple of decades ago, if you don’t count maybe losing track of the TV remote. He’s also a tough old bird, as his medical chart would bear out.
“I thank the Lord he didn’t give us three legs,” he says, referring to zipper scars from two knee replacements. He also had a stroke in 1998 that partially froze the right side of his face and left him without hearing in one ear. Another stroke effect is a problem with balance, which puts him behind the handlebars of a walker for anything more than a few steps.
Can you believe him tackling a gym machine after pushing that walker aside? Well, believe it.
Randy’s doctor certainly will believe it. The last time he visited his cardiologist, it was a celebration.
“They did an EKG. They took all the vital signs, and then the gal wrote everything down. When the doctor came in, he started reading, then said, ‘Wow. Wow. That’s great. I'll see you next year. Keep doing whatever you’re doing.’”
It’s been a long trek from Reading, Pennsylvania for a fellow who remembers the hunger days of the Great Depression. His was a family of five children with a sick father and a mother who worked two jobs to keep them together.
Randy quit high school as a senior to take a job to help out. He made $10 per week and gave $8 to his mother.
He joined the Marines in 1942 and was part of the battle of Okinawa, and then the Korean War. Randy worked on radar when it was mainly a mystery. He retired after 25 year, having achieved the rank of chief warrant officer, and went to work for Ryan Aeronautics in San Diego. One of his projects was flying reconnaissance drones off the coast of China that eavesdropped on radio traffic. That was in the mid-70s.
In final retirement, he was active in civic work, especially for Kiwanis, the Home of Guiding Hands and Rady Children’s Hospital.
He says he doesn’t read much these days, but listens to a lot of classical music.
Who do you most enjoy?
You’re a man of discernment. Are you a religious man?
“Not overly, but I believe. I believe in Jesus Christ. Of course, I think that makes you a Christian.”
That’s the price of admission, as I understand it.
“I enjoy other people more than I ever have. I no longer get angry with other people.”
What turned that around?
“I think Tess’ passing helped. I realized that people are not going to be with you forever, and you’d better be nice to them when they are.”
“I’ve got all the aches and pains that everybody has,” he says without complaint. “My back aches all the time. My knees hurt every once in a while, and I have to go to the bathroom more often than I think I should.”
Growing old has more potential downsides than just sore joints.
“All my sisters and brother have died,” he says. “I’m the only one left. I don’t know why. It’s kind of scary in a way. You just keep thinking about, ‘Why did they die and why didn’t I?’ I don’t know.”
His four children all live reasonably close. “I’ve heard people say the bad thing about getting to a really advanced age is you start to outlive your children. I hope that doesn’t happen, really.”
Let’s sweep all that background aside and look at what I — and I think he — would consider his most significant achievement.
Randy’s home is an independent-living studio in Rancho San Diego, a few blocks off state Route 94.
He sits at a small table in his unit and fingers a wedding ring on the small finger of his left hand. It was Tess’. Now it’s his, just as is the memory of her.
For Tess, it started in her 60s. Little things, but they got larger.
“She would definitely forget where she was sometimes and who she was with and she’d call me Gloria or Alice or something like that. I’d say, ‘Remember when you did this?’ She’d say, ‘No, I don't remember that.’ Maybe around 70, she knew she had it (Alzheimer’s) and she accepted it.”
The pamphleteer Tom Paine wrote in 1776, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” However, the words speak to grievous human challenges across all time — like Alzheimer’s in our day, with its maddening constant curses on people’s lives.
Randy says, “I don’t think I was ever angry at anything Tess did associated with the Alzheimer’s. I would get frustrated a little bit. Like for instance, she’d have an accident in the bed in the middle of the night.
“I’d have to get up and get her out and dress her, redress her, wash her off and everything and then go and do all the clothes and change the bed linen. While you’re doing that you’re thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then you feel guilty about thinking that.”
Toward the end, at its worst, did you ever think: I wish this would be over?
“Yes, I think I did. I don’t think I ever wished that she was not alive, but I wished there was some way it could end.”
But you knew that wasn’t going to happen.
“Well, in the back of your mind you do, yeah. But you still think about it once in a while. What it comes down to is you’re tired. You get tired of living with this.”
Did you consider a facility for her?
“Well, a couple times my son and I went out and looked at places like that. But I’d always walk away and say, ‘No way. No way, we’re not going to do that. I’m not going to put Tess in that room by herself.’”
Randy says it’s not the big crises that get to you, it’s the little things that don’t seem so little at the time. That’s where you prove inner strength.
“Oh yes, yes. I can remember when we would be going to go out, I’d have to help her into her wheelchair, take her down to the car, sit her there and pull the car out a little bit so I could get her in the car. Put the wheelchair in the trunk, go around and get in the car to get ready to go, and she’d say, ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’ A time like that, it hits you because you’ve got to stop and do everything all over again. I never got mad, but I did think about it.
“We’d be in a store. I remember one time we were in Costco in Santee and she said, ‘Take me home. I got to go to the bathroom.’ I said, ‘Well, we can go to the bathroom here.’ She said, ‘No, I want to go home.’ Then I think, ‘Why? Why can't she go to the bathroom here?’”
Did you go home?
“Oh, sure. I always took her home.”
You could have said, “No, you're going to go here. Period.”
“I couldn’t have done that.”
What you did requires lots of patience.
“No, it doesn’t. No. I don’t think so. She’s my wife. I love her.”
Sounds like you had a good marriage.
“I guess so, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t ever have problems, because we did. We actually separated a couple of times, but it didn’t last. It was just like a night or two. She’d go home and stay with her family and then come back.
“I think my son worded it pretty well: ‘The only thing tougher than a Marine is a Marine’s wife.’”
At the end, the family was together.
“I think her death was not that pleasant. She got the pneumonia and she couldn’t swallow so she laid there. They were giving her morphine and trying to keep her comfortable. She laid in that room for 27 days without anything to eat or drink before she passed away.
“We were right there with her and holding her hands, just touching her.”
Having stood the caretaker love test gives Randy peace of mind and strengthens his perspective.
There are no tears or quavering voice as he says, “She’s not gone. I have her wedding ring on my little finger, so she’s not gone as far as I’m concerned. She’s interred at Fort Rosecrans. I was going every Friday for a while, but after I got to where I wasn't driving anymore, that became almost impossible because to take the bus, trolley, bus, trolley, bus, bus. It was six hours from the time I left here until I got back.
“Right now, my daughter, she takes me at least once a month, and we commiserate there. I usually say a little prayer to start with and then just think about things the way they were and tell her she’s loved and missed.
“Then I go over and look out at that beautiful bay and the ocean and think that I’m going to spend my eternity here, and I think that’s good.”
Alzheimer’s slowly draws a black drape over the mind of its victim. The face of a loved one becomes a stranger’s. Memory teases, then disappears. All becomes lost.
All but love. Love parts the curtain. Maybe the words are lost, but the spirit, the warmth, those gets through, we have to believe. They’re on a different wavelength.
“The love we have in our youth is superficial compared to the love that an old man has for his old wife.” — Will Durant