Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but March is still a tough month and needs all the help it can get. So I’m going to share a love story, one that matters dearly to me.

On a recent afternoon, I watched my sister Ruthie absently adjust the pillow that was cushioning the back of the man by her side. It’s automatic for Ruthie, this reflexive gesture. The setting was his home in South Jersey, a simple place where most of his “guests” are the aides who are currently helping him to recover from an illness.

George is not the most patient of patients. But my sister has remarkable coping skills. As I watched these two, I marveled at what it takes to be a caregiver, perhaps the ultimate defining act of love and kindness. In a few minutes, George was perking up.

Just days before in the lounge of a rehab center, I had watched Ruthie and George going through their daily dialogue: George wanted desperately to leave the rehab; my sister needed to remind him that until he was stabilized from a serious infection, this was where he needed to be.

It was in this lounge, with its plastic chairs, that these two had marked the 22nd anniversary of their first date. No, not the most romantic setting. But then, love transcends place for a couple who have been one another’s significant other for those two-plus decades.

They met through Single Book Lovers, an early version of Internet dating. George had wooed Ruthie in French, and she has never forgotten his roguish charm.

But there was a deeper, darker side as well. Jewish, Belgian-born George was a hidden child during the Holocaust, sheltered in a Catholic boarding school and living in daily terror. It is an inescapable fact of his life that has, of course,  had a profound impact. That past, for George, is always lurking in the present.

When they met, he was  a professor of romance languages. Ruthie was a college English teacher, juggling English classes and freelance writing. Those were good, rich years. Both were long-divorced and independent, and for them, their union didn’t require marriage. It flourished on a deep connection that didn’t need religious or civil sanction.

They had traveled widely, welcomed George’s grandchildren together and still maintained separate homes because for them, that worked best.

As George’s minor health issues became more major, they inevitably intruded on the emotional landscape. My sister’s life became an endless whirlwind of doctor visits and hospitalizations. Some women might have walked away. There was, after all, no formal marriage. There was not even a common home. But no way was that going to happen.

So I have watched my sister bulldoze her way through all the tough parts of loving “for better and for worse.” I’ve seen her burrow her way through the endless medical appointments and complications that are now part and parcel of growing old and ill in this country.

“But what about you?” I sometimes ask her when she is weary. “You have to take care of yourself.” Sometimes she agrees. Sometimes she gets upset with me for asking.

On the winter day when snow had fallen relentlessly, I knew where my sister probably was, either physically, or in spirit. Would George’s aides be able to get there? Would he feel abandoned? How could she comfort him and be safe herself? Have I mentioned that my big sister is approaching 80 herself?

That same day, a commercial spread across our TV screen, with a beautiful young couple looking adoringly at each other. They were flawless, with sparkling eyes and perfect smiles. They were, we were to believe, love personified.

Then I pictured my sister. I pictured George. And in that moment, from a place deep in me, I saw a portrait of love that was far, far more beautiful.

March 2016
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