The Dugout, they called it -- a campus restaurant at Catholic University where students would congregate between classes. It was in The Dugout nearly 40 years ago where Audrey and John Ghizzoni, two law students from Pennsylvania, met.
"Her energy, that was what struck me," says John. "She was always so incredibly energetic." Then he takes a slow bite of his lunch and adds:
"That's what makes it so distressing now."
Energy is exactly what Audrey Ghizzoni lacks these days. Seriously ill for 2 1/2 years, bedridden since February, Audrey is terminally ill with emphysema. At 61, she has only a few months to live, and maybe less. At my request, the Ghizzoni family has allowed me to visit them regularly during the last months of Audrey's life. Their wish -- and mine -- is to tell Audrey's story fully and honestly in hopes that other families living through terminal illness can benefit.
John Ghizzoni is a thoughtful man with a wide, dancing smile and a white Lincolnesque beard. At 64, he is nearing the end of a long and good career as a lawyer with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. In other circumstances, the summer of 1986 would find the Ghizzonis "deciding between a trip to Scandinavia and a trip to Ireland," John says. But the actual circumstances are these:
Every morning, John Ghizzoni gets up at 6 a.m. and goes into Audrey's downstairs bedroom in the family home in North Arlington. "I'm the gofer," he says. "I bring the cotton balls. I carry the equipment from one table to another. I ask her what she wants for breakfast. And then I get it."
They might discuss "the highlight of the news," John says. But much more often, they will discuss medications and blood sugar levels. "We don't talk about trips to Europe any more," says John.
Most men will never have to do what John Ghizzoni is doing, because men are usually the patients in a terminal illness situation, not the care-givers. The "rules" have been rewritten for John Ghizzoni. Because of that, he might feel cheated or put upon. Yet he says:
"I don't feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for her. Here is someone who's very energetic, always very active, who has declined. She's not enjoying the things she likes.
"I just have to keep it up. I don't have any choice," John says. "I don't say that reluctantly or disgustedly or anything."
Does he mean it in the sense of what he promised 36 years ago -- the well-worn lines about richer or poorer, in sickness and in health?
"Yes, that's right. That's a commitment. That's my commitment."
Yet Audrey wishes John would make a commitment that he isn't ready to make. She has been urging him to retire "so I can spend more time with her." But he is reluctant to do that, "because I don't know what I could contribute."
I ask John if keeping his job might be his way of holding onto a known part of his life, his way of having something familiar to fall back on once Audrey is dead. "I hadn't thought about that," he replies, "but I think that's probably part of it."
A lot of people in John Ghizzoni's position try to see the bright side of everything. They reply, "Fine," when someone asks how the ill spouse is doing, even though she is anything but. John Ghizzoni doesn't do that.
"My usual answer is, 'She's holding, no change,' " John says. "I never say 'She's okay.' I make no claims of strength or weakness."
Then, after a short pause, John adds: "I don't expect any miracles."
Nor did John expect to learn anything positive from the slow decline of his wife. But he has.
"I used to be the sort of person who keeps everything inside and then blows." Chuckling, John admits that Audrey would probably say he is blowing more often than ever. But John thinks he has "learned to become more patient with her, and occasionally with some of the people I work with. This Audrey's illness has convinced me that maybe I should mend some of my ways. If there's a benefit from watching Audrey decline, that would be it."
As the coffee arrives, John Ghizzoni turns philosophical.
"You know, there are times during the course of the day that you wonder why it has to be," he says.
"You know that life comes to an end. You read about heart attacks and accidents and all of the other ways of terminating your life. But it seems to me that this pulmonary way is a little unfair. In some ways, what I'm doing now almost seems like an exercise in futility . . . .
"It's been long and slow. It's been distressing. Over 2 1/2, three years, you see someone who could do just about anything, who could finish a book in a day or two, go to none of that, where all she has now is the TV set. From doing three or four items at once to flat zero."
A tear forms in John Ghizzoni's eye. The waiter brings the check. The Dugout must seem like a long time ago.