'He was just getting too tired," explained Audrey Ghizzoni. "To come home every day and cook for both of us. Plus he does his own laundry, and all the shopping. And he has to take me to the dentist. And whatever else needs doing."

So two Fridays ago, Audrey's 69-year-old husband, John Ghizzoni, retired from his job as a federal government lawyer. In a household where not much has changed in the last three years, suddenly everything has.

Audrey Ghizzoni is still incurably ill with emphysema, as she has been since 1986. She still spends almost every day in bed on the first floor of the family's home in North Arlington.

She is unable to stand, speak on the phone for more than a few minutes at a time or bathe herself without help. Although the Ghizzonis have had Evelyn Bryant, a 50-hour-a-week private duty nurse, on hand for years, Audrey had been too ill and too immobile to leave home until six months ago.

She has spent most most of her time flat on her back in bed, reading books and watching C-Span on television. It has been a bleak existence, and no one knows it better than she.

Now, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Ghizzonis will have time with one another, with nothing to force them apart and with their specially equipped Ford van available to take them wherever they like. "I'm very optimistic," says Audrey. "I'm so glad to have him home."

Ever since her illness was declared incurable, Audrey and her family have allowed me to visit them from time to time. The idea has been to report on a Washington-area household as it copes with the prospect of losing a key family member. The Ghizzonis and I hope that families in similar situations will draw strength and guidance from the Ghizzonis' experiences.

John Ghizzoni's retirement will dump much of the burden of caring for Audrey onto John himself. The 50 hours a week of nursing help will have to be cut to 12 because John's government-retiree health insurance won't cover more. Meanwhile, John will have to prepare every meal, supervise every bath, wash every dish and put out every unexpected fire.

At the same time, the Ghizzonis' income will decline substantially. "We won't live the Gourmet Giant life, that's for sure," Audrey said. "I can see a lot of hamburgers in our future."

But at least there is a future, a fact that continues to confound her doctors and Audrey herself.

"My lung capacity is no better, no worse," Audrey announced, matter-of-factly. However, she hasn't seen a doctor since January. On that occasion, "all he said was, 'Just keep in touch.' " And he said it with a bemused giggle, Audrey recalled, because he is the same doctor who told her more than four years ago that she had less than six months to live.

So optimistic are the Ghizzonis about Audrey's continuing stability that they plan to buy a $5,000 electric wheelchair this summer. It will allow Audrey to maneuver herself around the house, thus sparing John from constant pushing duty.

However, Audrey is the first to confess that controlling the wheelchair's joystick has been beyond her so far.

"We rented one so I could practice," she said. "I cracked into every piece of furniture in the house. Then I practiced it on the ramp {that leads from the front doorstep to the sidewalk} and I ran right off the end of it and all the way down the driveway.

"After a while, your ego gets involved. When people are looking at me, I don't do well at all. If I could just learn to run the damn thing . . . . "

Yet even an electric wheelchair will not substantially reduce Audrey's reliance on others. A few weeks ago, she and John drove to Vineland, N.J., to help Audrey's brother, the Rev. J. Stuart Dooling, celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a Catholic priest.

"We got to the church, and there was one step up," Audrey recalled. "John had to find three other people to help him lift me over that one step.

"People were wonderful. They all came to me. But you feel like a fool," Audrey said. "You literally feel like a fool. You can almost hear people saying, 'Why doesn't that fat slob get out of there and walk?' "

On an earlier trip to Pennsylvania, where John's 88-year-old mother, Christina Ghizzoni, had suffered a stroke, Audrey spent six days sitting in a hospital waiting room while John and Audrey's traveling nurse attended to his mother's needs.

"I felt so frustrated that I couldn't do anything for her," Audrey said. "I couldn't even get up and go down and talk to the nurse."

But for the last two weeks, a couple married for 41 years has suddenly rediscovered one another.

"If John ever gets sick now, I'm up a creek," Audrey said. "The only thing we have going is, we enjoy one another."

Now, just when they thought it would never happen again, the Ghizzonis have the time and the chance to prove it.