Til Death

After 52 years of marriage, Ralph and Sharon Link still have each other. Yet despite a life played by the rules that's about the only thing that turned out the way they planned it.

Ralph Link first saw Sharon O'Brien at a party at the university in 1949. She was wearing a pink angora sweater that night, and he decided on the spot that he would marry her. Sharon, she took more convincing. First a double date to a Hepburn-Tracy movie, then a Count Basie concert, then a Lakers game. She'd just about decided she wasn't interested when he said something to her in the crowd, as they were going down the stairs.

In the 53 intervening years, she has forgotten exactly what it was he said. "It was the humor," she remembers. "A Ralphism. We connected." Two months later he proposed. They married in 1951, had three kids, endured all the requisite ups and downs.

Their life wasn't grand, but it was so good. They raised the kids and managed to save some money. Eight years ago they sold their southwest Minneapolis house and bought a condo in an Uptown senior complex. There they planned to live out their days indulging in mundane pleasures: sunset walks around the lake, movie matinees at the Uptown, holidays with their kids and grandkids.

As dreams go, theirs were nothing extraordinary. They only seem that way now.

Once Sharon asked Ralph how he had managed to survive that first months-long bout in the hospital in 1996. "He said he didn't want to leave me," she recalls. "If it was his time, he put up a good fight."

The good fight didn't end there. Those seven years have stretched into one long, difficult day.

"Every day is painful for him, looking at me," she says. "I don't want him to be in pain. If I could get through every day and not show any pain and make him think everything's fine, I'd be happy about it. He's in pain every day and he never deserved it.

"I don't dare ask him now if he wishes he hadn't lived through it," she whispers. "I wonder what his answer would be. I wish he hadn't fought as hard as he did. I guess I'm sure his answer would be he wished he hadn't, too."

Ralph Link sits quietly in his wheelchair, which is neatly tucked under the table in the living room/dining room. His 78-year-old head, bald on top, bobs above the newspaper as he surveys the contents through thick bifocals. His angular face and slight underbite point into a gentle smile.

Sharon scurries around the apartment. Her petite frame, 5-foot-2 at most, gives her a delicate appearance, but her stride is determined. This is a woman with things to do. She pops into the foyer gathering laundry, then goes back to the kitchen to get a move on lunch. At 73 she has a no-nonsense air. Her white hair is cropped close and her face is filled with lines. Her sandpapery voice ticks off the things she needs to remember.

She needs to manage all the details--when is the nurse coming? when is the dermatologist appointment? when does the air purifier filter need changing?--because if she doesn't, no one will. Many people have been designated to help them over the years: a battalion of doctors who have treated Ralph; county caseworkers, home health aides, and nurses who were supposed to visit; even sons and brothers and sisters who live in the area. Yet despite them all, Sharon and Ralph routinely are left to their own devices to make it through each day.

The Links aren't the kind of people you'd expect to find falling through the safety net. They're well educated, solidly middle-class folk. They saved, they planned, they bought insurance. They did everything the way they were supposed to.

And here they are, more or less alone.

Years ago the elderly were routinely trucked off to nursing homes. Today the idea, ostensibly, is to help them stay in their homes, and independent, for as long as possible. The problem is, the services aimed at facilitating that autonomy are increasingly difficult to get, due to program cuts and staffing shortages. Families are more scattered across the country than ever, too.

Sharon Link pours some bottled water ("No tap water for Ralph," she chides) and places a bowl on the table in front of him. It's kind of a khaki-colored pudding: a recipe invented and perfected, Sharon explains, over many months. The present version includes bananas, soy protein powder, egg white powder, and organic apple juice. It's the only way they've found to get Ralph the nutrients he needs in a form he can digest.

"Don't want to spill," he says, as he takes a bite of what they've come to call his "slush."

"I wish we could call it another term," says Ralph, as Sharon leans over his shoulder and puts some drops of medicine and ground-up pills in the bowl. "It looks terrible, but it tastes okay."

It's about 2:00 p.m., time for the afternoon nap. Ralph brushes his teeth as Sharon clears away the lunch dishes. Then she joins him in the bathroom and empties the bags that collect his stool and urine. She wheels him into the bedroom and pulls the chair up against the bed, then grabs a white plastic board that helps him traverse the three feet from his wheelchair to the mattress. He slips on gardening gloves. "They help me grip better," he explains.

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