By Tara Bahrampour
[F]or 73 years – through wars in Europe and Asia and civil rights battles at home, through the assassination of a president and the rise of rock-and-roll – they shared a bed.
He’d be gone sometimes, flying missions during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, but he always came back to her.
So now, as he lies in a hospital bed unable to say or do much, she lies beside him.
Like many hospitals, Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, where retired Army Col. George Morris, 94, is receiving end-of-life care, allows family members to sleep in a patient’s room on a fold-out couch. But for George’s wife, Eloise, 91, a cancer survivor who has suffered two broken hips and a broken shoulder, that would be hard.
So the hospital made a special exception when they admitted him this month: They admitted her as a patient, too – a “compassionate admission,” their doctor calls it. Standard rooms are normally private, but Eloise’s hospital bed was rolled in and pushed up against George’s – a final marriage berth for a husband and wife who met as teenagers in rural Kentucky in the late 1930s.
He spotted her first.
“I was a sophomore in high school, and I’d gone to see a play in a country school,” said Eloise, sitting up in her reclining bed, a birdlike woman in oversize bifocals whose hair is hardly touched by gray. George rested in his bed beside her. “He saw me and went home and told his mother, ‘I just met the girl I’m going to marry.’ He said, ‘I looked her over real well and I couldn’t find anything wrong with her but one crooked tooth.’ ”
A movie date and a picnic followed. Eloise can’t recall the movie – she was too distracted by the thrill of holding his hand in the dark.
The picnic, however, was unforgettable.
“Here comes George and he had something in his hand with a crank on the end and I wondered what this was.” It was something she’d never seen before – a portable phonograph, and when he turned the crank it started playing “Sweet Eloise,” a popular song at the time. He turned that crank all afternoon. “Oh, I thought that was great.”
The town of Russell Springs, Ky., where she lived on a farm, was eight miles from Columbia, where he lived. He didn’t have a car, so he’d walk the distance to see her. By 15 she was wearing an engagement ring and had no doubts about what she was doing.
“He had thick eyebrows and devilish eyes, and I hadn’t seen any guys my way that good-looking,” she said. “I thought that he was more intelligent than any man I’d ever met.”
They married and had two sons and a German shepherd who played outfield in family softball games. After stints in Tokyo and Alaska, they eventually settled in Annandale, Virginia.
Those legendary eyebrows are wispy now, the devilish eyes half-closed as he lies beside a tray of juice and apple sauce. But every now and then as she spoke he chimed in, his voice rising alongside hers like an echo.
“We had some lean times but some great times,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of material things, but we could sure have a sweet time. There was lots of love around. George could always make me feel so protected.”
It was a stark contrast from her youth – her father left her mother before she was born, and she grew up an only child, helping her mother and grandparents tend to the sheep and cows and chickens.
As partners, the two complemented each other. “He was strong-willed. I don’t mean bossy-bossy. But his father would say, ‘Eloise knows how to make George think he’s boss.’ Some people might call that tricky, but I know how to keep people happy. I know how to keep George thinking that he’s making the decisions.”
Being married to an airman had its challenges. He took her up once in a P-51 Mustang fighter plane and it nearly killed her. “I couldn’t hear and I was very sick to my stomach. When he did the roll, that was fine, but when he did the loop, well, I kind of blacked out and my mouth opened and I just couldn’t stand it.”
George had a lot of friends who didn’t come back from the wars. During Vietnam, “he said one of the saddest things was when he brought the dead soldiers home – he said that was heartbreaking because they were so young.” He retired in the 1970s.
The secret to seven decades of love? “Be happy, whether you’re happy or not. Laugh.” Like they did the time they were posted somewhere new and they arrived before their belongings – including their sheets and pillows.
“We cut up the newspaper and put our heads on one duffle bag, and every time we moved, the paper in it would rattle and we laughed all night,” she said, grinning. “We really, really loved each other. We were lonely, lonely when we were apart, and when he’d come home, it was just heaven.”
Their sons have since died – the older one three or four years ago, the younger one several months ago – and most of their grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandson live in other towns. Although they visit sometimes, it is mostly just the two of them.
Admitting Eloise so she could be with George was not a hard decision, said the couple’s doctor, U.S. Army Maj. Seth Dukes. “We take care of the people who’ve taken care of our country,” he said. “And we extend that to their loved ones.”
At this point, Dukes said, George is dealing with a combination of medical issues, and the goal is to keep him comfortable.
For Eloise, it’s hard to see him unable to talk or eat much. “The expression on his face has changed; his eyes just look fixed,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see somebody lose everything, especially the days that he doesn’t know me.”
But her presence seems to comfort him. “He talks in his sleep, and when he starts I just put my hand on his and he stops.” And during the day, she talks to him. “Even though I don’t know if he can hear me, I always thank him for looking after me so well.”
An aide peeked in. Eloise seemed tired. So she did what comes most naturally: She lay down beside her husband and reached for him, their hands now mottled and roped with veins, but their fingers still knowing how to intertwine.
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