This is a story about love and what we all can learn about commitment, compassion, and more. About caregiving and embracing a spouse as she struggles with dementia. About remembering and always celebrating the good times, while managing the down times with grace, without complaint. It’s a love so strong that even the new rules of the COVID-19 pandemic can’t keep them apart.
It’s a story about our neighbor, Jimmie Thurmond and his wife, Melissa.
As Jimmie tells it, “In August of 1956, I’m in Houston on business, sitting at the same table as Tommy Hogan, a long-time friend. During our conversation, he wrote a name and a telephone number on a cocktail napkin – Mitzi Strock Emerson 1-4961. He handed me the napkin and said ‘call her.’”
He stuffed the napkin into a pocket in his sports coat and promptly forgot about it.
“A month later, I was in Dallas, and I found that napkin in my sports coat.”
“It was September 21, 1956. I called the number and we talked for what seemed like forever. I invited her to join me for the Notre Dame/SMU Football game that night. She said yes.”
“On the night of September 21, I knocked on her door. We’d never met. This very beautiful woman opened the door and I remember thinking, I was not in the market for a wife. I was about to go into the Air Force. We went out several times after that first date. Each time I began to see something beyond the incredible beauty. I began to see who she really was. Smart, funny, talented, and creative.”
As Jimmie recalls, “Strock was a runway model, a bluebonnet girl at the University of Texas. One of the most beautiful girls in the entire state of Texas. She modeled regularly at Neiman Marcus.”
“On October 12, 1956 we went to the Texas/ Oklahoma football game. I came to the realization that if I had her, that would be all I would ever need. And it worked out that way. She was 21, I was 22.”
“I noticed something in her eyes that night, something I had not seen before – there were ‘stars.’ Her hazel eyes shimmered in the moonlight. I knew I had found the wife I was not even looking for.”
He planned to ask for her hand on October 18, when they were to meet for cocktails. But she beat him to it.
“Melissa turned to me just seconds after we sat down, and told me, ‘Where I was, she wanted to be.’”
“I was stunned. Speechless. We sat there holding hands. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I was so stunned, in fact, I forgot to ask the traditional question, ‘Will You Marry Me?’ But that was redundant by then.”
Jimmie bought an engagement ring. “Melissa came to San Antonio on October 25, to meet my parents. That’s when I gave her the ring. It was not the Hope Diamond, but to her it was, because I had given it to her.”
They were married on Jan 12, 1957 in Perkins Chapel on the SMU campus in Dallas. They went on to have three children.
“It’s been a fantastic journey,” he says.
Melissa moved with him into Officer’s housing at Lackland Air Force Base where Jimmie attended flight training school before moving on into Supply, at Shaw Air Force Base in North Carolina. In 1959, he came home to San Antonio, to join the family business, Pak-Mor Manufacturing. We designed, manufactured and marketed refuse collection machines — detachable containers for garbage collection.
“Melissa filled our home with art and music and love.” She filled their home with paintings and books, and music. She would play classical and pop and old standards on the piano that sits to this day in their living room. The sheet music still sits on the piano, as if waiting for Melissa.
“She taught me to love the theater. To love the symphony. To appreciate art of all kinds,” he says. “I still go to the theater and to the symphony, really to honor Melissa.” He always purchases tickets for two adjoining seats for every performance he attends. One seat for him. The other seat sits empty, for Melissa.
He began noticing changes in late 2004 into 2005. “Melissa began to be repetitive in what she asked and what she said. By their 50th wedding anniversary in 2007 her condition deteriorated even more. “She was my life. She was my everything.” About 8 years ago I realized she did not know who I was. We’d regularly attended our grandchildren’s sporting events even though she could not recognize who they were.
When Melissa began wandering, literally running away from their home, he realized he could no longer care for her on his own in their home. Research led him to a local memory care unit and then on to another where Melissa currently resides.
He visited her twice a day, every day, until the COVID-19 pandemic slammed into San Antonio. The facility ordered a lock down. It prohibited family and others from visiting their loved ones, admitting only “essential” personnel.
With tears in his eyes he told me they were forcing him and other spouses and caregivers to “view” their loved ones through a big window. “That simply wouldn’t work for Melissa,” he said. “First of all, she is not comfortable in crowds. Second, she doesn’t recognize me, doesn’t know me anymore.”
Although he is not a lawyer, he very lawyer-like analyzed the letter that the facility’s management sent to each resident’s caregiver/spouse. “They said only essential people could come in to the facility.”
He was insulted. Angry. Hurt. He went to talk to the administrator and told him that he was essential to her well-being. He was prepared to sue them if they refused to allow him into the building. Rather than go to war, the facility agreed to allow him to visit Melissa once a day, every day, from 4pm to 7pm. And that’s what he does. He wears a mask and washes his hands frequently. He’s not happy about it, but will do whatever it takes to see his bride.
On rare occasions Melissa would have moments of clarity, Jimmie told me. His eyes tear up as he recalls the last time that happened. “She looked me right in my eyes and said, ‘I lost my brain, can you help me find it?’”
Jimmie, would give all he has in the world, to do just that. Meanwhile, he walks with her in the hallways, fixes her hair, touches up her make-up, joins her for dinner, and holds her hand for three hours a day. Every day.
By Ron Aaron Eisenberg