Lee Mahlman Schneider snuggles with her husband, the Rev. Eugene Schneider, who is in the last stages of Alzheimer's Disease. W. Evan Golder photo.
When Lee Schneider remembers the Easter Sundays of her youth in Kahuku, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the white cross high on the hill behind the sugar cane plantation leaps to her mind. "The plantation owners lit it up for Lent," she says. "It was a beacon. I think about that cross all the time. It's always been a symbol of my faith."
It's that faith that sustains her now in her home outside of Cleveland, where she concentrates all her love and energy on caring for her husband, the Rev. Eugene Schneider, in the late stages of Alzheimer's Disease.
"My whole life the past two years has just been my faith," she says. "I've had to focus on that to survive. To watch something like this happen to someone you love so much is very, very difficult."
She was the ninth of 11 children in a family of Filipino farmworkers. Most of the siblings went on to college and professional careers. Her journey took her to Nebraska Wesleyan College in Lincoln, Neb., to a career teaching sixthgrade math, and to a 34-year marriage that ended when her husband died of a heart attack.
Gene Schneider began life on a farm in Indiana, but graduated from UCC-related Elmhurst (Ill.) College and Chicago Theological Seminary before serving local churches in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Milwaukee; and Menominee Falls, Wis. In 1969 he was called to the UCC Office of Communication, where he served in New York and Cleveland for 22 years. His 45-year marriage ended when his wife died of cancer.
Gene and Lee Schneider were married in February 1994. Although they didn't realize it at the time, within two years Gene began to exhibit early signs of Alzheimer's Disease, a complex, fatal condition that causes the gradual loss of brain cells. Even so, the couple traveled to General Synod 20 in California, to Hawaii, to Europe and to a struggling seminary in the Philippines, to which he donated his library.
For a while they lived in the Chicago area, before moving back to Cleveland. In 1998 they gathered friends and former colleagues to celebrate Gene's 50 years of ordained ministry.
"I know we were led to be together," Lee Schneider says. "Since Gene gave his life to the church, I know that God is not going to let us down, that God will give us the strength."
According to the Alzheimer's Association, 4 million persons in this country are afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease. Although caring for Alzheimer's patients usually proves too wearing for most families, Gene gets exceptional home care from his wife, her live-in sister, part-time assistants from a local health facility and a neighbor. Together they provide him with daily baths, regular haircuts, and clean shirts and trousers every day that are starched and pressed.
"I take my marriage vows very seriously," Lee says, "Ôfor better, for worse É in sickness and in health É as long as we both shall live.' Once you consider remarriage, if you cannot give yourself completely, then you shouldn't do it. I knew what the ramifications of remarriage might be, that because we were older something could go wrong. So now it's my privilege to take care of this man I love so much."
For the past two years she has spoon fed Gene, played hymns on the piano and sung to him, and snuggled next to him as he rests in his Amish rocker. He doesn't speak or walk any more, and most of the time he doesn't recognize anything. Occasionally he rewards her efforts with an obscure sound.
Today when Lee Schneider considers the meaning of Easter, she thinks about hope and promise.
"I have to have these," she says, "otherwise I could not survive." When Easter Sunday comes, she'll probably go to the piano and sing her favorite Easter hymn: "Because he lives, I can face tomorrow, Because he lives, all fear is gone, Because I know he holds the future, And life is worth the living, just because he lives."
And, she says, she'll smile at her husband in his rocker and remember a lighted cross, high up on the hill.
Go to www.alz.org, the web site of the Alzheimer's Association.
Read "The 36-Hour Day : A Family Guide to Caring for Persons With Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementing Illnesses, and Memory Loss in Later Life" by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins (Paperback - April 2001)
Cards and notes to Lee and Gene Schneider may be sent to United Church News, 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland OH 44115-1100.