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Semper Fi: Marine couple promises to remain always faithful in face of Alzheimer's

Some days her eyes are blank, and the light of recognition is faded and dim.

But mention one word, and they snap to life with ferocious pride.

“Oh yes,” she says, her voice rising with rare confidence and certainty. “I was a Marine. I am a Marine.”

She knows that. It is an indisputable fact, ingrained in a memory where other details have dwindled and disappeared.

Of all the things she might not know – that the man across the table is her husband of 52 years, that the facility where they sit is home, that the bib by her plate is to protect her clothes from fallen food – she remains sure of her identity, the person she was before.

Before she woke with terror, before numerous procedures that kept her husband, Roger, awake by her side, before dementia crept into the life she shared with loved ones, Cora Kammerer was a Marine.
And when all else fails, she clings to that fact.

“Through it all, that’s what she knows,” Roger said. “And once a Marine, always a Marine. She’s never been an ex-Marine, and I’ve always been proud of her for that.”

Tuesday was a good day.

Cora turned 73 on Tuesday. They ate ice cream and a cake topped with yellow roses, tribute to Cora’s Texas roots. She laughed and smiled, as did Roger, also 73, who often leaned to kiss her hand. But this isn’t how it was supposed to be. They should be at home in Primghar in the house with green trim where Cora displayed her blue china and her tobacco collection. They should be surrounded by children and grandchildren, and she should remember their names and why she loves them.

Instead, they celebrate years Cora cannot remember in a place designed for the forgetful – the dementia special care unit, Kulper Villa, on the Prairie View Campus in Sanborn.

Life turned bittersweet for the Kammerers after a stroke left Cora with Alzheimer’s symptoms three years ago. The love is there, perhaps stronger than ever for Roger, who cares for his “sweetie” in ways never anticipated.

There still are happy days, like Tuesday, when eating cake and holding hands is enough to carry their relationship through another day. Then there are days when Roger enters the code to pass through monitored doors, and he knows: It is not a good day.

“Sometimes she knows me, and sometimes she doesn’t, and those are the times you go and sit in your car and cry,” he said. “After 52 years, it’s tough.”

But Cora is a Marine. She’s tough, too.

Cora was a scrawny yet scrappy private first class in the U.S. Marine Corps when the Korean War concluded. Soldiers descended en masse on California, where Cora served.

With a grin, she shares her motive for enlisting.

“Because I found him,” she says.

She starts the story with seldom-said words: “Yes, I remember…”

Truth be told, their introduction was pretty unforgettable, Roger says.

“She almost killed me.”

He was drilling troops on the street when a pickup squealed around the corner and stopped just in time, only about a foot from Roger.

“And, boy, did I chew her out,” he said.

Although far from romantic, the conversation did the trick, and the couple married on July 17, 1955. The following years, they faced Roger’s deployments to Vietnam and Japan with a Marine’s determination.

“When the bell rang for this war or that war, she knew what it was to serve,” Roger said. “She knew if you have to go, you have to go.”

“You’re darn right you do,” Cora chimes in, saying that she was tough enough to survive his absence.

She was tough enough to live through a several-car pileup that decapitated two people and broke her ribs and earned her a medical discharge. She was tough enough to blast the ace from a card set a few hundred yards away from her and her weapon. She was tough enough to wound a burglar attempting to rob their home while Roger worked nights. The bleeding man yelled, “Lady, you shot me!”

Cora responded, “If I wanted to kill you, I would’ve.”

Perhaps her blood accounts for her sturdy spirit. She is part Cherokee, the great, great-granddaughter to a Cherokee chief who endured the Trail of Tears. Or maybe it’s just her Texas upbringing.

“She’s my yellow rose of Texas,” Roger said. “Underneath it all, they’re just sheer tough. The Southern ladies are all that way.”

“Black Tuesday”
That Southern charm shows itself still. Cora wears tidy slacks and sweater sets, with button-up blouses and pressed collars. She wears a broach that she caresses with elongated fingers and manicured nails covered with a mauve paint. She constantly smiles, if it can be called that. It’s more like a smirk, as if she has a secret to share.

But her characteristic poise failed her in the early morning hours on Sept. 9, 2004. So did words. Roger felt the bed shift and heard Cora rise and patter to the bathroom. She returned moments later but did not lie down.
He rolled over and started to ask, “What’s the matter, Mom?” Nightgown-clad and speechless, she stood with tears rolling down her face and dripping to the floor.

Roger remembers calling 911. The doctors diagnosed a stroke. Cora lost her memory, and in the hospital, she repeated only two phrases – “I love you,” and “I love my children.”

“She had those down pat,” Roger said. “Those were the only two things she could say.”

Cora recouped and went home. Then there was a blood clot, a surgery and side effects from anesthesia. She came home again where Roger watched her demise, unable to do anything but love her. She tried cooking by sticking closed soup cans in the microwave. She walked around the block but lost her bearing and wandered off.

“I think she knew something was happening to her, but there was nothing we could do,” Roger said. “So I just had her under my wing and guarded my sweetie close.”

Roger surrendered his watch on Tuesday, May 15.

“Black Tuesday. That’s what I call it,” he said.

He admitted Cora to the care center, and doctors asked him to allow her four days to adjust. He waited and prepared for the worst.

On his first visit, he approached Cora while she was washing her hands. “How’s my sweetie doing?” he asked. 
She shut off the faucet, turned to face him and asked, “Am I supposed to know you?”

“Awful lonesome”
Cora still is a lot of things to Roger – she still is the mother to their four children, still the love of his life and still a Marine.

And she still is in there, somewhere.

“I just don’t know how to get to her and get her out of there,” Roger said. “And when it comes to nighttime, it’s awful lonesome. Even if she didn’t talk, even if she just slept there, she’d still be there, and right now, she’s just not there. But I know it. I know my sweetie’s in there someplace.”

So he looks for glimpses, and when he catches none, he makes small moments count.

“Like when we’re on the couch, and she puts her head on my shoulder and falls asleep,” he said. “She’s not talking, but that’s fine, because she’s there, and I’m holding her.”

And when Cora fails to remember, Roger remembers for her.

“Remember that, Mom?” he asks again and again. “Do you remember what we liked to do in the winter? We liked to play Scrabble, didn’t we?”

She only has to answer “yes,” and Roger relishes a shared memory. But when Cora’s attention turns elsewhere, he remembers something she does not.

“I remember that I play Scrabble at home alone, on the computer,” he said.

He remembers that their life savings, meant for a train trip across Canada and for a plane trip to Australia where they would drink warm beer at Ayers Rock, now pays for her constant care.

“Whatever you want to do, do it now, because it can be gone,” Roger advises. “In a blink of an eye, all you wanted to do can disappear.”

“We’re Marines”
There are regrets – but not for Roger’s love for Cora.

Roger does not regret that he chose Cora. And he does not regret that she needs him.

“You do wonder why sometimes though,” he said. “But you can’t blame it on nobody. It’s just one of those things that happens in life.”

It’s one of those things that requires strength – something he prays for every day he walks through the locked doors to see his sweetie.

When his courage starts to dwindle, when he starts to think he cannot remember for the both of them, Cora reminds him.

“We’re Marines. We’re tough,” she says. “And I’m always proud of being a Marine. I’m glad Roger and I did it.”
And that’s enough for Roger.