Even after two years, it’s still hard for Lyle Fenner, 94, to sleep in a different bed than his wife.
So every night between 10 and midnight, the longtime KQEN radio announcer calls the reception desk of Callahan Court, where Helen Fenner, 91, receives round-the-clock care for her late-stage Alzheimer’s.
It’s usually graveyard-shift aide Sylvia Ramirez who picks up the phone. She reassures Lyle when Helen is comfortable and sleeping soundly, which is most nights. Helen used to get restless every night, right after she moved to Callahan Court.
But Lyle hasn’t let her face this alone.
“I just wish that Helen and Lyle could have a normal life and be together and not have to go through all this,” said Ramirez, whose Christmas card is displayed at Lyle’s apartment. “But Lyle never complains. I’ve never heard him complain.”
Some people don’t monitor a loved one’s last days. Some spouses don’t so faithfully honor their vow to love, honor and cherish. But staff at Callahan Court and those who know him attest that Lyle Fenner is a different breed.
The late-night calls from Lyle have become such a regular part of Ramirez’s shift that on the rare nights Lyle dozes off on his couch before calling, she calls him. Their conversations can last a few minutes or half an hour, and Ramirez said they usually make her night.
“Everyone here knows who Lyle is. We love him,” said Kim Jordan, executive director of the west Roseburg memory care facility, which houses more than 40 residents. “We have some incredibly supportive families, but they’re rarely in for four hours at a time.”
Every day Lyle gets to Callahan Court at 11:30 a.m. and feeds a pureéd lunch to his wife of nearly 63 years. He spends the afternoon hours slowly wheeling her around the facility’s hallways and grounds, and chatting with the many familiar faces.
He kisses her head, holds her hand and talks to her. Then he heads back to his memento-filled one-bedroom apartment and makes himself a stiff drink.
The past seven years have taught Lyle a lot about living with a spouse with Alzheimer’s.
“The main thing is to be with them,” he said. “You have to show them that you love them. You have to love them more than you have before. So I love her more.”
Lyle regards the daily visits as his duty, said medication aide Susan Bullock, who remembers listening to the Lyle Fenner Show as a child in Roseburg.
Helen can no longer communicate or do anything else for herself. On good days, she can move her eyes and babble a little. Still, Callahan Court staff members insist Lyle’s presence calms her.
In 2005, Helen started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. She knew something was wrong, but soon lost the ability to express what it was.
A former beauty, Helen was always well put-together. So Lyle insists on hair appointments for her every other week, and regular manicures and pedicures. He buys her new clothes and lovingly chooses her outfits.
“He tells us he wants her primped and proper, because that’s the kind of lady she was,” Ramirez said.
It was a second marriage for both of them. Lyle’s first wife, Marianne, died delivering their third child when Lyle was 27. Helen’s first marriage — as a teenager, to the lawyer son of a politician — was rocky and short-lived.
Lyle and Helen met at a party in 1948. They were married on August 1, 1950.
She was the quiet one, a thoughtful and polite Midwestern girl. He was exuberant and outgoing, the life of the party.
He lives to talk. She loved to listen.
“That’s maybe one of the reasons they did so well,” said their sole surviving child, 65-year-old Dave Fenner of Eugene.
The couple came to Roseburg by way of Portland, where Lyle had been an announcer and news director at KEX and KXL. His morning news show on KXL was advertised on 53 billboards in the Portland area. Still, he sought more creative control, and in 1960 took an offer to become general manager of Roseburg’s KQEN. He purchased the station several years later, and ran it in his image until his retirement in the late 1980s.
About a month ago, Lyle stopped coming in to Callahan Court. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer not long before. Due to his age, he and his doctors have opted to manage the pain rather than attempt to beat the cancer. But the pain is still considerable and has affected his routine.
The disease recently spread to his bone marrow. His doctors are giving him six months to a year. During the trips he has been able to make to Callahan Court, Lyle has been too weak to push Helen’s wheelchair.
A few days after his first absence, at about noon, he heard a knock on his door. Standing there were five women from Callahan Court, holding his favorite dessert, coconut cream pie, and a card signed by his friends back at Callahan Court.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.