Now, 51 years after they first said “I do” to each other, Al and Judy Swanson laugh when they remember that Al forgot one of his lines in their wedding vows.
“We memorized our lines and afterward, we realized that he forgot the ‘in sickness and in health’ part,” Judy said.
They laugh because it is a funny memory, considering what they have been through together. They laugh because regardless of whether Al said it, he has lived it. So has she.
“I never thought about leaving Judy,” Al said. “Because marriage is forever, and I love her.”
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A simple statement from a spouse whose marriage – like many – has been anything but simple.
The Swansons raised two children, one of whom they nearly lost days after he was born. Judy dealt with a debilitating digestive illness at one time that kept her hospitalized off and on for about eight years. For the last decade, Al has been battling the progressive effects of Alzheimer’s. Since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, doctors have also discovered that he has Parkinson’s disease.
Alzheimer’s affects one’s memory, usually a person’s short-term memory. Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects a person’s movement and posture.
Al and Judy will be part of a gathering on Sept. 19 at Carolina Wren Park in downtown Anderson. They will join the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, to raise awareness about the disease and to raise money for more research.
Chances are, they will hold hands through most of the walk.
“We lean on each other,” Judy said. “We’ve made it through all of this by faith. We cherish each moment.”
The Swansons live in Anderson but are both natives of the small town of Niles, Mich. They went to high school together and started dating after a good friend of theirs set them up.
By the end of that night, they had already planned their next date. They would go to see a football game.
At the time, Judy was still in high school (but nearly finished), and Al was in college. When she was 19 and he was 21, they married. It was 1964.
In the 1980s, the Swansons moved to the South because of his accounting job. For a while, when they lived near Myrtle Beach, Judy would worked at a nursing home and with the state’s Alzheimer’s association.
When Al himself began forgetting things and repeating questions or statements, the Swansons’ son-in-law alerted them that he needed to see a doctor.
“It was disappointing to hear the diagnosis,” Al said. “Because I knew there wasn’t any cure out there.”
It helped that Al was diagnosed early. But what they already knew about the effects of Alzheimer’s made his diagnosis more frightening, in some ways, Judy said. She said Al’s father also had Alzheimer’s.
“Sometimes, ignorance is bliss,” Judy said. “It is a dreadful disease. The hard part is we know what is down the line.”
Al learned he had Alzheimer’s at the age of 62. He is now 72. Two years ago, they had to make one of the hardest decisions of their marriage, Judy said.
For the first time in 51 years, they would be living in two different places. Al went to live at the NHC facility in Anderson.
“I remember the first day I put him in here,” Judy said. “I cried all day. I know that God holds tomorrow, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t broken.”
As she talks, Al does not let go of her hand.
Every day, she is at NHC. Sometimes he goes home. And they watch his favorite movies – almost all starring John Wayne.
An Associated Press member exchange.