The title of Robert Wyble’s memoir “Life Together: Reflections on Faith, Love and Caring for a Spouse with Alzheimer’s” reveals his wife’s diagnoses.
But knowing that Wyble’s late wife, Naomi, will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease makes his portrait of a smart, independent, loving wife, mother and grandmother all the more poignant. With “Life Together,” Wyble captures the mysterious, beautiful and often heartbreaking nature of life — especially when you dare to share your life with someone else.
“Learning that Naomi had Alzheimer’s disease was like an earthquake that registered 8.5 on the Richter scale,” Wyble, 78, writes in “Life Together.” “Our world took a sudden jolt, and shifted forever. Our dream of a long retirement together suddenly took a turn we had not anticipated.”
Wyble started his memoir in April 2020 as Naomi’s health was rapidly declining. And his passages dealing specifically with her diagnoses, her decline and his experiences with caregiving, feel very immediate. The book also includes 21 black and white photos including some stunning natures shots Wyble took during his travels.
“I didn’t keep a written journal, but I take a lot of photos so I had a photographic journal,” Wyble says. “I would scroll back through the years and the photos would call to mind events that happened. And I was writing what was involved with me as I was providing care for her.”
An Alzheimer’s journey
Wyble says he noticed the first hints that something was happening with Naomi’s memory and concentration during a trip to southern France in 2015. The couple was about 10 years into their retirement.
Wyble had worked in public education for 34 years, and Naomi worked for years as a tour manager with Menno Travel Service in Ephrata. Naturally, she loved to travel. She’d take solo trips around the world to places like Russia, Spain and Morocco; scout hotels bus lines, guides; and create itineraries and return to Ephrata to sell the packaged tours. Then, she’d accompany the group on their travels.
Naomi was officially diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. Wyble’s details of Naomi’s fading memory and difficulty recognizing her surroundings in his memoir read like someone perpetually traveling in a foreign land.
Instead of retreating into seclusion, Wyble says they decided to keep traveling and enjoying their retirement as much as possible.
“I decided that because she liked to travel, we were going to continue living, and I would just have to be a little more careful,” Wyble says. “I think, for us, that worked out very well, because she would live in the moment. Each day she enjoyed being out and being about, and I decided we’re not going to stop living. We’re just going to keep going, and we did until the very end.”
Naomi’s condition with Alzheimer’s kept worsening. Then, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died on Nov. 20, 2020. Wyble and Naomi were married for 57 years.
“I was not overcome with emotion, because I had lost her a long time ago,” Wyble writes in “Life Together.” “She lost her ability to talk with me at the beginning of summer, and now I just stood there and talked to her, telling her that we had lived a wonderful life together. Painful as it was, it was time for me to release her and let her go.”
A lifetime of learning
Wyble’s memoir covers a lot of ground before his wife’s diagnoses and their journey into the surreal world of Alzheimer’s. From his faith journey, to volunteering in an Atlanta hospital as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, to his 34 years in public education. Wyble worked as a biology teacher at McCaskey High School, and then Penn Manor High School. He finished his career as the assistant principal at Warwick High School. “Life Together” portrays a man that never stops questioning, reconsidering and learning.
Wyble’s attitude to learning and changing is evident in the way he cared for Naomi as she navigated her illness. As she gradually slipped deeper into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease, she occasionally forgot where she was, where she was going or what she was doing.
“Instead of trying to reason with her, which is what I did at the beginning and that was my mistake, I had to learn to get into her worldview and talk about what was real to her,” says Wyble. “That’s what care giving is all about.”
Wyble’s decision to keep Naomi in the home where she was most comfortable meant he was the primary caregiver. In “Life Together,” Wyble also talks honestly about the importance, as a caregiver, of taking care of themselves. Wyble decided to hire some outside help so he could go out and go grocery shopping and play golf.
“If the only thing I did was just stay in the house, I think I would’ve become very angry,” Wyble says. “But because I was able to get out and engage with other things in my life that really helped me. I think that’s really crucial. You have to accept help where you can get it, take care of yourself as a caregiver and do what you can to make your loved one safe and comfortable.”
After a lifetime with Naomi, Wyble is learning to live alone.
“The hard part is always dinner time because I’m alone,” Wyble says. “I’ve been learning to cook so I prepare food and oftentimes my son FaceTimes me during dinner. Then it feels like family, which is really important.”
Wyble, who grew up in the Mennonite community, begins “Life Together” by exploring his ever-developing views on his faith. In his early years, Wyble writes, he had more simplified view of God: “If I obeyed the directives God gave us in the Bible, went to church on Sunday, and worshiped him, he would look out for me and protect me.”
But then, Wyble began to wonder why a loving god would allow tragedies to occur to good, faithful people. Wyble found some satisfying ideas in the work of several theological scholars including Marcus Borg. Borg, Wyble says, also thought of God as an all-powerful authority figure, but then came to think of God as an all-encompassing spirit, saying, “We are in God as fish are in water.”
“I love that quote,” Wyble says.
It’s an attitude that has served Wyble well in numerous situations, from experiencing a nearly life- threatening boating accident in the waters off the coast of Montauk, New York, to dealing his wife’s Alzheimer’s and lung cancer diagnoses.
“When I was younger, I probably would’ve expected God to heal her,” Wyble says. “But as I matured, I had a different understanding of God, and that God is a god of love.”
The former biology teacher’s faith has undergone a sort of evolutionary change. For Wyble, the concept of God isn’t something set in stone, it’s something that must be explored and redefined.
“I still have questions of course —everybody has questions,” Wyble says. “I feel like I’ve kind of matured into a kind of harmony with my faith in terms of my understanding that God is not somebody that fixes things but somebody that’s a source of love.