Rob Oxford: I wish this were a movie

Monday, December 10, 2018

2012 - the year that Charee Tillotson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's

It is with my friend Greg Tillotson's blessing that I share this article about his life, his beautiful wife and their difficult journey together. Furthermore, it is my hope that the message I have tried to convey is received in the manner with which it was intended.

“If Only This Were A Movie”

I would venture to guess that most everyone reading this article has seen the 2004 movie "The Notebook," starring James Garner and Gena Rowlands at least once, if not more. I have personally seen it at least a dozen times. It is one of my wife's favorite movies and each time it comes on the television we sit together sobbing as if the story is unfamiliar. It's the tale of a man and the love of his life, how they met, lost touch, found each other again and lived a long and wonderful life until the devastating effects of Alzheimer's slowly took away her memory and eventually her life.

Until a few years ago I had been lucky in that this terrible disease had not personally touched my family. Unfortunately that all changed in November of 2009 when my friend and former boss Greg Tillotson revealed to me that his beloved wife Charee was exhibiting early signs of dementia. Sadly it wasn't until 2012 that she was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

By now we're all aware of the pain and heartache this debilitating disease can cause. The sadness it brings and most often the guilt that can be associated with watching someone you love slip slowly into a dark and unfamiliar place. Still, through the eyes of this very strong and courageous friend, whom I greatly admire, I've been given a unique perspective that I would like to share and that I hope will ease some of the suffering those more directly affected by this terrible disease will at some point most assuredly endure.

Greg hired me to do a morning radio show at a rock-n-roll station in Bellingham, Washington almost 20 years ago. It was a momentous opportunity and with a newborn son, a break I had desperately needed. Greg's wife Charee was also a morning host in the very same building for our sister station KAFE. A fun, energetic, continually positive influence, I often relied on her for advice and emotional support. God knows at that particular time in my life, I needed both.

Five years went by rather quickly and Greg and I were both fired, but Charee continued entertaining listeners with her bright smile, sense of humor and incredible kindness. She had a warm inviting personality and her audience loved her. Facebook wasn't the behemoth that it is today but Greg and I stayed in touch. He managed the Boys and Girls Clubs of Whatcom County before getting back into radio as the manager of a group of stations in Spokane.

I would see his occasional posts on Facebook about life and the "business," but one particular comment caused me to take notice and reach out to him directly. Needless to say it came as a terrible shock when he informed me of Charee's diagnosis. She was so young, so vibrant, she was a beloved radio personality, I really didn't understand how this could happen.

Greg and I didn't talk regularly so I don't know what kind of feelings he experienced initially, but afterward I found myself unintentionally distancing myself from him. What kind of support could I possibly offer? He knew I was sorry and that I loved them both, but this was something totally foreign to me and I wasn't the least bit prepared to deal with something of such magnitude. What I didn't realize at the time was that I would soon learn a valuable lesson about unrelenting love and compassion.

Greg was and is a devoted husband, even to this day. Catering to Charee's every need while she underwent treatment. Making plans and facing this situation head on. That's the kind of person he is, he is a Manager, he "manages".

Charee and Greg Tillotson now


All to soon the time came when Charee would need the type of care Greg could no longer provide and although I'm sure the decision to put her in a "home" was difficult, it was the correct one. His love for Charee has never waned, but the drain on their personal finances, in the 100's of thousands of dollars had forced them to divorce. As harsh as that may seem to some, it too was the right decision.

Before her illness could take her away completely, Greg and Charee spoke of many things. Charee made it clear that she did not want Greg to live the rest of his life alone. She knew him better than anyone and knew that being "alone" was not something with which he could deal very easily. As Greg puts it, "Charee knows me and knows I'm terrible at being alone". They also spoke of their lifelong dream of living on the beach.

Greg has been forced to make many difficult decisions since Charee became ill, both about his future and hers. Some of those coming under the scrutiny of friends and relatives, but Greg continues to remain confident he is doing what is best for them both. He is also fortunate that his son Michael, willing to put his own life on hold, has chosen for the time being to give up a lucrative career in order to spend more time with his Mom in Spokane. A commitment other family members, for understandable reasons, were unable to make.

About a month ago Greg posted a photo on Facebook of himself and a young lady whom he has been seeing. To be quite honest my initial reaction was one of confusion. For so many years I'd seen pictures of Greg with only one woman, his companion since he was 22 years old. Who was this new person? Was it a coworker, a friend? It turns out it had been both. Although it was none of my business, Greg is the type of person who would have no problem telling me, so I asked.

Her name is Jennifer and they have been friends and work associates for quite some time. At first Jennifer was merely a comforting ear, someone in which he could confide. However, as feelings for her began to develop, Greg took the time to make sure these feelings were more than just feelings of loneliness. In essence he needed to give himself permission to let go and to begin again.

When Greg left to accept a new position with a Broadcasting Corporation in Florida, fulfilling that dream he and Charee shared of living on the beach, it was Jennifer who stepped in to fill his role by visiting Charee. Before starting every work day, just as Greg had done, she would have breakfast with Charee. For 3 years prior to the move Greg also made a habit of stopping by after work each day to kiss Charee goodnight. His days were long, his patience much longer.

The unfortunate reality is that as the months and now years have gone by, Charee no longer knows Greg. Still he flies to Spokane every 2 - 3 weeks to sit with her. He talks with her or more accurately talks to her and makes sure she is as comfortable as humanly possible. Greg will occasionally share a picture of Charee on Facebook and she appears to be happy in her "new world." Although a bit distant, and not quite as glowing, she still has that smile.

This is undoubtedly a sad story. It's painful, it's unpleasant and to a few I suppose some of the decisions Greg has had to make may seem unfair. However, in my opinion choosing to continue living one's life in spite of this particular type of hardship demonstrates to me a form of bravery. I've often heard it said that Alzheimer's is much more difficult on those who are "left behind" than those directly suffering its effects.

I pray and sometimes wish I prayed more, that should something this horrific ever affect my life, I am able to deal with it as gracefully and respectfully as Greg. I also pray that those who choose to question my decisions are able to do so without passing judgement.

I have greatly appreciated being able to share my thoughts, stories and poems with you over the past year and I thank Diane at the Shoreline Area News for her guidance, direction and for allowing me this voice. It has truly been a pleasure. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years.

Rob Oxford



2 comments:

Anonymous,  December 12, 2018 at 3:30 PM  

Sad that people think they are entitled to an opinion about how others choose to deal with a health crisis or other life-changing event.

I remember how Nancy found it "exhausting" to care for her Ronnie (Reagan) and she had wealth and (virtually) unlimited resources. Imagine what befalls those with less money and fewer resources.

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