A 40-year love story with a bittersweet ending

By Wayne Washington
The Palm Beach Post

If ever there was a good place for Sylvia’s car to break down, it was near S. Military Trail and Purdy Lane in West Palm Beach.

In the mid-1970s, there was a gas station and repair shop on that corner, and the man who leased and ran the facility was William Alexander.

“We walked out and pushed her car into the garage,” William recalled.

He quickly figured out Sylvia’s problem: her car was in bad need of a tune-up.

William got her car fixed up, and Sylvia was good to go. Sylvia, a divorced mother of three with blonde hair and striking blue eyes, was pleased with the service. She was pleased with William, too, who in those days wore his brown hair long, Willie Nelson style. Bandana included.

“She started coming in for gas,” William said. “She kept asking for me.”

Lynda Ginane, one of Sylvia’s daughters from a previous marriage, remembers her mother’s constant, inexplicable need for…gas.

“She didn’t even need gas,” Lynda said. “She said, ‘C’mon, Lynda. I want to get gas.’ I said, ‘Mom, you don’t need gas.’ Then, I saw him, and I knew she was going for him.”

Sylvia and William hit it off, their relationship blossoming into what, next year, will be a 40-year marriage. Both divorced with children from those marriages, the two reveled in each other.

William was an avid poker player, and the couple frequently traveled to tournaments together. Sylvia did some housecleaning to bring in additional money, but it was never a smooth path. 

Still, they had the modest house in Palm Springs Sylvia and her first husband had built in 1964. And they had each other.

Pictures on the walls of that house tell the story of who they once were, of their vibrancy and of their zest for life.

They don’t tell visitors an unwelcome stranger has taken up permanent residence: Alzheimer’s disease, which struck Sylvia several years ago. William knew something was terribly wrong long before her diagnosis in 2018.

There were the tell-tale signs: the forgetfulness, the denial and irritability.

William resolved to stay by his wife’s side as she battles the illness. 

What is supposed to be a time of reflection, relaxation and joy is often a great struggle.

In addition to Alzheimer’s, Sylvia, now 86, has glaucoma and Parkinson’s.

“I see that she takes her pills, her eyedrops,” said William, 82. “I see that she gets to her doctor’s appointments. My wife doesn’t remember much of anything. She doesn’t remember yesterday.”

William has seen Alzheimer’s cruel face before. His mother suffered from it, as did her mother before her.

Ginane, 65, lives about seven minutes away and comes to check on her mother and stepfather about three times a week. Alzheimer’s Community Care provides in-home services. But it’s William who is there every day, day after day, helping with everything, trying not to hurt when Sylvia can’t remember who he is and managing it all as he copes with his own physical limitations.

Sylvia’s partial dental plate is missing, and William hasn’t been able to find it. He fears she might have thrown it out, unsure of what it was. Looking under the bed, the couch, scouring the house for it is too tall an order for him physically.

“That’s just one of the things,” he said. “She keeps asking me what I did with them. I’ve gone through the garbage for the last week or two. I don’t know where they are.”

William said he knows they both need help, but he hasn’t been able to convince Sylvia to move away from her home.

“She won’t go,” he said. “I’ve tried to convince her to sell this house, and we’ll go into assisted living together.”

The house, long a blessing, is a challenge now, too.

Only the air conditioning unit in the bedroom works, rendering much of the rest of the house hot and stuffy for much of the day. It doesn’t have grab bars the couple needs to navigate the home. It doesn’t have hurricane shutters, leaving it vulnerable to storms, and the area near the screened lanai is debris-strewn.

There isn’t the money or the physical ability to address those needs.

William’s doing all he can to take care of the woman he loves, no matter what, no matter how long.

“They’re in love with each other,” Lynda said of the couple. “I’ve asked God, when they go, take them together. They’re meant to be.”

WILLIAM AND SYLVIA’S WISH

William Alexander, 82, is the primary care provider for his 86-year old wife, Sylvia, as she battles Alzheimer’s. It’s no longer easy for either of them to move through the home, which needs grab bars, hurricane shutters to protect it from storms and cleaning near the screened lanai.

Nominating agency: Alzheimer’s Community Care.

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