This Caregiver Helped Her Husband Return to His Photography

Their life revolved around visits to the doctor, but rediscovering nature photography sparked a sense of adventure and hope.

Posted in , Feb 26, 2021

Joe and Judy Spence; photo by Shevaun Williams

I was in the kitchen, sorting my husband Joe’s medications into his weekly pill organizer, when I heard a familiar metallic rattle. He was pushing his walker down the hall to our home office. I mentally urged him on, holding my breath as he pulled out the chair, hoping he didn’t lose his balance. Finally he was seated safely in front of the computer.

I turned back to sorting pills. Blood pressure tablets. Diabetes meds. Blood thinners, which he’d been on since his stroke six years earlier. Prostate pills. Vitamins. Probiotics. I needed to call the doctor about the pain in Joe’s hip. He was hard of hearing, so phone conversations were up to me. Then I had to review his appointments for the week: physical therapy, pain management, audiology.

Those appointments were pretty much the only time we got out of the house. Going through a fast-food drive-through was what passed for excitement these days. I know we’re in our eighties, but is this all that’s left for us, Lord? I wondered.

In his working days, Joe had been a professional photographer, his camera always at the ready to capture the way the light fell on a rose petal, a glorious sunrise, the dew glistening on a spider’s web. He had such an eye for detail, for beauty, such a zest for life.

How I missed those days! With church restricted to virtual services because of Covid-19, there wasn’t anything to look forward to. You have plenty to be grateful for, I reminded myself. My two wonderful, accomplished daughters and their families. My health. The 35 years that Joe and I had been married. Our love for each other was as strong as ever.

At least I wanted to think it was. Truth be told, there wasn’t much excitement to our relationship either. Joe spent hours staring at the computer. I was consumed by caregiving. Day after day, we followed the same routine. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d done anything remotely spontaneous.

This past year, especially, had been a struggle. Joe had fallen several times. There’d been trips to the emergency room. A bout of pneumonia. Fear of the coronavirus. Even with physical therapy, he seemed weaker, more reliant on me. As if the adventuresome, curious man I’d fallen in love with were slipping farther away from me.

We’d met at a Bible study for single adults. I was 45. I’d been divorced for 17 years. Had zero interest in dating. My priorities were my girls and my job as a manager at Southwestern Bell. After class, Joe followed me to my car and asked for my phone number. There was something about him. A boyish, adventurous quality I found compelling. He called that night and asked to take me out the next evening.

We had plenty to talk about over dinner. Joe was three years older than me, worked as a photographer for the state of Oklahoma and did wedding photography on the side. But his passion was landscape photography.

After dinner, we drove to a park. “Let’s take a walk,” Joe said. He reached for the camera on the seat beside him and slung the strap around his neck. “Never know what we might see,” he said.

The sun dipped low in the sky. We strolled along a path lined with native trees and bushes. “Well, look here!” Joe said. He bent down next to a shrub. I couldn’t imagine what he was so excited about. Then he pointed.

“See how the sun is shining on this spider’s web? Isn’t it beautiful?”

I looked more closely. The web was intricate, each strand aglow in the fading light. Incredible. I never would have noticed it on my own.

Click. Click. Click. The shutter of his camera whirred. We weren’t even holding hands, yet the feeling that passed between us was romantic, intimate. As if we’d stumbled upon a treasure only he and I knew about. I was excited when Joe asked me out again.

Almost every date was some outdoors adventure—exploring woods, lakes, canyons. I was a city girl, all of this new to me. I’d always been task-oriented, not terribly observant. Joe opened my eyes to a world of wonders, to the beauty of God’s creation.

One Saturday, Joe invited me to go with him to Red Rock Canyon, about an hour west of Oklahoma City.

“We’ll get an early start, and I’ll make you breakfast over a campfire,” he said. He brought me to a campsite and made a fire. He poured me a cup of coffee from a percolator he sat in the embers, then rustled up bacon and eggs in a cast-iron skillet, the flames dancing around it.

Then we hiked into the canyon. We stopped for a break near a grove of trees. Joe went up to one of them and took out his pocketknife. I watched as he carved a heart with our initials into the bark: J & J. Joe would keep life interesting, that was for sure. A year later, we were married.

We’d had so many wonderful adventures over the past 35 years, traveling with a pop-up trailer to national parks, beaches and mountain ranges. Joe captured them all with his camera. Our house was decorated with his photographs. Memories of happier times everywhere I looked. Much happier.

I closed the pill organizer. “Judy,” I heard from down the hall.

“Coming,” I said. Had he fallen? I hurried to the office. Joe was sitting in his chair, thank goodness. He held out a photo he’d just printed. Reviewing his photos was a favorite pastime.

“Know where this is?” Joe said.

I studied the scene, a trail winding through autumn foliage. In the background, cliffs stretched to the sky. “No idea,” I said.

“It’s Red Rock Canyon,” Joe said.

“I should’ve recognized it,” I whispered, my chest tightening. I set the photo on his desk and kissed the top of his head. I looked to the computer monitor, where Joe’s photo filled the screen, bigger, more vibrant even than his printout. As if it were calling to me.

We couldn’t hike the canyon but…

“What if we drove to Red Rock today?” I said hesitantly, as if trying to convince myself. “The trees are changing. With a telephoto lens, you could get great shots from the car.”

Joe’s eyes brightened. “That would be great,” he said.

I loaded the car with Joe’s camera equipment and walker, then helped him into the passenger seat. Joe was practically giddy with excitement. I hoped it didn’t turn out to be a disappointment. An hour later, I pulled into a parking area at the canyon, one Joe remembered for its scenic overlook.

I parked the car and got Joe’s camera from the backseat. He rested the lens against his open window, clicking away. He peered through the camera, rapt. I thought of all the times we’d spent together here. How life with Joe always felt like an adventure. Maybe that spark, that shared discovery of beauty in each day, wasn’t gone after all.

There was more to being a caregiver than sorting medications and getting Joe to doctors’ appointments. I needed to be open to new possibilities, to the joy and beauty God had put all around me. What Joe had been showing me our entire marriage. It was my turn to do the same for him.

Nearly two hours had passed. We needed to get back. I put Joe’s camera in its bag and drove toward the exit. “Stop the car,” Joe said.

A wide concrete walkway snaked into the trees. There was a handicap accessibility symbol near a metal sign that read, “Oldtimer’s Spring Trail.”

“That’s new,” Joe said. Was that a twinkle in his eye?

“I’ll take a picture of you by it,” I said. I got his walker out of the car and Joe gamely posed for me. I went to help him back to the car, but Joe turned toward the trail.

“Want to see where it goes?” he said.

What if we got down the trail and he wasn’t strong enough to walk back? “I don’t think so, honey,” I said.

“Come on,” Joe said. “Don’t you want to have an adventure?” The words hung in the air. Hadn’t I been asking God to help me see more to our relationship than caring for Joe? How could I let this moment slip by?

“Let’s do it!” I said.

We made our way down the trail. The concrete was even and level, ideal for a walker. The pace was more deliberate, but it felt like one of our dates. At the end of the trail was a bench.

For a few minutes we sat quietly, listening to the birds singing, the breeze sighing and feeling…happy. Yes, these times could be happy too, the Lord was saying to me. Joe’s gaze fixed on a grove of trees just past the walkway. I hoped he wasn’t thinking of trying to go farther. The ground there was too uneven.

Joe pointed. “Check out that tree.”

“What about it?”

“Go look at the other side,” he said. I went over to the tree, wondering what he was up to. “There, Judy. Now go around.”

What was it I was supposed to see? I froze. There was a heart with J&J inside. “I can’t believe it’s still here,” I said. “It’s as beautiful as when you carved it.” This symbol of our love had stood the test of time, just as we had, weathering changes with God’s help.

I walked back to the bench and sat beside Joe. I took his hand, then said, “Actually, it’s more beautiful.”

Read more: Spousal Caregiving: 5 Ways to Keep Your Marriage Strong

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