LISBON, N.D. — Every morning 90-year-old Arlene Gibson rises with the sun and prepares to make her daily trek to the end of her world.
It happens to be the other side of the North Dakota Veteran’s Home — the skilled-care wing — where her longtime sweetheart, Les Gibson, 96, resides.
“She practically runs to see him at the crack of dawn every day,” says Susie Schlecht, marketing coordinator for the facility. “She’s there bright and early to spend the day with him, and then she goes back to her side of the building (for the rest of the night).”
Several years ago, the Gibsons lived in the same unit in basic care. But when Les fell and broke his hip, requiring more intensive attention, the two lovebirds, married now for 67 years, were forced to separate.
But not for long, it turns out.
“From the beginning, they were always by each other’s side,” Schlecht says, noting that they insisted initially on a couple’s room and brought in familiar items to make it as much like home as possible — family photos, plaques with Scripture passages, and a glass cabinet to display everything.
The staff enjoyed showing off their room during tours, she says, and the Gibsons gladly welcomed visitors, whether prospective residents or any of the couple’s six children, 12 grandchildren or 15 great-grandchildren.
“They also brought in a full-sized bed and shared that when they first moved in,” Schlecht says. “Now that he’s moved to the other side, they sleep separately, but they still cuddle together.”
It’s a testimony of love Schlecht says has been a remarkable witness to staff and visitors of the home.
“I would say their love is definitely unique — the way they respect each other, the way they’ve raised their children, and how they don’t want to be apart,” Schlecht says. “I haven’t really seen that before. It’s all about the other person. They’re the most selfless people I’ve ever met.”
FROM THE KIDS’ MOUTHS
Valerie Howard of Cando, youngest of the Gibson clan, says her childhood was a joyful experience of feeling secure and well-loved.
“We weren’t rich in the things of this world, but we didn’t miss out on anything,” she says. “We had the love and the support of each other, and most of all a loving mom and dad who were always there and put Christ first in their life.”
Weekends revolved around church activities and family, she says. During the summer, if they were lucky, their father would take a detour after Sunday services.
“We’d get in the car and Mom would be in there before Dad,” she recalls, “and we’d say, ‘I hope we can go to the Tastee Freeze,’ and she’d say, ‘Well if you don’t beg your Dad we might get to go.’ ”
If the car didn’t veer toward home, the kids would smile at one another in the backseat, knowing they’d soon be licking chocolate-covered, frozen bananas – “gedunks” as they called them.
“And hardly a Sunday went by that Mom wouldn’t put a big roast in the oven and we’d have guests for dinner,” Valerie adds. “That’s a thing of the past now – people are just so busy – but what an example. It really impressed me how they were so willing to open their home to others.”
Their steadfast faith has been another thing to emulate, she says. “Even in these last years that have been difficult for them, I’m still learning from Mom and Dad, seeing how strong that faith is and how important it is in our lives – even as we get older.”
A daughter returns love
Though she looks forward to her trips home, Valerie says, her older sister, Sue Gibson, deserves much of the credit for being there for their parents in recent years.
“Sue is our angel on earth. She has given her life to Mom and Dad,” Valerie notes. “It’s something we’d all do if we could, but we’re not all able to, and she feels this is where God has placed her right now. She’s been such a good example of devotion.”
Sue, who lost her husband, Chuck, of 20 years to brain cancer in 1992, never had children, and was in a transitional time in her life, sharing space with a girlfriend in Lake City, when she was called back to her hometown of Lisbon.
It was in 2012. She’d just spent Mother’s Day with her parents and was heading back to Lake City when she received the call that her father had fallen. She did a U-turn and ended up staying, her “short” visit stretching on for nearly two years now.
Sue says she’s completely committed to being around for her parents and views this time as a gift. She spends each day with them, and each evening at the nearby home of her mother’s sister and husband, Betty and Warren Wiltse.
“Some days are harder than others for Dad, and the three of us help keep each other encouraged,” Sue says. “We have special times of sharing and wonderful prayer times together. Dad still prays for our entire family … sometimes needing just a little help to remember all the names.”
Though his eyesight is failing due to macular degeneration and his hearing is limited, she says, her father never complains, and his patience and wonderful attitude are a great example to everyone.
“God truly has blessed us with each other and a loving family that loves the Lord,” she says. “There’s nothing better than that.”
Like all love stories, this one has a starting point, and for the Gibsons, it goes back to the summer of 1942 in Powers Lake, N.D, when Arlene, fresh from her first year of college, was teaching vacation Bible school to children at a church there.
The pastor’s daughter introduced her to a young man, Les, who was home saying goodbye to his family before leaving for the Navy. The next day, they went out for milkshakes, and two days later, she was at the train station waving goodbye.
They kept in touch, and three and a half years after meeting, married in a fall wedding at a church in Milnor.
In all their years together, Sue says, she remembers only kind words being exchanged between the two of them.
During her mother’s 80th birthday 10 years ago, she and Valerie were home visiting and their father, an accomplished tenor, had just given his wife her birthday card. After she opened it he grabbed her, right there in the living room, and held her as he sang, “I’ll Be Loving You Always.”
“Tears were streaming down our faces, and we were like, ‘Do we really get to be here to see this?’ ” Sue recounts. “They are such an affectionate, loving couple. They sit in Dad’s room all day long, holding hands most of the time, making the best of these days that they have.”
Several different times, Sue says, her father has said he’s ready to go home to be with the Lord.
“I guess the Lord has them here together as long as possible,” she says. “Mom just says she’s ready to go whenever Dad goes. They want to go together.”
Indeed, it must be love.
Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.