STURGEON BAY — Sixty years ago, Theresa “Tress” and Dave Barta were married, promising to love each other for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. For the last few years, Tress has happily been making good on that promise.
“He’s been taking care of and providing for me all these years, and now it’s my responsibility to take care of him,” Tress said at the kitchen table, while Dave sat quietly in the living room, dozing off and on and watching television.
Six years ago, Dave was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The ailment is a chronic progressive neurological disease marked especially by tremor of resting muscles, rigidity, slowness of movement, impaired balance, a shuffling gait, and difficulty processing thoughts.
As his need for care has increased, well-meaning friends and relatives have suggested it might be easier for Tress to move Dave to a nursing home. Tress won’t hear of it.
“Taking care of him is my responsibility and he’s going to stay here with me,” she said, pausing for emphasis between each word and giving a little thump on the table to reinforce it. “I’m going to give it everything I have to keep him home.”
It has meant a lot of changes, both within their home and their social life. Tress has a very supportive family, but the respite care program that assists Dave gives her six free hours a week to shop, go to lunch, or run errands. They also help with Dave’s showers. She has a sit-to-stand lift coming, a new van with a lift ramp for Dave’s wheelchair and, eventually, a hospital bed.
Tress and Dave don’t socialize as much as they used to because fast, free-flowing conversations are beyond him, and sometimes large groups of people are confusing. But neither does Tress “hide” him and keep him from social interaction.
“He goes with me wherever I go,” she said.
However, her places to go don’t look like what they did a few years ago. She was very involved at the school (now called St. John Bosco), with funeral luncheons, in the prayer shawl ministry, the St. Ann’s Society, and as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Some things she’s given up, some she’s curtailed.
Tress admits that there can be difficult days, even times when her very “gentle and kind” husband doesn’t want to cooperate.
“I do sometimes ask, ‘Why, God?’ When I’m down, I pray. I go to a quiet spot, take some deep breaths and say a couple Hail Marys. Or sometimes I don’t pray. I just sit quietly and don’t think of anything. What will be, will be.”
During that time, she said she lets God do the ministering to her, and without meaning to, Tress had just given an example of contemplation.
It’s that prayer time, alone or with Dave, that is her daily mainstay, not just when things seem difficult, although she said she probably prays more now, especially for guidance and strength.
“I have a morning prayer on my bathroom mirror, and I recite that first thing every morning, put Dave in God’s hands, and ask God to take care of our day,” she said.
Prayer is nothing new in the Barta household.
“We’ve always prayed together,” Tress said. “We say grace before meals. I don’t care where we are or who else is around, we always say grace. And we always do nighttime prayers together. Now, if he’s in his bed, I kneel down there, or if he’s out here in his chair, I’ll kneel down there.”
“Well, of course,” she said, bemused that anyone would think that unusual. Even before Dave’s illness, the two knelt together, one on either side of the bed, to end their day before God.
“You have to,” she said. “That’s what my mom taught us.”
Tress, in caring for her sick husband, is practicing one of the corporal works of mercy, but she hadn’t thought of it that way. To her, the care she gives springs from love. Then she was given a card with this quote by Dominican Fr. John Dominic Corbett: “Mercy is the form love takes when it encounters misery. It is first of all a form of love because it wants what is good for the one who is loved.”
Again, without meaning to, by her daily care of her much-loved husband, Tress has defined another truth of her Catholic faith, that of the true nature of mercy.