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Veteran faces unbeatable foe -- his wife's Alzheimer's

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Published:   |   Updated: August 16, 2013 at 11:56 AM

TAMPA — The wars were so different.

In Vietnam's steamy jungles and muddied rice fields, Army chaplain Bernie Lieving Jr. smelled death and gave spiritual solace to scared soldiers in their final moments on Earth.

A generation later, Desert Storm took him to the searing heat of Saudi Arabia, where he directed 250 chaplains for the fighting units and was constantly under the threat of Scud missiles launched from Iraq.

Neither of these conflicts compares to what Bernie is facing now.

Nearly four years ago, Dorothy, his bride of 54 years, the woman he has loved since they were teenagers, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Bernie is a man accustomed to order. For every mission, there is a strategy and a plan. That's what comes with 27 years in the military and a life in ministry.

Only now, the opponent is a relentless disease that science has yet to corner and destroy. And for Bernie, this time around, the stakes are so personal.

“In a war, there are things you can do to influence the outcome,” he says. “But with this, there is no winning. You can't win this one.”

Today, Bernie retires from Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, where he has served as a pastor for 19 years. His new role: full-time caregiver to his beloved.

***
Dorothy Sayre was 14 when Bernie, three years her senior, first took notice. He liked her spunky and sassy nature.

“That smile, that laugh,” he says. “She caught my attention and won my heart.”

He also saw that she didn't have any use for prejudice. If someone made an inappropriate comment, she was quick to call the person out. In the pre-Civil Rights era, that made her stand apart.

They were living in a rural town in West Virginia, attending the same church. Dorothy's parents owned Sayre Acres Drive-In, a hangout spot where the homemade pies were legendary.

A friend observed that Bernie made a lot of trips to that diner.

“Do you want Dorothy or the chicken in the basket?” he teased.

The feeling was mutual. After Bernie dropped her off one night after a social event, Dorothy marched into the living room and made an announcement to her parents.

“I'll tell you what. If Bernard Lieving asks me to marry him, I'm going to do it. I just wanted you to know that,” she declared. Then she kissed both of them, wished them good night and bounded up the stairs.

And so he did. They married a few years later — he was 20, she was 17 — on June 19, 1959.

She knew from the beginning it would be an itinerant life. Bernie had switched his career aspirations from teaching agriculture to following a call to go into ministry. It came in his senior year of college, while he was mowing hay on the family farm, and he was quite certain it was God's voice.

“That was OK with me,” Dorothy says. “I would go to Timbuktu if Bernie went. It only matters we're together.”

After graduating from seminary, the couple moved with each new church assignment. Then in 1966, with an unpopular war heating up in Southeast Asia, Bernie came home for lunch with something on his mind.

Two young men from town had been killed in Vietnam. It got him thinking: Who was there for them in their final moments? Who prayed with them at their time of need?

He told Dorothy how he felt drawn to enlist and become an Army chaplain. Again, she told him that was his decision; whatever he chose, she would follow. Three months later, he was in uniform and off to training. In 15 months, he would be in the trenches in Vietnam.

Just like a pastor's wife, a military spouse must learn the art of packing and single parenthood. Bernie's rise up the ranks was swift and impressive, which meant constant relocation, time away from home and two combat duties.

The family grew to include two daughters and a son. They moved more than two dozen times to accommodate Bernie's high-level schooling and decorated military career. Germany twice. California. Ohio. Texas, Pennsylvania. Georgia. Kansas. North Carolina. New York. New Jersey.

For a girl raised in West Virginia, it was an adventure. Dorothy's mantra served her well: “Bloom where you're planted.” And she did.

Unlike her husband, who always had a job waiting for him wherever he was sent, she had to be resourceful and find one. With her gregarious nature and sharp organizational skills, Dorothy worked as a preschool teacher, a travel agent, an administrative assistant, a certified nursing assistant.

She juggled employment with her social and community duties as an officer's wife — all while focusing on her No. 1 priority of being a mom. In her spare time, she painted, baked pies, volunteered with the local church, danced and sang with the Sweet Adelines.

“I never thought of life being too busy,” she says. “I just lived it.”

***
It was a win-win situation for both Hyde Park United Methodist and the Lievings when the church hired Bernie nearly two decades ago.

He had recently retired from the Army. A fellow chaplain in Tampa knew Bernie wanted to return to ministry full-time, so he made the recommendation.

“We knew Bernie would be bringing some incredible skills; getting Dorothy in the package deal was a big bonus,” says former church administrator Cynthia Lynn. “They're so giving and fun to be around. Their devotion to people is obvious, and their devotion to each other is a great example for others.”

They bought a ranch house in South Tampa and planted roots for the first time in their marriage. Bernie first served as executive pastor, and then led Congregational Care ministries, helping with outreach programs that serve both church members and the community. One of those was the Caregivers Sanctuary, a monthly support group for people taking care of loved ones with Alzheimer's. His late mother suffered from the disease, so he understood the toll it took on family members.

Dorothy started a catering business, taught Sunday school and launched the church's Open Arms ministry for the homeless. Their three children graduated from college, got married and gave them two grandchildren. They played golf, traveled, went to movies and took walks on the Ballast Point Pier, where Dorothy loved to visit with the fishermen.

Then came the little signs.

Dorothy called Bernie at church and asked if he was coming home for his men's Bible group. She said people were there waiting for him.

Strange, he thought. This isn't the right day. He rushed home, but no one was there but his wife.

“Oh, they must have left,” she said, shrugging it off.

She didn't want to drive her Jeep Grand Cherokee anymore, saying it was hard to see out of the window. Bernie bought her a smaller sedan. A few months later, she surrendered the keys, saying she just didn't feel safe behind the wheel.

She became forgetful. She couldn't find the restroom at church. She stopped participating in discussions at Bible study.

Both Bernie and daughter Debra, who has a doctorate in gerontology, agreed something wasn't right.

In November 2009, after a series of tests, doctors agreed. At age 67, Dorothy had “mild cognitive impairment, with a tendency to Alzheimer's.”

She was now one of about 5.2 million Americans living with this incurable disease, the sixth leading cause of death in this country.

The news left them with a feeling of sadness and hopelessness. But they didn't question their faith or ask God why. If anything, they resolved to depend on him more than ever.

They would not let this divide them. After so many journeys together, they pledged to make the very best of this last one.

Dorothy said to Bernie, “You don't deserve this. I wish you had someone else to be with.”

He hugged her tight. “In sickness and in health,” he said. “You are only one I've ever wanted to be with.”

***
Despite its prevalence, there's still a stigma to Alzheimer's.

As their skills disintegrate, people diagnosed with it become reclusive. Overburdened caregivers become embarrassed by some of the behaviors associated with the disease.

The Lievings did not want any of that. Two months after her diagnosis, they took a bold step.

With Dorothy's permission, Bernie stood in the pulpit one Sunday morning at all three services to share the news about his wife. He told church members that he and Dorothy always regarded them as family, and now they needed their support and encouragement more than ever.

That single action has been a transforming experience, says senior pastor Jim Harnish.

“It's a wonderful gift they've given us,” he says, “to allow us on this journey with them. They've shown us what a truly devoted marriage looks like. All these years, and they're still like teenagers in love.”

The openness helps prevent potentially awkward situations. Church friend Marilou Reed recalls Dorothy telling her: “In the future, if I say or do anything that offends you, please forgive me.”

Of course, Reed said.

“She's always been like sunshine after a rainy day, so positive and upbeat. She still is,” her friend says. “Now she's more childlike, so that's a little hard. But what we're dealing with doesn't compare to what's ahead for Bernie. That is heartbreaking.”

If the brain disease wasn't enough, Dorothy also was recently diagnosed with cancer. She and the family made the decision together: No surgery, no treatment. What quality of life she has left, Dorothy wants to enjoy it to the fullest.

When he helped start the Caregiver Sanctuary five years ago, Bernie had no idea that he would one day be sitting in as a participant. But he knows he can't do this alone, so he is not hesitant to lean on others.

The disease's progression has been slowed by prescribed drugs. Dorothy still dresses herself, cracks jokes and puts on her makeup with a little assistance from her husband. She tells people that Alzheimer's is “not for sissies.”

But at night, when no one is around, Bernie can hear her bedtime prayers. “Please, Lord, I know what's coming. You can take me now. I'm ready.”

She has shared Bernie with the military and church members all these years. With his retirement, she will get his full attention. When asked how she felt about having her soon-to-be-unemployed husband around all the time, she responded gleefully: “Woo hoo!”

Their very first adventure will be to take a car trip back home to West Virginia, where it all began.

It's where Bernie saw Dorothy for the very first time and knew she was the one.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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