Just Trying To Catch Up

Originally published at the Alzheimer’s Association, Central New York Chapter blog.

Here is Marty Manning, in front of a camera singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” the old standard recorded by hundreds of acts since it was published in 1910. The words, the music, the melody…nothing about the song had changed since the first time he sung it to her decades ago. Marty was older, partially due to age, partially due to the vocation to which he was recently called.

Lynn was different. The feckless and indiscriminate disease known as Alzheimer’s struck her in 1993. It ravaged her brain, destroyed her memories, and reduced a woman who raised seven children with the same precision her husband employed in the U.S. Marine Corps to a person in need of around-the-clock care.

There she was on the screen as Marty sang:

Let me call you Sweetheart,
I’m in love with you.
Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.
Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.
Let me call you Sweetheart,
I’m in love with you.

Millions of people watched Marty’s video journal on ABC’s Good Morning America during the 1990s. They watched Lynn slowly slip away to the disease. They saw a family united in her care, children coming in from across the Northeast to relieve their father. They saw Marty finish the last bar, kiss his wife and say, “I love you.”

Here is Marty Manning, graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. After enlisting in the Marines at age 17, he was accepted to Annapolis and began a career teaching others how to drive tanks. His medals — the World War II Victory Medal, China Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, and the Vietnam Service Medal — would adorn the breast pocket of tuxedos at gala events and weddings. He retired in 1972 and kept teaching. Two years at St. John the Baptist High School and 19 more at Christian Brothers Academy before Alzheimer’s disease called him into a different sort of battle.

Here is Marty Manning, every wrinkle on his forehead telling a story, symbolic of a “bad day,” or “long night” as an Alzheimer caregiver. The eyes that had seen so much, the voice that had educated so many. The matter-of-fact military tone as he talked to politicians and others about public spending for Alzheimer’s care: “You can pay me now or pay me later. It’s cheaper to pay me now.” These are burnished into the memories of everyone who crossed his path at the Alzheimer’s Association, Meals on Wheels, Marine Corps Association, Christ The King Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool.

Here is Marty Manning, father of seven children (Marianne, Elizabeth, Kathleen, Suzanne, Martin III, Maria and Meg), grandfather to 14, and great-grandfather to five more. And husband later to Darlene. Five years after Lynn died, Marty announced that he would marry Darlene. She was a woman from his church, one of the “Bible Belles” that would visit and pray with Lynn. Together, they would write a new chapter and expand the family by eight step-children and 13 grandchildren.

Here is Marty Manning, silver filebox at his side, running photocopies of sign-in sheets at the Alzheimer’s Association office. For more than 10 years, he led a support group that called itself “The Gang.” Not necessarily because he wanted to and not because he needed a group to attend. He did it because he knew others out there were in the same situation as him. A devoted group that grew and shrank over time in size, but never in vigor. Their bi-monthly meetings started as peer support, but as spouses died, grew into an indefatigable group.

It was here that he developed unyielding bonds with others who sang their sweethearts into the sunset of Alzheimer’s. He developed friendships, like the one with former Army Air Corps flier John Baxendale. Together they were Martin and Lewis or Crosby and Hope. (John died in 2011 at the age of 89)

Here is Marty Manning, whose metaphorical heart of gold would be the focus of his final fight. A massive heart attack following Lynn’s death slowed him down, damaging the muscle that fed fresh blood to the rest of his body. He willed his own health into a corner, ordering it to wait until he was done caring for her. Pacemakers, stents, bypasses would come and go. The heart of gold that powered a Superman proved to be mortal.

Here is Marty Manning, standing beside my desk in 2010. It was time, he said. His doctor told him that he needed to dial it back. Since he didn’t do things halfway, he was dialing it all back. He was resigning from the board of directors, giving up the support group, stepping back from all of the special events. He would walk away from labors of his post-caregiving retirement to spend time with the family. He explained to me that, after all, the family comes first.

Here we are, mourning the passing of Marty Manning. The heart, fickle muscle that it is, finally failed him. The heart that powered a boy through a childhood in The Bronx, 23 years of service to his nation, three wars, 21 years in the classroom, 45 years of marriage to Lynn, five more to Darlene, and nine years of caregiving, finally had enough. The heart that shone upon siblings, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends, neighbors, fellow churchgoers, support group members, and each person who crossed his path went dark.

Here was Marty Manning, in the dairy section at the John Glenn Wegmans in Liverpool, peering into the baby carrier perched on the shopping cart. The newborn, just a couple of months old, was asleep after an early morning walk through the local farmer’s market. He stroked her cheek with his index finger. His eyes — the eyes that had seen the destruction of war and disease, and miracles of children and love — looked up at me and said, “Jared, you did a good job.”

There’s a ways to go, but I am just trying to catch up to him.

Lt. Col. Martin F. Manning Jr., USMC (Ret.) died on August 10, 2013 at Crouse Hospital, Syracuse. Calling hours will be held from 2 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at Maurer Funeral Home Moyers Corners, 3541 State Rt. 31, Baldwinsville. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at Christ the King Church, 21 Cherry Tree Circle, Liverpool.

Contributions in Marty’s memory can be made to the Alzheimer’s Association Central New York Chapter, 441 West Kirkpatrick St., Syracuse, NY, 13204, and will directed to the Chapter’s Marty Manning Online Education Center at alz.org/centralnewyork.

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