After 65 years of marriage, it’s hard for Jim and Virginia Griffin to be apart.
Back when Jim was driving a truck cross country, there was a time or two he flew Virginia out to join him for the return trip because he missed her that much.
After their five kids were grown, Virginia joined him on the road. For 12 years, she was his co-pilot, taking the wheel herself on long sections of interstate.
So it doesn’t surprise anyone that with Virginia suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the one thing that can soothe her when she’s nervous or anxious is the sound of her husband’s voice.
Jim visits Virginia daily at Essex Healthcare of Tallmadge, but he can’t physically be at the nursing home 24 hours a day.
Now his voice can.
On Thursday, an ambulance took Virginia to Summit Mall for her 85th birthday. There, she picked out a pink princess bear at Build-a-Bear Workshop.
While workers stuffed and stitched the made-to-order bear, Jim was led to a quiet corner so he could record a 10-second message for his wife.
“Good morning, darling. How are you this morning? You’re looking beautiful, as usual.”
Then the recording was slipped into the bear so Virginia can activate it as often as she wants with a squeeze of her bear’s paw.
The idea for the birthday gift came from their nurse, Missy Helton, who works for Crossroads Hospice. The agency provides hospice care at area health-care facilities as well as private homes.
It also operates a program called “Gift of a Day.”
“If you had one day to live, what would that day look like?” Crossroads spokeswoman Denise Czech-Dydo said, reciting the question that has been asked of all of their 400-plus current clients.
Then Crossroads tries to make the day come true. They’ve taken patients on casino trips and airplane rides, sent a chef to someone’s house, hosted a tea party, planned a fashion show.
But Czech-Dydo said Thursday’s visit with the Griffins was one of the most touching gifts she has heard.
Jim said he loved the idea for the talking bear and thinks it will work.
“I’m her security blanket,” he said. “If I just walk into the room and start talking to her, she’ll fall asleep.”
Jim and Virginia grew up in the same Munroe Falls neighborhood.
“I was 17, she was 18 when we got married,” Jim said.
Why so young, he was asked.
He laughed. Yes, they had to get married, he said. “Nobody gets married at 17 unless they have to.”
The couple went on to raise five children, who later gave them 10 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and a pair of great-greats.
They spent 50 years living in Brimfield. Of course, many of their days were spent on the road. Jim said they’ve traveled to 46 of the 48 continental states.
He now lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in Akron, a few miles from his wife’s nursing home.
“It’s so hard. Nobody knows what it’s like to lose someone after all those years,” he said. “To see someone they love deteriorate slowly like that.”
Virginia doesn’t speak much. Daughter Sandy Backus asked her if she was having fun Thursday.
“It’s natural,” Virginia said.
She smiled during the entire visit. At one point, she caught Jim’s attention across the room by holding her hand to her cheek and flexing her fingers in a wave. Jim swiftly moved to her side and planted a kiss.
Virginia’s family and several caregivers present agreed the day went remarkably well. Virginia never got overwhelmed, as they expected she might, and was alert and happy throughout the affair.
“We hit a day where she is fantastic,” daughter Debbie Morris said.
Morris and Backus held up a selection of dresses for the princess bear, and Virginia pointed to one she liked.
Then a store employee asked for the bear’s name in order to make a birth certificate.
Jim leaned in toward his wife.
“Hey, tiger, what do you want to name her?”
A moment later, Jim stood and announced, “Sarah.”
It was the name they picked out long ago in case they had another daughter.