When visitors arrive on a Friday morning, Robert “Bob” and Bernadette Booth hold their rosaries and pray together in their little room at Heartland Health Care Center.
Married 62 years, the Booths have been struggling for the last few to manage Bob’s condition and Bernadette’s increasing dementia.
In 2014, Bob began receiving care from Hospice of Michigan to ease the discomfort of his achalasia and pulmonary fibrosis.
Bob explained his condition for about 15 minutes before becoming too winded to continue.
Bob needed a break, so attention shifted to Bernadette.
When asked how they met, she began talking about their relationship and its history, Bob perked up almost immediately at the mention of the love they share.
The Booths met at a high school dance. Bernadette went along with her sister and said she was immediately fond of Bob when he asked her to dance.
“When I left that place that night I said to myself, ‘I’m going to marry that girl,’” Bob said.
Just a few months later, he did.
Bob joked that it was his “Indian nose” that caught her eye.
Bernadette smiled and recalled that it was actually “the way he (talked) so nice.”
The Booths got married on Feb. 14, 1953 and raised seven kids, four boys and three girls.
“It was hectic, but we made it,” Bernadette said with a laugh. She also said that getting married on Valentine’s Day was not the plan, and they didn’t realize the significance of the date until later on.
Bob registered with Hospice of Michigan in May of 2014 and later he and Bernadette moved into Heartland Health Care Center, an assisted living home in Grand Rapids.
When asked what keeps him going, Bob didn’t hesitate to say, “thoughts of Jesus, and her.”
“I can’t pray very long, so my wife graciously prays the prayer for me,” Bob said, holding the rosary in his shaky hands. “I pray them with her, silently.”
Bob and Bernadette said their marriage and love has grown significantly since they first met.
“Love each other, be truthful to each other,” Bob advised young couples. “Real love is giving yourself to each other, and we love each other very much. We love each more now than we ever did.”
Bob’s advice to people in relationships is to go home and tell their husband, or wife, “Sweetheart, I love you.”
Leaning into her husband, Bernadette affirmed that marriage is forever.
“Don’t think about, ‘Well, I don’t like him anymore, I want to get rid of him, get a new one.’ You don’t do that,” Bernadette said. “That’s the way it is. Because you love each other.”
Once visitors left, the Booths resumed their prayers.
A Final Transition
Less than two weeks after Bob was discussing love and religion, his health took a rapid decline and he slipped into the final days of life.
Bob died the morning of April 1 with his family and caregivers by his side. Jodi Gauthier, Bob’s hospice nurse, said that it was peaceful. Bob was comforted by his faith and surrounded by those who care about him. Gauthier said they were praying when he took his last breath.
Bob suffered from achalasia his whole life, a disease of the esophagus, making it almost impossible to swallow food. In 1951, Bob was honorably discharged from the military because his medical condition made it hard for him to keep up during boot camp. Bob was later diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.
For Gauthier, being Bob’s nurse was a gift.
“Bob was one of those that made your job easy,” Gauthier said. “He looked forward to you coming, he listened, he wanted input.”
Bob was born on Nov. 16, 1928 and raised Catholic. He worked for Old Kent Bank for about 30 years, and being the provider for the family, worked other odd jobs as well. He took up hobbies including hunting, fishing, archery, and singing.
Val Haugen, the Booth’s youngest daughter, used to go hunting with her dad, who once held a national archery championship title.
“The first time I ever went hunting my dad brought me,” Val said. “He helped build a hunting blind to sit in, just him and I.”
Hunting wasn’t the only skill Bob passed along to his youngest daughter.
“In fifth grade I was the only one who knew what opera was,” Val said. “He taught me how beautiful opera music was, and singing, and classical music.”
What most don’t know about Bob, though, was that he had a passion for singing.
“He had a beautiful tenor voice,” Val said. “He was loud, and he was the one that you could hear in church the best because it was just so strong. He was in several choirs…He didn’t tell people he was a good singer because that just wasn’t my dad.”
Val said that Hospice made the last few months easier for her and her family with the consideration and communication they kept up. A couple nurses that helped Bob when he was still at home visited him when he moved into Heartland, which was comforting for Val.
“They’ve been wonderful…even though my mom was not in hospice, they still really looked after her as well,” Val said. “They didn’t have to do that, but they did.”
Gauthier said she has learned a lot from the Booths, and from being a hospice nurse.
“One of the big things I’ve learned is how important it is to forgive,” Gauthier said. “With my family, I’ve learned to tell them every day, ‘I love you, I miss you,’ (and) how important they are to me…You never know when you can’t tell them again.”
Val said that her father’s death couldn’t have gone any other way. The Eucharistic ministers were in the room along with Bob, Bernadette and one of their sons.
“My mom received communion and she grabbed my dad’s hand to pray again and that’s when he started to go,” Val said. “That’s when his breathing just kind of left, as they were praying. And everybody’s like ‘that’s so dad.’”
Val laughed when she told this story, which seemed to come straight out of a movie.
“That is something that would have been really important to him,” Val said.
A visitation was held on April 6 for Bob. Family and friends gathered and shared memories of their father, grandfather and friend.
“He loved his sweets, especially his cookies,” said Carrie Haugen, one of the Booth’s daughters. “My mom was always baking for him.”
Carrie began to tear up as she recalled the memories of her dad. She said that for every archery tournament, the family would camp out and make a vacation of the trip.
“One time we went camping there just for the weekend, no tournaments or anything, and it started pouring rain and we just had a tent,” Carrie said. “It was raining so hard that we couldn’t stay in the tent and they had a lodge there with a huge fireplace and my dad lit it and we all laid there in front of the fireplace and spent the night. That was really fun.”
Carrie recalled holidays at home, and how her parents always seemed to make it work.
“He loved Christmas too,” Carrie said. “Dad was like a little kid at Christmas. He always made us put up the Christmas tree and decorate it, while he took pictures. There was a time where they didn’t have much money, so they ended up going to the dollar store…(He) just bought a bunch of dollar store toys for his kids so we had something under the Christmas tree. But we were happy with it, it didn’t matter to us, you know, we got each other, we had our gifts, it didn’t matter.”
Grandchildren gathered to reminisce about their Grandpa and his character.
“Him and my dad are the loudest hunters I’ve ever been around,” Eric Booth, a grandson, laughed. “They always bring out candy. I don’t know how they ever got a deer.”
Brad Haugen, 22, said that when he was 8 years old, Bob spent three days with his grandkids building a lifelong memory in the snow over a winter break.
“We had two or three days off from school, so…me and two of my cousins went over to my grandparent’s house and we built an igloo,” Brad said. “It was four or five feet high and a few feet in diameter…it ended up lasting into April.”
Bob had a very sunny outlook and his family remembers him as an eternal optimist.
“My favorite thing about him was that after every meal, if it was a terrible meal, if it was a so-so meal, it was always the best meal ever,” Eric said. “That’s kind of how he lived his life, every day was the best day ever.”