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After 70 years of marriage, a Kenai couple's love endures through sickness, health

KENAI — At the beginning of June, Donald and Luella Haralson made it to a milestone few couples reach: their 70th wedding anniversary.

Their son Douglas Haralson prepared an announcement for the occasion, with a greatest-hits rundown of his parents' decades together: They were married in their home state of Oklahoma after World War II. Donald's career as an Air Force officer took them to Italy, Germany, Japan and all over the U.S. They retired in Alaska, to be close to grandchildren.

"My parents will get a big kick out of seeing it in the newspaper," he wrote to Alaska Dispatch News.

What the announcement couldn't have described is the day-to-day reality of what one marriage looks like after seven decades.

It's a story of what endures after age and disease have stripped away everything but the marrow of a life shared: commitment. 

Don and Lue Haralson celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary June 1, 2017. The couple, who live in Kenai, first married in Oklahoma and moved to Alaska to be near family members in 2001. Don is the primary caregiver for his wife, who struggles with memory loss. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

‘In sickness and in health’ 

That story lives with the Haralsons, in a tidy ranch house off a back road in Kenai. Donald, 91, is a retired Air Force colonel, tall, plainspoken and funny, wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders. In his long military career, he served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Luella, 94, is slight, with delicate features and short silvery hair. She lit out from a tiny Oklahoma ranching town after high school for a civil service job in Washington, D.C., something her family says few women did at the time.

She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about five years ago. These days, she sometimes doesn't recognize her son or husband. She forgets conversations as she's having them.

Don and Lue, as they are known, are far from alone. Douglas and his wife and children live right across the street, and help is always on offer. Their daughter-in-law comes over every afternoon.

Doug Haralson helps his mother walk down steps in her backyard on June 7, 2017. Don Haralson is at right.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

But Don is his wife's primary caretaker. They employ no professional nursing help. It is Don who rides the unpredictable waves of dementia alongside his wife. He cooks breakfast for her and helps remind her who he is when she forgets. He takes her to lunch most days and listens to her when she's scared and confused, which is often.

"It's hard to get him to let us help," said Douglas, their only child.

For Don, marriage after 70 years means living up to words he uttered at the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oklahoma City on their wedding day.

Though it has been difficult to care for his wife, who struggles with memory loss, Don Haralson remains committed to being her primary caregiver. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

"On June 1 of 1947, we took a vow," he said in his backyard recently, swatting mosquitoes. "And part of that vow was I told the minister that as long as we both shall live, I will try to take care of her, in sickness and in health.

"And that's what I'm trying to do. There are times when I wish to hell I wasn't."

Inside, his son was patiently re-explaining to Lue who the visitors were and why they were here.

If it would make her happy 

What's it like caring for a spouse with dementia?

"I'll put it this way: It's not easy," Don said.

Besides the memory loss and endless repeated and forgotten conversations, dementia has made Lue fearful and at times paranoid. She sometimes tells Don that someone is trying to kill him.

"She'll say, 'We gotta go, they're gonna come in here and kill you.' And I'll say, 'Who? I'd like to see them try.' "

Hardest for Don is the depression that experts say accompanies dementia.

She wants to go back to Oklahoma to see her long-dead family. She can't accept or remember that they are no longer on earth, Don said. He'd move back if it would make her happy.

Lue Haralson talks with her son, Doug, at home in Kenai. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

All this is so different than the Lue who Don met in a Norman, Oklahoma, restaurant just after World War II. That November, Lue was working at the naval air station and living in a rooming house. Don had just been discharged and was visiting the restaurant where he had washed dishes in high school.

There was no love-at-first-sight spark, but he remembers the olive-green suit she often wore, and their date to an Oklahoma Sooners basketball game. Another time, he took her to a dance and stepped all over her feet.

"I had never danced before," he said.

He admired her independence. He loved her cooking, the chili she made extra-spicy for him. He prized her intelligence, the important jobs she worked at when few women did so, such as legislative recorder for the state of Oklahoma.

"She must have been one hell of a secretary, because people wanted her to work for them," he said. 

In his long career with the Air Force, the two were stationed all over the world. He relished her adventurous spirit, their travels together and the friends they collected wherever they lived. In their 60s, they traveled around Europe for five months on a rail pass. They'd stop by their son's home — he was living there at the time — on weekends to do laundry.

"Kind of like college kids," Douglas said.

A photograph from Don and Lue Haralson’s wedding day is framed at their home. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Their house is filled with reminders of those years: Mementos from their blowout 50th anniversary party in Oklahoma, with a preserved blush rose corsage and boutonniere. Over the fireplace hangs a framed painting of a lively city square in Florence, Italy, where they were stationed for a few years in their 20s.

‘I love the woman’

People have suggested that it might be time for Lue to live in a nursing facility. Don does not agree.

"It wasn't anyplace I would want to stay," he said. "And I damn sure wouldn't want my love to be staying."

When Lue fell and broke her hip in 2014, he stayed with her in the long-term rehabilitation center for all but one or two nights. In the hospital, he slept in a reclining chair.

"It was a fight to get him out of there at all," his son said.

Don was astonished when a doctor tried to delicately ask him just how far he wanted the medical team to go, treatment-wise, to help his wife recover.

"I said, 'What the hell are you talking about?' I said, 'By God, I plan for you to do everything you possibly can.' "

Don doesn't know if they'll make it to a 75th anniversary. For as many years as they have left together, he will be by her side.

"Well it's simple," he said. "I love the woman."

Doug Haralson shows his mother, Lue Haralson, satellite photos of Italy. Though Lue experiences significant memory loss, she recalled the places in the photographs clearly from her time living there with her husband many years ago. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

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