True love knows no boundaries with Shrestinians
Published: Friday March 16, 2012
Andover, Mass. - "He's still my rock. I hope I'm still his"
Ginny Shrestinian sat beside her husband Ara, feeding him lunch. First soup, then a sandwich. One hand was wrapped around the food --- the other around his.
It was a special day at the Bedford VA Hospital. Today was Valentine's, not that it really mattered. With the Shrestinians, every day was one meant to be celebrated, bound by love for 52 years.
The fact he has an advanced stage of Alzheimer 's disease only heightens their relationship. Hardly a day passes that she isn't by his side, tending to his needs ... looking for that elusive smile. She reached over to give him a kiss and he beamed with delight.
"I don't know if he knows it's Ginny by his side," she says. "But he knows it's someone he recognizes and loves. That's what matters the most to me."
For 25 years, he served as a deacon at St. Gregory Church in North Andover, never missing a Sunday. They would leave their Cape Cod home in the summer on a Saturday to honor that commitment. For Ara Shrestinian, church and God came before pleasure.
But not family. The death of a son Steven in 1996 devastated the couple. The tragedy occurred on the eve of their wedding anniversary and they haven't celebrated one since.
Two years ago, church members brought out a cake after Badarak and toasted the two on their milestone. Disaster struck again when a daughter Susan (Kulungian) was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and has since gone into remission.
"He used to do all these things around the house like getting the car serviced and taking care of all the manly chores," Ginny said. "Now, I'm learning to do them. I needed a new car and went shopping for one. Ara wasn't with me."
Soft music filled the air. A dozen other patients shared company with Shrestinian, including a retired Army colonel and a former surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital. Alzheimer's doesn't discriminate. It picks its victims randomly.
At a time when education was at a premium, Shrestinian graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1951 and spent 53 years with Thompson & Lichtner in Cambridge as a civil engineer before retiring as vice-president.
The highlight of his career came in 1975 when a fire escape collapsed in Boston, sending a young woman plunging to her death. Because of his expertise in concrete, Shrestinian was called upon the scene by Boston authorities to investigate the matter.
His final analysis led to solutions that were hailed by the industry. Accolades aside, for him it was all in a day's work.
"He had a knack for always coming up with the right answer," said Ginny. "My friends used to always kid me about dating an MIT grad. We go back to the days when his family ran a market in Haverhill. We got married a year after we met."
As senior deacon of his church, Shrestinian represented the voice of authority. In some ways, God was his co-pilot.
"I always feel at peace with myself and the church," he often said. "It's been a release valve for me. A day doesn't go by when I don't count my blessings and feel thankful for the world around me."
He sang in the choir, served as choirmaster for three years, and was a trustee for 12. Among his interests was hosting foreign exchange students and being a handyman around the house while doting over his six grandchildren, ages 14-19.
Daughter Susan and son David have joined other family members in providing overwhelming support, along with relatives and church friends.
Nothing filled his heart more with joy than seeing some young acolyte following in his steps, often stepping aside to give them greater visibility on the altar.
Dementia started taking control in 2007. Ginny began noticing signs like moving the wrong pieces on a backgammon board. She began driving him to work and would patiently wait until he finished his business. Two years later, he retired. He's been at the VA hospital over a year now after being transferred from a nursing home in North Andover.
One quality that hasn't been affected is his appetite, especially choreg and other Armenian foods which Ginny may bring. The photographs he once treasured and the music he adored has suddenly turned into empty memories.
"When the grandchildren visit, it turns into a special moment," Ginny says. "He responds to them in very subtle ways. My husband always had a brilliant mind and to see this happen to him is very unfortunate. Every day with him becomes a precious gift."