July 20, 2012

'Till Death Do Us Part'

Couple celebrates 75th anniversary shortly before God calls husband home

St. Augustine Home for the Aged resident Donald Bird of Indianapolis kisses his wife, Mary, on June 7 in her room at the home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. They celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary on June 20 then God called him home on June 27 at age 98. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

St. Augustine Home for the Aged resident Donald Bird of Indianapolis kisses his wife, Mary, on June 7 in her room at the home operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. They celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary on June 20 then God called him home on June 27 at age 98. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber) Click for a larger version.

By Mary Ann Garber

Seventy-five years ago, Donald Bird and Mary Angeline McCarthy promised to love each other “in sickness and in health till death do us part.”

At the time, the young newlyweds had no idea that their love story would span three-quarters of a century from 1937 until 2012.

She was Catholic and he was Methodist so they were married by a priest in the rectory adjacent to St. Lawrence Church in Muncie, Ind., as required by canon law.

In 1941, after attending Mass with Mary each week for four years, Don joined the Church on his 27th birthday.

On June 20, Don and Mary, at age 98 and 95, celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged, where the Little Sisters of the Poor, staff members and other residents made sure that their party was festive.

On their anniversary, Mary seemed more alert than she had been in recent days when Alzheimer’s disease clouded her mind and caused her to sleep most of the time.

Perhaps it was God’s grace that stirred Mary from her dementia as the Little Sisters and staff members styled her hair, dressed her in a new outfit for the party and pinned a pink rose corsage on her lace-trimmed jacket.

Mary opened her eyes to the delight of her loving and attentive husband, whom she had not spoken to for three years other than occasional—and often incoherent—mumbled responses to his conversations.

A time to cherish

First, the Birds marked their 75th anniversary by attending Mass together at the St. Augustine Home Chapel.

Don walked slowly beside Mary’s wheelchair as a staff member helped her get to the chapel.

Then they enjoyed dinner and cake at the home’s Lanagan Hall.

It was a joyous day—a time to cherish—for the Birds, who endured more than their share of health problems and other hardships through seven and a half decades of marriage, but continued to grow closer even in the midst of so much adversity.

Don was so excited about reaching this historic milestone, but fell at the home on their anniversary.

The fall led to more health problems.

He died on June 27—just seven days after their long-anticipated anniversary—at the St. Augustine Home, at peace in the knowledge that he was leaving his beloved wife in the wonderful care of the Little Sisters and staff.

His Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on June 30 at the chapel where he had often served as a lector.

Advice for the ages

“God has a plan for each of us,” Don said during an interview before their anniversary. “There are things that have happened in my life and Mary’s life which had something to do with why we are together and why we’ve lived so long.

“We have learned that God is running the show,” he said. “Don’t try to buck the Boss, who is the good Lord.”

Couples should “try to stay close to God in order to stay out of trouble,” Don said in response to a question about the secret of their long and happy marriage.

“Remember that God is running the show,” he said, “and that you get in trouble if you do it by yourself.”

An enduring love

Their love for each other overcame many challenges from her lifetime of poor health caused by tuberculosis, which prevented them from having children.

Mary was hospitalized several times as a teenager at a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Fort Wayne, Ind., and wasn’t able to complete high school.

But it was love at first sight for Don, whose first job after graduating from Muncie Central High School was as a newspaper carrier.

“When I got out of high school in 1932, there weren’t any jobs available except for newspaper routes,” he said. “I used to see her when I delivered the paper to her parents’ home, but I never got to really know her until I was invited to her 16th birthday party.”

During the party, they were playing cards with friends at different tables when their eyes met across the room.

“It must have been right away,” Don recalled about falling in love with Mary then asking her for a date and later enjoying dances with her at a girls’ club.

“The doctors at the sanatorium said we could get married, but she must not have children because she wouldn’t be able to withstand that,” he said. “We waited for me to get a better job so we could afford to be married. I finally got a job at the General Motors plant in Muncie in January of 1937.”

That June, they were married and settled into a small apartment near St. Lawrence Church.

Six months later, the United Auto Workers union went on strike, and he lost his job.

His next job, at Muncie Gear, paid 40 to 50 cents an hour, he said. Their rent was $35 a month.

“The [second world] war started about that time in 1939,” Don said. “I evidently have a knack for mechanics because they put me to work as a foreman for their [engine] overhaul shop. I came up with an idea on how to keep the bearings from burning out all the time.”

That experience led to another position at the Allison Division of General Motors in Indianapolis in 1941, where he worked on overhauling engines for the government’s war effort.

They lived at an apartment building on North Delaware Street near SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral.

His career with Allison and government contracts took him to Air Force bases in Texas, California and Alabama, where he worked on liquid-cooled, 12-cylinder engines for fighter planes, as well as on assignments to Ohio and New York.

Mary had to return to the sanatorium for several treatments during those years then undergo a thoracoplasty—an operation to remove lesions from her right lung.

The doctors didn’t expect her to live past her 40th birthday, but Don never gave up hope.

He changed jobs at Allison, and learned how to do technical writing so he could stay in Indianapolis with her.

Don retired 33 years ago, and later lived alone for six years after Mary was admitted to a nursing home in Zionsville.

When he was 90, the Little Sisters arranged for them to be reunited at the St. Augustine Home.

Roses to mark the years

On their 40th wedding anniversary, Don began buying pink silk roses for Mary. Her bouquet grew steadily over the years, and a gold silk rose was added to the vase for their 50th anniversary.

“There will be 75 roses in the vase on the 20th of June,” he said, proudly displaying the flowers kept in Mary’s room that date back 35 years.

“I don’t know why the good Lord does it, but he seems to get me out of bed every day,” Don said. “I guess he wants me to be with Mary. That’s what keeps me going, but it’s getting more and more difficult as time goes by. I had triple bypass [heart] surgery 25 years ago. Since then, I had three stents put in [my heart]. My hearing and vision have gotten worse, too.”

Each morning, Don said, he starts his day by thanking God that they both were able to move to the home eight years ago.

“This is heaven on earth living here,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be here. I think it was an act of God working through people that we got to live here, and that’s why Mary and I are still alive. I have more friends here than I ever had in my life, and better care than I ever had before. I’m going to have my funeral here, and Mary’s funeral, too.”

Mother Mary Vincent Mannion, superior of the Little Sisters of the Poor, said recently that Don and Mary Bird’s lives have been “a beautiful love story.”

His room in the independent living area was on the second floor. Her room in the skilled care wing is on the third floor, and he would walk to her room several times each day to hold her hand and talk to her.

“Jesus came and talked to Mary after she had her surgery,” Don said, smiling. “She said he came and stood by her bed and said, ‘Mary, I’m not going to take you now. I’m going to leave you here a while.’ I have no reason to doubt it. On Sept. 27, she will be 96.”

God willing, Mary—who may not understand that she is now a widow—will celebrate her birthday with the Little Sisters, staff and residents this fall.

And on the days when she opens her eyes, the Little Sisters will show her the bouquet of pink silk roses from Don that pay tribute to their amazing lifetime of love.

(Memorial gifts may be sent to the Little Sisters of the Poor, St. Augustine Home for the Aged, 2345 W. 86th St., Indianapolis, IN 46260.)

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