BY GARY J. KUNICH
5000 West editor
By all accounts, Don and Grace Rytman have been together the better part of 70 years.
“It’s been a real long time,” Don said. “We knew each other in kindergarten.”
The two celebrated First Communion together a couple years later, and by the time high school came around, it was time to cement the relationship.
“We just get along,” Don mused. “We were homecoming king and queen.
But only because that’s the way she wanted it.
“This is how it worked. I was homecoming queen,” Grace said. “And because I was voted queen, I got to pick my king, and I picked him,” she smiled.
“He had other girlfriends in high school, but he always made my heart go … ”
She stops for a moment and pats her chest.
“He still does,” she added as a tear filled her eyes.
Three years after he placed that crown on her head in 1952 at Cudahy High School, they exchanged wedding rings, and have been married 55 years.
And Grace is still staying active these days, taking care of Don, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease which first reared its head in the 1950s, became very noticeable in the 1970s, and has gotten progressively worse ever since.
Despite the illness, Don and Grace raised four children: Michael, now 54, Donnie, 52, Roberta, 51, and Patricia, 44.
These days, it’s tough for Don to speak or move, and he spends most his time in a wheelchair, while Grace takes care of him and the day-to-day tasks of the household. She helps feed him and gives him drinks through a straw.
It’s safe to say they both live with Multiple Sclerosis.
But don’t look for Grace to complain.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” she said. “I do not argue with the Lord. The Lord chose this path, and we do it. We do it with faith, and with prayer. What do you tell me, Don?”
“I pray for you twice a day,” he added.
“I ask God, ‘Please, Lord, make my shoulders big enough to handle all the gifts you give me.’ Sometimes it’s hard, but you do what you have to do.’”
Faith plays a big part in their relationship, and the two attend Mass every Saturday at the VA chapel.
“If there’s one phrase I would use to describe them, it would be, ‘Mutual devotion,’” said the Rev. Norm Oswald, the Milwaukee VA’s chief of chaplains. “It’s obvious the care and love they have for each other. They live by their vows.”
Don first start experiencing severe leg and back pains soon after his Army stint ended in 1955.
They both believe that was the start of MS, but it went undiagnosed until the early 1970s. He had good days and bad, but was finally forced to retire from his carpentry job at age 47. He spent his time volunteering at the VA for 17 more years before his health forced him to quit.
Grace said she always wanted to be a nurse, but wasn’t able to pursue that career while raising a family.
Even without the degree, she serves as Don’s main caregiver. A registered nurse from the VA visits every three weeks to change out Don’s catheter. A certified nursing assistant, provided by the VA, comes to the home every Tuesday through Thursday to help Don clean up, get dressed and shave. He also spends three days at an adult day care, which gives Grace time to relax and attend two different support groups.
“One is just a social one and we meet at (a local restaurant), but it’s good to talk to other people,” she said.
While the job is tough, Grace doesn’t shirk away from the responsibilities.
“I’m hoping it can stay this way for as long as it can. There will come a day when I’m not able to do everything, but I’m hoping to be together and here for as long as possible.”
While she takes on the challenging, she savors the good times, too.
“He’s lucky I like sports,” she said. “We watch any kind of sports on TV except hockey.”
That makes Don happy. And that makes her happy.
“We’ve been in love a very long time,” he says.
Editor’s note: This was originally printed in our December 2010 5000 West news magazine. Of all the stories I’ve written since coming to the VA in November 2009, this is one of my favorites. Don and Grace are great, gracious people who serve as an inspiration to others. As a Veteran myself, I am proud to be a part of the VA and honored that we can help Don and Grace with healthcare and other issues. We are more than a medical center. We are about building relationships. I ran into Grace the other day at the VA as she was getting some paperwork for Don’s care. As always, she was beaming and had a big smile on her face. The two are moving to a lakeside home in Oconomowoc, and we wish them many pleasant days and beautiful sunrises over the lake.