Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Never letting go of Eileen's hand

NORTH KEY LARGO -- Love that runs deep, love that goes directly to the heart, love that lasts a lifetime is not always easy.

John and Eileen Altieri, now in their mid-80s, met in typing class when they were 16 and married four years later just after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II.

Altieri's sister told the couple that their marriage wouldn't last six months. Last September they celebrated 65 years together.

"The minute I saw her I fell for her," Altieri said last week at the couple's Ocean Reef Club home. "She had a cute little pony tail that bounced and caught my eye. I asked a girl to introduce us but she refused. She wanted me for herself. In class I turned around and asked¬ Eileen for an eraser to correct my typing. She was delighted to give me an eraser and I found out soon after that she was delighted to date me."

Altieri said he had to take two buses from his house to hers. They would catch a bus to a movie and a bus back to her house and he would then catch two busses home.

"It was a six-bus date for me," he said. "Her dad was a fireman and a fire inspector for the New York Fire Department. He got free passes to all the theaters in town. So she was a cheap date. I would kid her about that.

"Our first kiss was on her front steps after our fourth date. When we kissed for that first time we both decided this was a good match," he said, squeezing his wife's hand as she sat silent beside him.

As Altieri continued talking of their lives together, he would sometimes interject, 'Isn't that right, honey?"

"We were married on Sept. 4 and honeymooned in a one-room log cabin in New Town, Conn. Our first son was born nine months later. We have two sons, John and Peter, and we lost a third, Joseph," he said, giving Eileen's hand a small squeeze.

He reached over and wiped her mouth. She did not react. Her eyes were closed.

"This has been so gradual over the years," he said, speaking of her condition.

"She had a double mastectomy when she was 40. She's a survivor," he said, looking at her. "She played tennis with a passion to build muscle and became a top club player. In 1996 she had ovarian cancer and they removed two cancers the size of tennis balls. In about 2000 she began to get lost. She would shake."

Doctors would eventually diagnose Eileen with Lewy Body Dementia, a progressive brain disease that shares characteristics of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Never letting go of her hand, Altieri continued their story.

He became an engineer after he got out of the Navy. Those were days of long hours and hard work. He says their big break came in 1959 when, as a fledgling engineer completing a lucrative job in Aiken, S.C., they bought their first house in Norwalk, Conn. for $15,000.

"In the beginning she was my secretary," he recalled. "As time went on she advised me about financial matters. She would go on every other trip with me to Europe, South America, Japan. At the end of the day I was tired from working and she would take over and entertain. She was charming. We were like a tag team. She made me look good. She was an asset to our company. I knew I was a good engineer, but she taught me to be a good businessman."

Though Altieri could certainly afford to put Eileen in a nursing home, he says none could provide the kind of care he can give her at home.

"She took care of me for 55 years. My goal is to outlive her so I can take care of her for the next 55 years," he said.

So he's hired a full-time nurse to help him with Eileen and he also relies on the support of friends in similar situations.

"My help is from my care-giving group," he said, referring to Forget Me Not's, a support group he started with friend Joe Bertram. They meet monthly to share information and provide a shoulder to lean on.

"We always felt we wanted to mutually support one another," Altieri said of he and Eileen. "We felt the same way about raising our children. Isn't that right, sweetie? We've had our tough times but we've always held on to the idea that our marriage would last.

"I think that she understands me more than she can show," he added with confidence. "Maybe it's my imagination but it makes me feel good."

Some ask Altieri how, at 85, he has the will to continue to provide Eileen with constant care.

"Everyone says I'm giving her way beyond what she has given me, but I feel that I'm blessed to have her. Our youngest son, Peter -- always a tough guy who didn't cry since he was four years old -- cried when his mother was leaving. She's not where she was, but we still have her. I'm so much better off than those men who have lost their wives. I couldn't live without her."

sgibbs@keysnews.com

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