Dolores Winstead was mostly silent as she stood by her husband’s hospital bed earlier this month, cupping his hand in both of hers. The 88-year-old man’s kidneys had begun to fail, he hadn’t eaten in days and his blood pressure was sinking.
As Trent Winstead’s condition deteriorated, and before Dolores fell ill beside him, the 83-year-old woman spoke softly to her daughter.
“I don’t know what I would do without him,” she said.
The Nashville couple had been together for nearly 64 years, through Trent’s service in the Korean War, the birth of two children, three grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. For more than six decades, Dolores and Trent remained side by side.
It was the early-1950s – just before Trent left for the war – when they began dating. He would write long letters to her from overseas, telling her he was “awful glad to hear from her.” When Trent finally proposed, he wanted so badly for her to be his wife that he decided to ask her while she was brushing her teeth, because how could she say no with a toothbrush in her mouth?
They were polar opposites: Dolores, a reserved woman who loved to cook, and Trent, an outgoing golfer and avid fisherman. He worked at a Ford glass plant, and she worked making hymnals and literature for religious services.
After retirement, they spent endless quiet days together in their home, watching the 10 p.m. news on the couch every night, and going to church together every Sunday. He called her “Mama,” or by her middle name, Aileen, stealing kisses from her, and dancing with her at weddings.
“It sounds so simple but it was so sweet,” their daughter, Sheryl Winstead, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “They loved each other through the humdrum days. They were more and more in love every day.”
Trent was the type of stalwart, Purple-Heart veteran who never liked going to the doctor. “I’ll be fine,” he always said. But when nausea caused him to stopped eating for multiple days earlier this month, his daughter finally made him go to the hospital. As the emergency room medical staff treated him on Dec. 6, it was clear his kidneys were failing, and he would need dialysis. He was admitted to the intensive care unit, and the dialysis began to weaken his heart.
The couple’s two children tried to limit the information they told their mother about his condition, but after a while, even Dolores knew his condition was worsening quickly.
For most of the first two days in the hospital with him, Dolores – a fairly healthy woman for her age – seemed to be feeling fine. But on the night of Dec. 7, she began to complain of a headache. Then she started throwing up. At about 10 p.m. that night, she sat down in a chair in her husband’s hospital room, resting in a sitting position with her head slumped over. This was not an unusual position for her to nap in, Sheryl Winstead said, so at first it wasn’t concerning.
But when her daughter tried to wake her, shaking her shoulder, Dolores wouldn’t wake up. She continued breathing as nurses rushed to try to revive her in the emergency room, but her brain activity was gone. She had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage.
Medical staff initially placed her in a hospital room separate from Trent’s, where they kept her connected to a ventilator. When the children broke the news of her aneurysm to Trent, he couldn’t quite understand it. Neither could anyone else in the room – even the cardiologist was tearing up seeing Dolores in her state, having spent the previous day speaking with her. It had all happened so fast.
A male nurse rolled him in a wheelchair to her room, and the entire family watched, heartbroken, as he cried beside her bed, tapping her and saying, “wake up, Aileen.”
“Just ask God to wake her up,” he said to his children. “He can create a miracle.”
“I don’t know who I’m going to sit on the couch with and watch the news anymore,” he added.
Seeing the devastated look on his face, and knowing his heart was weakening quickly from the dialysis, his daughter pleaded with him to hold on. “Dad, I’ll take care of you. Please, stay with us.” He said nothing in response.
When he went to sleep that night, he woke up after an hour, asking his daughter, “is Mama still breathing?”
“Yes, Dad, she’s still breathing,” Sheryl Winstead responded.
Noticing Dolores’s deteriorating condition, and Trent’s anguish, the hospital staff received approval to – for the first time in the hospital’s history – place the married couple in the same room, positioning their hospital beds right next to each other.
In their final moments – just as they had on countless other nights – the couple lay together, side by side, holding hands. At 9:10 p.m. on Dec. 9, about five weeks before the couple’s 64th anniversary, Dolores stopped breathing.
For the first several minutes, Sheryl Winstead and her brother, Eddie Winstead, could not bring themselves to tell their father that his best friend and partner was gone. Finally, Eddie Winstead went up to Trent.
“She’s passed on, Dad,” he said tenderly.
Trent reached his hand upwards, appearing to blow a kiss to his wife lying beside him, his daughter said.
He told his daughter, “you need to get her a pink casket, and a pink dress, because that’s what she wanted.” Of course, Sheryl Winstead already knew.
The 88-year-old man held out for longer than his children expected. But Sheryl Winstead knew it would only be a matter of time.
“Because she was gone, he just could not handle it,” Sheryl Winstead said. “We just watched him die.”
At 4 p.m. the following day, just hours after his wife’s death, Trent gave out.
“I hadn’t thought about it this way at the time,” Sheryl Winstead said. But, “literally, he died of a broken heart.”
“Never in a million years did I think I was going to come out of the hospital with neither one,” she said.
For the couple’s joint funeral on Dec. 16, their family members chose to play a song they thought was fitting, “Love Remains,” by Hillary Scott.
“A boy moves on, takes a bride. And she stands faithful, by his side,” the song lyrics say.
“They share joy, they share pain. But through it all, love remains.”
Dolores’s casket was pink, and Trent’s was blue, just as they each wanted. And for their burial – in the same way the couple departed – they were laid to rest together, side by side.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Samantha Schmidt