09
Feb
18
Finding love against all odds
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Finding love against all odds

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It is rare to find a love that resists the ravages of time and the accidents of history.

Nestled deep in the heart of Carveth Care Centre is a marriage that has done just that.

Smiling gently at his wife, Wilhelmina, of 65 years, 86-year-old Henry Sprenger loves her more than anything. Now, as his bride transitions into long-term care, he clings tightly to the memories of their life together.

“I got married three times to the same woman,” says Henry with a chuckle in early February 2018, four days after Wilhelmina was admitted to the nursing home in Gananoque. “Now you know why we’ve been married so long, 20 years for each ceremony.”

The couple smiles at the memory of their three services in 1952: one by proxy between Canada and the Netherlands; one at a city hall in Canada; one in a church.

“Once would have been enough,” says Henry with his trademark humour.


 

Childhood friends in Amsterdam, Henry and Wilhelmina’s feelings grew fonder as they grew older.

“We met when we were nine years old,” confirms Wilhelmina who spent seven months in foster care during WWII due to a food shortage. “We were neighbours.”

The couple reflects back to that time when survival was a struggle. School was closed for a year as war raged around them. Henry jeopardized his safety by sneaking food to neighbours hiding Jewish people from the German Army.

“It was a real no-no, feeding Jewish people,” explains Henry about the milk he carried to people hiding in a nearby attic. “It was cold up there, too. We didn’t have electricity or gas for nine months. The only thing we had was water.”

Henry adds wisely, “Now we complain when hydro goes out for a few hours.”

Carrying a picture of Wilhelmina while he served in the Merchant Marines, Henry asked for her hand in marriage when he returned from duty.

“We wrote to each other for a year-and-a-half,” he says about their time apart.

Not yet 21 and newly engaged, Henry accompanied his parents across the ocean to start a new life in Canada. Wilhelmina followed him three months later.

“We were meant for each other,” he says wistfully. “She was my first and last love.”

Grateful to be in Canada, Henry worked hard to support his wife and two young children. The couple enjoyed the same interests and hobbies such as camping, sailing and travelling.

“We always had a vacation every summer,” explains Marion, their youngest child. “It was always on a shoestring budget, but sometimes that’s more fun.”

Between vacations, Henry earned a living coordinating building supplies in the construction industry. “I’ve been on all of the tall buildings in Toronto before they were finished,” he says proudly.

The couple moved around the country before settling in Gananoque.

Asked if it has been a good marriage, Henry responds quickly, “One of the best.”

He smiles kindly at the woman he serves breakfast in bed, every day for the past 55 years. At 86 years old, Wilhelmina is still the object of his affection.

“I feel embarrassed, but it’s a nice thing he does for me,” says Wilhelmina about the morning tradition Henry started in the 60s when she was raising their two young children.

“It’s funny the thoughts that stay in your mind, like the nice things we did for each other,” she explains.

Asked how he feels about Wilhelmina’s transition to long-term care, Henry notes before looking down at the floor, “That’s a loaded question.”

“We prefer to stay together longer,” she says in the silence.

“It was getting pretty bad,” adds Henry. “We started to fight and argue. We never did that before.”

Wilhelmina notes solemnly, “I have dementia.”

Still in the early stages of the disease, Wilhelmina is alert and aware of her surroundings. Her memory slips occasionally, but is mostly intact.

She doesn’t remember waking up at 4 am that day and getting dressed. She does remember how hard Henry worked to provide for his family.

“He wasn’t a patient man. He was a go-getter. I was the opposite,” says Wilhelmina. “We had a good life, but we had to work. Henry is a hard worker. If there was no work, he wasn’t happy.”

A daily visitor at the nursing home, Henry is grateful for the medical attention Wilhelmina receives at Carveth Care Centre.

“This is a lovely facility,” says the couple’s daughter. “From the moment we walked in the door, it’s very homey and welcoming.”

Nodding his head in agreement, Henry adds quietly, “I don’t have any regrets.”

Henry and Wilhelmina’s eldest child, Frederick, lives in Mississauga, Ontario. Carveth Care Centre is honoured to tell the story of this couple (this Valentine’s Day) whose devotion to each other is true love.

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