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Life without Sadie

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After 81 years of marriage, Gilbert Hill finds himself alone. At age 101, he has much to miss. And much to learn.

By BRADY DENNIS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 7, 2001


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Gilbert Hill
ZEPHYRHILLS -- On the last day of her life, Sadie Hill tried again and again to tell her husband something.

But her tongue was dry and her body was weary, and Gilbert could not make out her words.

After 81 years of marriage, they were the last words she would say to him. The mystery still haunts him.

Gilbert kept vigil at her bedside that night, watching over the woman he married when Woodrow Wilson was president.

It had been one of their daily rituals to share a good-night kiss.

"She had to have her half a dozen kisses before she went to sleep," he said. "That was every night; that was always."

She lay asleep in the hospital bed. There would be no last good-night kiss.

"I just sat there and held her hand," he said, fighting back tears. "That's all I could do. I came home and prayed for her."

The hospital called at 5 a.m. for Gilbert to hurry back. Sadie died minutes before he could make it. It was July 15, a month to the day after their 81st wedding anniversary.

As dawn broke that morning, Gilbert Hill found himself alone at age 101. He stepped out of the hospital doors and into a life without Sadie.

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[Times photos: Douglas R. Clifford]
Gilbert Hill, 101, looks at the bed he and his wife, Sadie, shared for so many years at their home in Zephyrhills. The bed has remained made since she died in July, a month after their 81st wedding anniversary. Gilbert sleeps in a chair in the living room now.

Breakfast for one

A month later, Gilbert Hill is already awake as the first light of morning filters through the yellow drapes in his house on Ridgewood Drive.

Never mind that he stayed up past 11 p.m. the night before watching baseball on TV, as he does most every night.

His body knows instinctively when 6 a.m. arrives.

He grabs his walker and shuffles down the orange shag carpet of the hallway to the bathroom, where he washes his hands and face.

He crosses his small living room, with the ceiling fan turning overhead, and moves onto the linoleum floor of the kitchen.

Slowly and deliberately, he prepares breakfast.

He loads the percolator with Maxwell House coffee, pops two pieces of bread in the toaster and pours himself a bowl of Raisin Bran.

When the toast pops out, he puts four small pats of butter on each piece and pours himself coffee, cranberry juice and water. He also has a banana.

"It's the same meal we always had," he says. "Of course, two of us had it then.

"She would jump out of bed before I could even get awake," he says. "She'd set the table for breakfast and put the coffeepot on. She was all washed up before I'd get going."

He neatly sets the spread at a small counter by the refrigerator and eats quietly for 15 minutes. He has lost 5 pounds recently and is down to 130.

After breakfast, Gilbert pulls a drying rack from a cabinet and fills the right side of the kitchen sink with soapy water.

He washes and dries each dish, placing them back in their designated spots. The kitchen looks untouched.

He shuffles back into the living room and sits in his blue recliner. Sadie's smaller blue recliner sits empty to his right. He looks out the window and faces another day without her.

Silence hovers in the air like smoke.

Love at first sight

Gilbert Hill first laid eyes on Sadie Longmoor at a barn dance in Hardwick, Vt., in 1918.

The two had grown up only a valley apart but had never met. Her family's dairy farm sat on one hill, his family's on another.

Sadie was twirling on the dance floor that night with Gilbert's brother. It was another year before Gilbert mustered the courage to ask his brother for an introduction to the curly-haired farm girl.

"I'd been thinking about her a lot," he said. "When I saw her, I knew my brother wasn't going to get her."

Before long, Gilbert was hitching up his horse and buggy and lumbering along the dirt roads of northern Vermont to court Sadie.

When the snowdrifts got too thick for the horse, he made the 5-mile trip on foot. His persistence paid off.

He and Sadie wed at her family's farmhouse on June 15, 1920. They both were 20. The Methodist minister who performed the ceremony arrived in a Model T Ford.

The only reminder in Gilbert's home of those early days is a grainy black and white picture of him and Sadie in their wedding attire. The picture sits on the third shelf of a bookcase in the living room.

In it, Gilbert Hill stands erect in his finest blue suit. Sadie wears a lacy white dress with a veil that disintegrated decades ago.

Gilbert and Sadie had been married longer than almost any other couple in the world when she died. Harley and Sylvia Utz of Greenville, Ohio -- who share the Hills' June 15 wedding date -- hold the record, according to the Guiness Book of World Records. They were married two years earlier than the Hills.

Pray together, stay together

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Before she died, Sadie Hill talked about life with Gilbert: “He’s always right there when I need him.”
Ask Gilbert how he and Sadie stayed married so long, and he gives a simple answer.

"We started 30 years ago praying at night before we went to bed," he said. "I can't say that's what kept us here all this time, but I think it's been a help. I do have a lot of faith in prayer."

The couple, who adopted two children, always were lovers and friends. But above all, they were partners.

"I went out and earned all the money, and she saved it; that's how we did it all those years," Gilbert said. "She did all the checking and banking. She had everything in line and running smooth. She was pretty sharp with that kind of work."

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times before she died, Sadie talked about how she and Gilbert weathered more than 80 years with hardly a fight.

She sat in her blue recliner beside his. Silver-haired, she wore glasses and spoke in a high-pitched voice. They held hands the whole time.

"You get so used to someone. You'll start to say something and he'll say, "I was just thinking of that,' " Sadie said. "Most everything has worked out good for us. He's always right there when I need him."

In recent years, Sadie answered the phone because Gilbert's poor hearing made it impossible to understand the caller on the other end. She did the grocery shopping and the cooking.

They ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every night for supper because they were Sadie's favorite. They rarely, if ever, missed Lawrence Welk's show Saturday nights on PBS. When that wasn't on, they both loved watching baseball.

"He would wash the dishes, and she would dry them; she did the vacuuming, he dusted," said their 69-year-old son, Kenneth Hill, who lives in Vermont. "Everything they did was that way."

He's a survivor

"When she left, I thought he would be two weeks behind," Kenneth Hill said.

"I'm sorry to say, but I didn't imagine he would last long without her," said their daughter, Ina Newton, 71. "They were so close and so devoted to each other. I'm quite sure they led a happier life than most people."

It is true that men who lose their wives often die soon afterward. But that typically happens to men much younger than Gilbert.

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Gilbert goes through his daily routine of “cleaning up,” as he calls it, before breakfast.
"People who live past 100 are survivors," said Donna Cohen, University of South Florida professor of aging and mental health. "They are incredibly resilient. This man clearly is a survivor. At his age, he could die tomorrow, or he could live 10 years. You just don't know."

Cohen said couples married as long as Gilbert and Sadie have formed bonds that most people cannot comprehend. So just because she is gone doesn't mean they still aren't as close as ever.

"They are very special and rare individuals," Cohen said. "Even after death the relationship goes on. The smells are there; the pictures are there; her clothes are there. The relationship and love and caring is still living in that house.

"She will continue to live in his heart, and he will carry her around," she said. "I'm sure he's talking to her spirit, wherever she is."

Learning the bankbook

Gilbert Hill spent much of his life pounding fence posts, milking cattle and pitching hay. He hammered nails at construction sites in the unrelenting winters of New England and the unforgiving summers of Florida.

He worked with his hands while Sadie handled the family finances. Gilbert hasn't written a check in 40 years.

"I wrote one, and it's the only time I can remember ever writing a check," he said.

Sadie's death meant more than the loss of a soul mate. It has created a host of practical problems in Gilbert's life as well.

These days, Gilbert must wash and dry the dishes himself. He got a new telephone installed so he can answer his own calls, and occasionally hear the person who is calling. He makes out his own grocery list and does his own laundry with help from a neighbor.

Each week the letter carrier brings new bills. Doctors and physical therapists constantly give Gilbert documents to read and sign.

Sadie used to do all that. Gilbert knows he must learn.

On a weekday afternoon, a property tax bill arrives from the local tax collector. It is payable only by check.

Gilbert has been paying bills in cash when he can. When only a check will do, he has a neighbor fill one out, and Gilbert signs it.

"The other day I got the checkbook out and looked it over and studied it," he said. "I'm going to start writing checks just to see if I can do it. I know I can."

No more peanut butter

It's Tuesday, and visitors have filled Gilbert's day. A physical therapist showed up to supervise his daily stretches and leg lifts. A good friend and neighbor, Lawrence "Shorty" Eatwell, dropped by several times to help out with laundry, run errands and chat. A woman from the local senior center brought lunch.

But as the afternoon shadows grow long, Gilbert is alone again.

He must make his own supper. He doesn't care for peanut butter and jelly anymore. On this night he decides to cook a fried egg sandwich.

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Physical therapist Bill Rogasner of Dade City coaches Gilbert as he does leg lifts and stretching in the kitchen of his home.
He raps the egg on the side of a skillet that sits on the hot stove. It cracks wide open, and most of the egg white falls to the floor. Gilbert manages to get the rest of it in the pan.

"That's just a sample of where I come out trying to do anything," he said. "I am not a cook, and I never will be."

Gilbert hopes to find a widow or a single woman who will live in his house and cook meals. He has an extra bedroom and is willing to provide room, board and spending money.

But for now he is stuck with makeshift meals that can't compare to Sadie's homemade lunches of pot roast and milk gravy and fresh muffins.

He finishes the egg sandwich, settles into his recliner and searches for a baseball game on TV, which he calls the "noise box."

The Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers lull him to sleep just before midnight.

Sitting in Sadie's place

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Gilbert sits in the rocking chair where his wife, Sadie, used to sit. It was her favorite spot.
Gilbert these days frequently sits in an old wooden rocking chair in the front room of his house. From there he can look out the window onto his front lawn and the quiet street beyond. It was Sadie's favorite place to sit.

"She could see everything at the clubhouse over there, and she could see everybody driving by," he said. "Everybody who went past waved because they always saw her there. She just got enjoyment sitting there."

Besides the occasional car or neighbor on the street, the scenery never changes.

It doesn't matter. Gilbert sits there with a century of memories flashing through his mind.

Sometimes he thinks back to the hikes he took through the Vermont snow, with only the thought of Sadie's face to keep him trudging along.

He thinks about the beautiful June evening in 1920 when he married her.

He thinks of their two children, 11 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.

He thinks about the quaint graveyard in Bernardston, Mass., where she lies waiting for him.

"She was the biggest half of me. She was everything," he says. "She was a wonderful woman, and I was mighty lucky to get her."

Gilbert turns and looks out the window again.

"It's hard to look at the same face for 81 years and then lose it. You don't know what to do," he says. "But it's great to sit here and see out the window. Then I can imagine what Sadie was looking at."

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