Internet sensation shows true love despite adversity

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By Sondra Shapiro

Social media meets flashcards is what I thought while half-heartedly watching NBC news coverage of a photo that had gone viral on the Internet. Just one more photo or film clip plucked from YouTube or other Internet outlets by television news programs to be used in an effort to make news broadcasts hip and relevant to a younger audience.

Usually the subject matter is someone’s child or baby dancing, singing or reciting words beyond the child’s years. Or it’s a pet engaged in un-animal like behavior. Or it was last year’s film of the elderly couple playing around with the camera on their computer — a scenario that perpetuated the stereotype of cute little old couples fumbling their way through technology.

So, when my peripheral vision caught the image of an elderly couple sitting at a table at a Starbucks with a set of flashcards spread out on the table, I was underwhelmed. “What’s the big deal?” I asked my husband.

shapiro_hsBut, then I caught the commentator’s words. “Eighty-two year-old John Allen patiently teaches his 70-year-old girlfriend Linda Alexander how to read again after her stroke,” reported NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren. At the time of the newscast, more than 2 million people had seen the snapshot, many offering comments such as: “Every time I need a bit more patience, I will think of this picture,” or, “This is what true love is all about.”

The snapshot transcended the trite photo-of-the-day category to become a real human-interest story that conveyed so much in and behind its composition. When news organizations picked up the story, we got to learn about the two people behind the picture.

The couple was dating when Alexander suffered a stroke five years ago that robbed her of most of her speech and ability to recognize letters.

Rather than abandoning the ailing Alexander, Allen made it his mission to help her become whole again.

Almost every day the couple goes to a Starbucks where Allen uses flashcards to help Alexander learn to read again. It was during one of those sessions that Matthew Ballestero, a 20-something, was sitting with two friends when he happened to notice the couple, pulled out his smart phone and took the picture, then posted it on Facebook and Reddit, both social media sites.

The action is very typical of today’s online culture that takes and shares photos, thoughts and experiences of just about every moment of their day. What is different is the motivation behind the action. “We could feel the love emanating off of them,” said Ballestero. “My friends and I were overwhelmed by the love that these two had for each other and I knew I wanted to let them know how much of an inspiration and a perfect example of true love they were to me,” Ballestero posted on his Facebook page.

“This is definitely a moment I will remember forever — John’s unwavering love, patience and understanding for the woman he chose to give his life to. Linda’s endless positive attitude, eagerness to (re)learn and mostly her uninhibited joy in expressing love to others. … Thank you for your beautiful example, Linda and John!” wrote Ballestero.

It is heartening to hear of one so young exhibiting such sensitivity toward the elderly, to see beyond the stereotype to poignantly convey a portrait of love, devotion and selflessness. It is so rare for the young to apply such human characteristics to old people, let alone even notice them in a social setting.

Ballestero also inadvertently captured an image that portrays what is happening in millions of American homes — individuals providing care for sick loved ones. And, just as the caregiver and the person who they are caring for had a life before, there was more behind that photo of Alexander and Allen who have now been dating for 11 years. When Ballestero first approached the couple, Alexander said, “You see, I’ve lost my memory and I’m trying to get it back.”

Before her stroke, Alexander was a manager at Raytheon. Now, in addition to difficulty with reading, she is partially paralyzed on her right side. So, six days a week Allen shows up at her home to get her ready for the day. He greets her with  “Good morning Sunshine.” Three days a week, Allen takes Alexander to the gym where he works with her to restore function.

Though Alexander is very different from the woman he fell in love with 11 year’s ago, Allen is still devoted to her. He is extremely patient with her and she is so upbeat as she and Allen run through their difficult and strenuous routine. All the while she tells him, “I love you.”

The fact that they also make sure that it isn’t all work, managing to fit in romantic lunches, proves that even in a care giving/care receiving relationship, intimacy and love has a place. And, in fact, could keep that relationship from becoming one-dimensional where the caregiver views his or her charge as just someone needing care. The thought that true companionship can continue is inspirational to others in the same kind of relationship.

To NBC’s Dahlgren, Alexander said, “I really enjoy my life. I’m not sad, I’m not angry.” Alexander looks ahead and wants to someday be able to drive again. This attitude is encouraging to anyone suffering from a debilitating condition and who sees no light at the end of the tunnel.

What does Allen get from this? He doesn’t say it, but from his actions it is safe to conclude he has found a profound sense of purpose from caring for this woman who he clearly adores. This too, is an underreported bonus for individuals who provide care to a loved one.

This slice of life photo taken by a sensitive young man has had a rippling effect on so many levels. It also proves that I should be less cynical when it comes to the social media’s infiltration of legitimate news organizations.

And, for the couple at the center of it all …

“When I told them that the photo had gone viral they were overjoyed, confused and in shock — the good kind of shock,” said Ballestero in an interview with Mashable, an online news source. “John and Linda have so much love, respect and compassion for each other and the people they meet, it’s inspiring just to be in their presence.”

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Email her at sshapiro.fiftyplusadvocate@verizon.net. And follow her online at www.facebook.com/fiftyplusadvocate, www.twitter.com/shapiro50plus or www.fiftyplusadvocate.com