A love that lasts a lifetime
IT WAS love at first sight for Ray Lower, and despite being only 11 years old at the time, he knew he would always love his Hazel.
Now, 80 years old, he visits his beautiful wife of 60 years every day without fail at the Gympie Residential Centre where she has been since June of last year.
Because for the past seven years she has been battling Alzheimer's disease.
For five and a half years, Ray cared for her himself, but now, with his own advancing age and her deteriorating state, he admits he can't look after her himself any more.
Ray remembers the first time he met Hazel at her home in Acacia Ridge.
"She lived next door to where I used to go for scouts," he says with a fond twinkle in his eye.
"I'm 29 days older than her and I remember thinking when I saw her 'that little girl's going to need someone to look after her'. I'd like to think God gave me that job."
They started courting when they were both 17 but right off the bat, Ray faced opposition from Hazel's stern, truck-driving father.
After meeting up with Hazel in early January 1954 he asked her to save him a seat at the pictures.
"I didn't think she would, so I sat in the row behind her. She turned around and said aren't you going to sit next to me? So I did. I walked her back to her bus that night and there was her dad, glaring at me," he said.
Ray said he invited Hazel to see the Harlem Globe Trotters with him but had to talk to Bill, Hazel's father first.
"I went out the back, where he was milking his cows, to see him, ready for anything. He just turned his head to look at me and said have her back by 11pm. We ended up getting along really well," he laughed.
The couple married on March 2, 1957 in Brisbane but they didn't have a conventional wedding night.
"Hazel spent the night in the sleeper berth of a truck and I spent the night under it trying to fix it," he said.
On the day of the wedding, Ray's father, who owned a trucking company, had to head out to help one of his drivers whose truck had broken down near Tenterfield.
"He didn't know much about truck repairs. I had a room booked at the Horse and Jockey in Warwick. I said to Hazel we should check on him (the driver) and she agreed, and he was still there because the wrong part had been ordered," he said.
The couple spent the next few years living in Sydney, where Ray worked at the Sydney Fruit and Vegetable Markets before moving back to Brisbane where they had three daughters.
Ray, who loved to dance, and was a trained ballroom dancer, taught Hazel how to dance and they spent many an evening at the local dances, cutting a rug together with their daughters watching on.
"They just went to the dances to watch Mum and Dad on the dance floor," Ray said.
During his working life, Ray became the largest wholesale provider of watermelons in Brisbane.
After Ray retired in 1989 they moved to the Sunshine Coast and one of the things Hazel most liked to do was be involved with the Penguin public speaking group.
She was heavily involved and had held the roles of president, treasurer and secretary, as well as representing the state on numerous occasions.
However her memory started to fail her, so in 2002 she decided to give it away and the last time the couple danced together in public was at a Christmas party at Deception Bay.
"I remembered it because people moved off the floor to let us dance and the DJ said 'excuse me, where did you buy your shoes because I can't buy shoes that can dance like that'," he laughed.
Concerned about Hazel's failing health, Ray tried frequently to have her tested for dementia but was told the symptoms she was experiencing were simply due to her age.
Finally, in 2010 she was formally diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's.
But Ray refused to give up hope.
"I got her back, for about three years there. I got her back," he said.
After seeing an experimental procedure on the Sixty Minutes television program, Ray spoke to Hazel's doctor about it in November 2011.
The doctor spoke with the American doctor pioneering the technique and was so impressed, he went over to the states to learn the procedure.
In addition to Hazel, the doctor took on nearly 70 patients and all bar one saw a marked improvement in their cognitive function.
Sadly, because the procedure wasn't approved, Ray and Hazel were forced to discontinue treatment and by August 2015, Hazel needed to be placed into care, first at Karramar, then Noosa, and now, Gympie Residential Care.
The controversial treatment cost Ray more than $25,000 but he says he doesn't care about the cost, because it was worth it to get her back for even a short time.
The couple's 60th wedding anniversary falls on Thursday, March 2 but they will celebrate early on Monday of that week so family and friends can attend.
Every now and again, Hazel has a flash of recognition and when she does, Ray's face lights up with joy and this reporter felt privileged to witness just such a moment.
When asked if she would like to dance with her husband for a photo, wheelchair-bound Hazel replied "Yes," and when she was assisted to stand, she leaned into Ray's chest and rocked gently back and forth with him for the first time in years.
Ray still holds out hope that one day Hazel will come back again, and plans to look into the possible benefits of cannabis oil because of a study he saw on YouTube with Parkinson's patients.
And as if his actions aren't proof enough of his deep and abiding love for Hazel, for their anniversary he has ordered for her a pendant of two rings entwined. On it the inscription reads:
To my wife,
I loved you then,
I love you still.
I always have,
And always will.
Inspired by her memories of Ray and Hazel dancing, one of their daughters, Annette, wrote a song, Sweet Matilda Waltz.
It was launched on Australia Day and is dedicated to Ray and Hazel and to hear it go to www.datsonhughes.com/sweet- matilda-waltz.html.