The final chapter 

For 60 years, W.O. Sasser and his wife, June, have lived as man and wife, facing challenges and delights together.

“We’ve had a wonderful life,” Mrs. Sasser says.

Sasser was a World War II hero who fell for his bride the first time he saw her. For six decades, they’ve lived happily ever after their storybook beginning.

But even fairy tales must come to an end. Sasser is in the terminal stage of advanced Parkinson’s disease and under the care of Hospice Savannah.

Although he has trouble communicating, Sasser is still very much a presence in his home and quite aware of what is going on around him.

“He’s a very accomplished man, strong physically and emotionally,” says registered nurse Jennifer Kote, who helps care for Sasser. “He’s leader of the pack at home.”

Recently, Sasser was honored by local veterans for the role he played during World War II. “He was presented with a flag and honored as a veteran in a very touching ceremony,” Kote says.

Sasser flew B-29s during the war. “He flew 33 missions over Japan,” Mrs. Sasser says. “He was recalled in the Korean War.”

Immediately following the Veterans Day ceremony, a celebration of the Sassers’ 60th wedding anniversary began. Their grandchildren read poems and sang.

“It was a very, very touching moment,” Kote says. “I was so glad to be a part of that. He was just glowing.”

The Sassers had more lavish celebrations for their 40th and 50th anniversaries. “This was sweeter,” Mrs. Sasser says.

Family photographs abound at the Sassers’ home. In them, the couple is forever young, with movie-star good looks.

Although there are many photos of past celebrations, there are no photographs of the Sassers’ wedding in 1944. The marriage ceremony was performed in a chapel at a Texas Army Air Corps base. There were just a handful of people in attendance -- the bride and groom, his co-pilot, her mother, a cousin and the pastor.

“I’m from Texas and we met in Texas,” Mrs. Sasser says. “He went to school here in Savannah, where he was voted ‘most likely to succeed’ and ‘best looking.’”

Sasser’s co-pilot served as the best man. “Of the 10 members of his group, only three are left,” Mrs. Sasser says. “His co-pilot passed away in July.”

As with many war-time romances, the courtship was cut short. “I hadn’t known him but five weeks when we got married,” Mrs. Sasser says with a smile.

“I was dating another man who was his flight director,” she says. “He happened to see me. He found out where I worked and came to my desk and asked for a date.”

Mrs. Sasser didn’t hesitate. She took one look and said yes. “From that day, we’ve been inseparable,” she says.

“I have all his letters,” she says. “He wrote to me every day.”

The Sassers founded a successful business, Sasser Seafood. “We started out together with a small boat,” Mrs. Sasser says. “We went out doing some shrimping. Then we bought another little boat, and eventually ended up with some very big, fine boats. He was very interested in doing that. He also was a property manager who made some wonderful purchases of land.”

The Sassers had four children -- two daughters and two sons. Now there are grandchildren.

Over the years, they traveled extensively, visiting Thailand, Alaska, Africa and many other places. After leading such an extraordinary life, it seems unfair that Sasser should fall victim to disease.

The diagnosis of Parkinson’s was made in 1998. Mrs. Sasser noticed her husband’s fingers moving in a motion that is typical of Parkinson’s patients.

“We had a friend who had Parkinson’s who did that,” she says. “I asked him if he was doing it on purpose, and he said no. I said, ‘We’re going to the doctor.’”

At first, tests were inconclusive. “We took him to two different doctors,” Mrs. Sasser says. “We finally went to Mayo Clinic before he was diagnosed.”

It took time for Sasser to come to terms with the diagnosis. “He has such a strong will,” Mrs. Sasser says. “He was a man’s man.”

But Kote and other hospice nurses ensure that their patients’ last days are good ones. “We try and create a situation of comfort,” Kote says.

“The patient lives out the last part of life with dignity,” she says. “It can be a very hard time for the family, especially a close family like this.”

Sasser is an ideal patient. “He is the sweetest man,” Kote says. “No matter what you say to him, he never complains. He tries to be so good for me and his wife. He just wants us to know he’s okay all the time.”

Kote credits Mrs. Sasser for the full-time care she provides to her husband. “I come and see him, but she’s his around-the-clock nurse,” she says.

Mrs. Sasser is grateful for Kote’s help. “She’s an angel,” she says emphatically. “You just don’t know. It’s wonderful to have someone like this when you have trouble.”

Caring for her husband and watching his condition deteriorate is hard on Mrs. Sasser and the family. Kote visits Sasser twice a week and is just a pager away in times of emergency.

“Jennifer is just a star in our eyes,” Mrs. Sasser says. “She’s done everything she can possibly do. She helps him, she helps us. Hospice Savannah is a wonderful organization.”

In addition to healthcare, hospice patients and their families need emotional and spiritual support.

It’s not easy to be a hospice nurse.

“I guess I’ve been called to do this,” Kote says. “It’s part of who I am. I give of what I have. This is an area where I can be of help.”

On a typical day, Kote visits four to five patients and sometimes makes calls when there is a special need. Recently, the Sassers experienced such a medical crisis.

“If she calls me, I’ll come right out,” Kote says. “She knows if she calls, within five minutes, I’ll call back.”

This is not the Sassers’ first experience with life-and-death illness. Not long ago, Mrs. Sasser nearly died from a heart ailment.

Doctors had stopped her heart to control an irregular heartbeat, but could not get it started. By the time they did, she was in a coma.

“I was not expected to survive,” Mrs. Sasser says. “My husband sat down beside me and took my hand.”

Back in 1944, Mrs. Sasser had told her husband to say the 23rd Psalm before he flew off on a mission:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

He leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul:

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.

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Linda Sickler

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