Gwendolyn “Gwen” Lones knows a thing or two about survival. Growing up in the Chicago projects, having five children and adopting six more – she felt she could survive anything life threw at her. That was until her husband, Dale, was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.

“Nothing in the world will prepare you for that kind of news,” she said. “And there’s nothing that will prepare you for surviving what comes after.”

Schoolmates to Soulmates

Gwen and Dale first met when they were 11-years-old and attending the same grammar school. It didn’t take long before the two became best friends.

“He was my confidant and my protector,” she said. “I was the oldest kid in my family, so I was used to taking care of everyone else and teaching them different things. He was the one who did that for me. He taught me everything I know.”

Their friendship evolved into a relationship, and as Gwen remembers, Dale couldn’t wait to get married.

“He proposed to me before he was even old enough to – just couldn’t help himself,” she said with a laugh. “So we went downtown and got married when we were 18.”

The two stayed with Gwen’s mother until they could find an apartment to call their own. They had five children and later adopted six of their grandchildren.

To support their growing family, Dale worked as a construction worker, a job that allowed him to travel.

“He loved traveling, working with his hands, and meeting new people – and he got to do it all with that job,” Gwen said. “Everyone he met loved him – he was kind and could always make them laugh. If the construction thing didn’t work out, he could have always been a comedian.

“He was a great man,” she continued. “And he was my soulmate.”

A New Role

When Dale retired from construction, he and Gwen spent a lot of time enjoying the city they loved. They made memories with their family, frequented their favorite local lounges, and took day trips to a casino in Michigan. During one of those trips, Dale hit it big and won more than $500,000 at a slot machine. But as Gwen would learn, that’s when their luck would run out.

In 2014, Dale went to the hospital to have some tests done.

“I didn’t even know something was wrong,” she said. “He always tried to shield me from the bad things. He just told me he was going to get some stuff checked out. And then he got home, sat me down, and told me had cancer.”

Gwen was in disbelief.

“I was in denial for awhile,” she said. “There was no way this was happening. I just wasn’t going to believe it. But then the chemo and the radiation started, and I realized how serious it was. And I realized I was probably going to lose him.”

With Dale’s diagnosis, Gwen quickly found herself in a new role – after more than 50 years of Dale taking care of her, she now needed to be his caregiver.

“I was so scared,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing, or if I’d do something wrong. I had no idea what to expect, what questions to ask. I felt so helpless and so lost.”

For almost four years, Gwen embraced her role as a caregiver as best she could, her primary goal to make him as comfortable as possible. She bathed him, fed him, took him to appointments, managed his medicine, and more.

“There’s no manual or checklist for you to go through when you become a caregiver,” she said. “It’s not explained to you, you just have to kind of figure it out as you go. I asked a lot of questions, wrote everything out, relied on family to help me with appointments and things around the house. I had to not be afraid to ask for help. The whole thing was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Saying Goodbye

Dale’s health continued to deteriorate, but Gwen remained hopeful.

“I prayed all the time, and there was a small part of me that thought the Lord was going to heal him, that I was going to be able to keep him with me,” she said. “I rejected the fact that he was leaving right until the night he left.”

On Nov. 15, 2017, just shy of his 75th birthday, Dale slept more than usual. He hadn’t had much of an appetite for months, but nonetheless, Gwen spent all day cooking his favorite foods: chitlins, dressing turkey, and baked pies and cakes. She did this for him every day.

“I wanted him to have his favorite things in case he felt like eating,” she said.

She bathed him and was putting lotion on his legs when he managed to say, “If I knew you were going to be this good of a wife, I would have gotten sick a lot earlier.”

“Like I said before, he’s always been a comedian,” she said.

When Gwen got to his feet, she noticed they were much colder than usual. It was then that she felt in her heart that’d be leaving soon.

“At 3:15 a.m., he told me that he loved me – that he had always loved me – and then he left,” she said. “I sat down and just said to myself, ‘God, what do I do? What do I do now?’

“I knew it was coming but I wasn’t ready,” she continued. “I had more than 50 years with him and it still wasn’t enough.”

From Caregiver to Caregiver

Reflecting on her time as a caregiver, Gwen said there were several things she learned that she hopes will help others who find themselves in a similar role.

“Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re always going to feel overwhelmed and lost until you do,” she said. “And it’s not pleasant, it’s difficult to talk about, but you need to get a will in place and make sure it’s up to date. It’s easy to slip your mind with everything else going on, but it’s something that needs to be done.”

And maybe the most important thing? Make memories.

“I can’t stress this one enough,” Gwen says. “Make them feel loved and not like they’re a burden. And make as many memories as you can – because in the end, it’s all you’re going to have left.”

Life After Dale

Since Dale’s death, Gwen has sought the help of a therapist, who has been instrumental in helping her through the grieving process and the depression that comes with it.

“It’s all been so hard; some days are harder than others,” she said. “I’m still not sure how to build a life without him, but I just wake up every day and do the best I can.”

She continues to live in Chicago, a city she loves but now also serves as a constant reminder of what she’s lost.

“I can’t go anywhere in this city and not remember him,” she said. “We did so much here and shared such a beautiful life here. We had our ups and downs, but… it was such a beautiful life.”

When she thinks about their life together, one of Gwen’s favorite memories surprisingly comes after Dale was diagnosed.

“He told me in detail about the first day he met me when we were 11-years-old,” she said. “He described exactly where I was, how I was standing, the exact outfit I was wearing. After 50 years, it was just as fresh in his mind as it was the day it happened.

“I was loved,” she continued. “Even when he was facing the end, he wanted to make sure I knew that. I just hope he knows how much he was loved, too.”