Rock Deaton rose early each morning to make eggs and bacon for himself and his wife, Eugenia.
He cut up her food and told her where to find it on the plate. While they ate, in the kitchen of their little white house on Davidson’s Main Street, he read to her from the newspaper - obituaries and Davidson College sports.
In the five years since Eugenia started losing her sight, Rock had become her eyes.
He held her arm when they walked. He washed their clothes, bought their groceries, and drove her to church every Sunday at Cornelius Presbyterian, where, she always joked, she had been born on the back pew.
Never miss a local story.
More than 600 miles away in New York City, the Deatons’ only living son, Lewis, worried about his aging parents.
He lived in Greenwich Village with Jon Guttman, his partner of 19 years, in a two-story apartment with lots of glass, high ceilings and a south-facing terrace where they loved grilling out for friends.
Their careers were busy and exciting. Through their work in advertising and events promotion, they met celebrities such as Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, Ralph Lauren and Isabella Rossellini. In recent years, Lewis and Jon had started their own ad agency.
They visited Rock and Eugenia as often as they could, at least five or six times a year. And they trusted that even though Eugenia, 79, was frail and blind, Rock was strong and dependable at 81.
Then, last August, Rock died.
The day before Rock’s operation to remove a malignant tumor on his liver, Jon followed him into the dining room, where they could talk alone.
Jon had known Rock since 1981, when he and Lewis began living together. Rock and Eugenia treated Jon like a son, and they considered themselves grandparents to Jon’s two children. Jon and his kids even called Eugenia by her nickname, "Nuna, " dubbed years ago by a niece who couldn’t pronounce the longer name.
"I’m sure everything’s going to be all right, " Jon assured Rock that day, "but if anything should go wrong, God forbid, I want you to know that Lewis and I will take care of Nuna."
Neither Lewis nor Jon had really expected any problems.
But when Rock died, they were suddenly faced with the reality of their promise.
How would they take care of Eugenia?
They talked about hiring a companion to live with her, to cook for her and take her to doctors’ appointments. But it would have had to be someone special. They didn’t even consider a nursing home. And they never thought of asking her to move to New York. They couldn’t imagine uprooting her from all her relatives and friends in Davidson, Cornelius and Mooresville.
At first, Lewis and Jon took turns staying with Eugenia while the other handled business in New York. They made at least 15 trips in three months. When both men had to be away, Eugenia’s nephew and his wife took over.
For Lewis and Jon, the strain of being apart grew difficult.
In 19 years, they had spent fewer than 10 nights apart. Now, they never seemed to be together.
One day, they talked at least a dozen times by telephone, but Lewis called Jon in New York one last time to say goodnight.
"This just isn’t working, " Jon said. "I’m miserable."
"Me too, " Lewis agreed.
It was then that they knew. The only way to be together and to take care of Eugenia was to move to North Carolina.
For Lewis, 48, it would mean going back to the home he left when he was 21. Back to the small college town where he knew every house by the name of the family that had lived there 30 years before. For Jon, 52, it meant leaving metropolitan New York, the only home he’d ever known.
As crazy as it seemed to some of their friends, they felt it was right. It was what families do.
In November, they found someone to lease their apartment.
They packed their art collection, including a 7 1/2-foot-tall giraffe made from parts of flutes, bassoons and saxophones. They shipped Lewis’ grand piano, and even though there wasn’t room in Eugenia’s house, it fit as tight as the last puzzle piece in the sanctuary of her church.
They brought along their Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Astor and Cooper, named for the streets outside their apartment. They left friends and business contacts they’d built over the years.
With computers, cell phones and fax machines, they hoped they could start over but still stay in touch.
On a sunny February morning, Eugenia was dressed and ready, sitting in her recliner, when Bob Hughes knocked on the door.
Hughes, a mobility specialist with the state’s Division of Services for the Blind, came by every Wednesday to teach Eugenia how to use a cane to get around. Rock had never asked for such help from outsiders. But Lewis and Jon wanted her to be more independent, more confident.
Eugenia was eager to please.
When she stood, Hughes reminded her to square off by pressing her calves against her chair. That would help her walk straight instead of veering left or right.
He walked to the kitchen and asked her to walk toward him. She stepped slowly, holding the cane in her left hand and reaching out with her right to make sure she didn’t run into something. She grabbed the door frame and, once in the kitchen, slid one hand along the edge of the stove, then reached for the counter.
"Let the counter be your guide, " Hughes said. "That’ll guide you straight to the door."
Eugenia sometimes got turned around even though she’d lived in the house 55 years. "One night this last week, " she said, "Jon had to come and rescue me."
After that, Jon and Lewis practiced walking through the house with their eyes shut, to see what it was like.
"I thought I could make it from the kitchen to her chair, " Jon said. "But I ran right into the lamp."
Jon asked what they should do when they see Eugenia floundering. It seemed cruel not to help, he thought, but he wondered if it was better to let her find her own way. Hughes suggested that they guide her with words to something familiar.
Part of Eugenia’s confusion is that Lewis and Jon had rearranged the living room, adding some of their own furniture. Rock and Eugenia rarely used the living room. They used to sit in the den, in the back of the house. But Lewis and Jon made that room a bedroom and moved the TV and the recliner to the living room.
If she could see, Eugenia would be surprised by how roomy and bright it looks.
There’s still a framed photo of her and Rock, another of Rock as a handsome dark-haired young man. But two of her chairs have been reupholstered, and the walls now feature an Annie Leibovitz photo of actress Kate Winslet and a 1992 photo from a Simon and Garfunkel concert Jon produced.
The kitchen has stayed much the same, with its apartment-size stove and no dishwasher. But Lewis and Jon have added their own pots and pans, Cuisinart, Mixmaster and espresso maker.
Eugenia doesn’t mind the changes. The only thing she asked is that they please not hang the huge photograph of a partially naked Marilyn Monroe. For now, it leans against a wall, awaiting disposition.
As Hughes prepared to leave, he told Eugenia, "Hang in there."
"I’m trying to, " she said. "I’m missing Rock like my front tooth."
When she said Rock’s name, her face scrunched up, as if in pain, and Lewis jumped up to hand her a tissue.
Instead of changing the subject, he and Jon talked about Rock and his local celebrity. He hadn’t missed a Davidson home football game since 1961, and five years ago, the college had proclaimed him "Fan of the Century." Last fall, the first season after Rock died, the football team went undefeated for the first time, and Lewis figured it was because "Daddy was pulling the strings."
Eugenia stopped crying to join the reverie.
Lewis and Jon often tried humor to pull her out of a blue mood.
"It would be so much easier if I would just die, " Eugenia said one day as the two men sorted through their belongings.
"Well, " said Jon, in his sassy New York accent, "if you’re going to do it, do it before I have to unpack the next carton."
Sometimes, Lewis can’t quite figure out how to act. Eugenia is his mother. She took care of him as a child. Now their roles are switched.
He parcels out pills in the morning and helps her with eye drops. He cuts up her food. He reads to her from the obituaries. He drives her to the hair salon on Fridays and to have her nails done on Wednesdays.
He and Jon share the duties. They enrolled her in an eight-week program at the Metrolina Association for the Blind, and they encourage her to eat more fruits and vegetables instead of her favorite junior bacon cheeseburgers from Wendy’s.
They bought her a wristwatch that announces the time when she presses the stem and a telephone that says each number aloud as she touches it.
Each Sunday, they drive the few blocks to church, where they know everyone and many are relatives. They hug and chat before the service, surrounded by stained-glass windows that carry the names of Eugenia’s ancestors who helped found the church.
Lewis, Jon and Eugenia sit in the Deaton pew near the front. Rock’s place is still marked by two stones lying on the cushion. One came from a young boy who always sits nearby. The other, which appeared mysteriously, carries a fitting imprint - "Rock of Ages."
When the regular organist is gone, Lewis fills in, playing Chopin’s nocturne in E flat or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata at his beloved piano. Eugenia tilts her head, listening proudly even though she can’t watch him play.
Jon, who is Jewish, stays silent during the Apostle’s Creed, but he sings along with hymns and has taught Sunday School lessons on the Jewish observances of Hanukkah and Purim. For Passover, he prepared a traditional seder with matzoh balls and gefilte fish for Lewis, Eugenia and a dozen other non-Jewish relatives and friends.
They have found other reasons to celebrate.
One night after they unpacked their glass dining table, Lewis and Jon brought out their gold-edged china, blue goblets, and bronze and rosewood flatware. They filled a vase with pale pink roses. And Jon, once a restaurant owner, prepared a three-course feast - salmon mousse with dill sauce, chicken pot pie, and chocolate mousse with lady fingers.
Lewis escorted his mother to the table and explained the setting: "There’s a plate inside of a plate. At 3 o’clock, there are two little toasts. Here’s a spoon."
Eugenia moved the spoon slowly to scoop a bite of the soft, savory mousse. Reaching for the water glass, she worried aloud that she would knock it over.
"Don’t worry, " Jon said, "You can’t make a mistake."
He told stories about his New York childhood, and even though Eugenia had heard them all before, she held her hand over her mouth, giggling in anticipation. The longer he talked, the more she giggled.
Later, as Jon and Lewis washed dishes, Eugenia sat smiling: "I haven’t laughed so hard since Rock died."
In the spring, Lewis and Jon planted their first garden - 60 plants on the side of the house where Rock always grew tomatoes, peppers and squash. Around the trees and shrubs, they worked for hours digging beds and planting pansies and roses, basil and parsley. Friends of Eugenia’s stopped by to comment on how nice the place looked.
By July, the tomato plants were so heavy that the wooden stakes broke. The other plants went wild, too. Jon made pickles, eggplant relish and tomato sauce. Lewis, who doesn’t like to cook, made chow-chow and squash casserole.
"I had no idea, " Jon said. "Next year, we’ll be a little more prepared."
When the two men pick up dinner at the K&W Cafeteria, someone almost always asks Lewis, "How’s your mom?" When Jon went for his first Davidson haircut, the barber he’d never met greeted him by name. In New York, he hadn’t even met his next-door neighbors of 12 years.
"I go outside at night, " Jon said, "and I can see every constellation. The sky is so clear. It’s a different kind of life."
Slowly, they have restarted their business, first with two computers in the dining room, now in an office several blocks away. On many Saturday nights, they drive around the corner to visit Lewis’ cousins, Penny and Billy Withers. They stand around the kitchen, telling stories, playing Scrabble or watching movies.
When they go out, they rarely leave Eugenia alone, but when they do, she worries. At first, she wanted them home by a certain time. She sat up in her rocker until they returned. But as months passed, she has relaxed. Now, she just goes to bed.
To ease her fears, Lewis and Jon call home often. On a recent business trip to New York, they left Eugenia with a great-nephew. They called every time they crossed a state line.
When they returned to Davidson, they were glad to be back. They hugged Eugenia, kicked off their shoes and ate what they could find in the refrigerator.
A year had passed since they promised Rock they would take care of Eugenia. They were no longer visitors.
They were home.
(This story was originally published Sunday, Aug. 26, 2001.)