Every love story must have an ending. For Isabell and Preble Staver, the end came quietly last month, after more than seven decades of marriage.
The Stavers, who died in Norfolk on Oct. 25, were two of the hundreds of World War II veterans who are dying each day in the United States.
Isabell Whitney and Preble Staver met on a blind date while they were both studying in Philadelphia. A romance blossomed, their daughter Laurie Staver Clinton said, but was interrupted by the war. Her mother was a Navy nurse and her father was in the U.S. Marine Corps.
They married soon after the war ended and started a family with children — five in total.
Staver Clinton describes her father Preble, a Bronze Star recipient, as a tall, outgoing man with a strong, “larger than life” personality. She describes her mother as “my heart.”
“She taught me how to be a kind person, how to be a compassionate person,” she says.
Isabell spent years raising the couple’s five children before eventually returning to work as a nurse. Staver Clinton says her mother kept the family running through multiple moves for Preble’s career, and the loss of one of their sons, Peter, who died after a high school football injury in 1975.
At her home in Norfolk, Va., Staver Clinton said her mother’s life was infused with a nurse’s compassion — even when she was the patient. As Isabell slipped into dementia in recent years, Preble struggled to cope. They had to be moved to separate rooms at their long-term care facility, Staver Clinton said.
“When I would explain the need for the separation, Mom would go, ‘But that’s Daddy, that’s Preble,’ ” she said. “Even in her demented state, she had that compassion and understanding that my dad’s reaction to some of the disease process wasn’t really a reaction to her, and she still wanted to be with him.”
Jim Need, a friend from church who visited Preble often as his health began to fail, said his friend’s love for Isabell was clear.
“Sometimes he was a little frustrated because she may not recognize him. But … when she did, you could always just see him — just smiling, like crazy,” Need said.
Staver Clinton said her parents shared an unexpected moment like that just days before their deaths, when Isabell was taken to visit Preble for his 96th birthday on Oct. 17.
“All of a sudden I heard this little warbly voice,” Staver Clinton said. “And Mom, totally unprompted, sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Dad.”
It was all the more remarkable, she said, because her mother had stopped communicating with her father at that point.
Staver Clinton said Preble had told her months before that all he wanted for his birthday was to take a nap next to his wife, something they had been unable to do for a while because of their health. The family arranged for the couple to lie in bed together, where they slept side by side for two or three hours.
“It was the, really, the catalyst of them being able to let go, I believe,” Staver Clinton said.
She said both of her parents seemed calmer and more peaceful afterward. Within a few days, a hospice nurse told Staver Clinton that both were moving closer to death.
On Oct. 25, days before what would have been her own 96th birthday, Isabell received last rites from their Episcopal priest while Preble held her hand. Preble died about 14 hours after Isabell, on the same day.
Jim Need said he thinks Preble was holding on, just long enough.
“I honestly feel he was waiting for her … [the] Marine mentality,” Need said. “He was going to take care of her until he knew she was OK.”
On Nov. 10, the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, friends and family gathered in a Virginia Beach church for a joint funeral. With a Marine honor guard standing by, Isabell and Preble Staver were laid down together one last time — side by side in the old church cemetery.