It wasn’t long ago that the Rev. Donald Vandenberg was a newlywed.
He and his wife, Doris, ate lunch almost every day in the cafeteria at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital.
“We were known as the older couple who came in holding hands and left holding hands,” he says. And then he laughs, his eyes crinkling with delight and amusement.
I was crazy about this woman. She was a precious, precious person.
He is a widower now, pushing his walker through the cafeteria by himself.
He and Doris had only three years together as husband and wife. But he doesn’t want to talk about loss just yet.
At a table beside the window, he opens a photo book from their wedding day to show a picture of Doris, a slim, silver-haired bride wearing a tailored white suit.
“I was crazy about this woman,” he says. “She was a precious, precious person.”
The two met in 2012 and had much in common. Both grew up on farms, he in Illinois and she in Zeeland, Michigan. Both lost their first spouses in 2007, after 56 years of marriage.
A pastor in the Reformed Church in America, Vandenberg had moved to Holland in 1989 with his first wife, Helen, when they retired.
“When I lost Helen, I adjusted,” he says. “But I just had a craving for a good woman to be part of my life. I thought, ‘This is crazy. It’s unlikely I will ever remarry.’ But my heart didn’t say that.”
He met Doris Pyle through her daughter and immediately sought the chance to get to know her better. They began to have dinner together. They loved to take walks at Hemlock Crossing nature center and watch the birds.
“We became genuinely fond of each other,” he says. “We just enjoyed being together.”
One day, Vandenberg told Doris he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. She agreed.
He puts a smile on our face every day he comes in.
He was 85 and she 82 when they walked down the aisle on their wedding day, Feb. 16, 2013, at First Reformed Church in Zeeland. They celebrated with their children and grandchildren.
“This was one of the most interesting and joyous experiences of my life,” he says, paging through the wedding album.
“A good marriage is so precious and worth anything to preserve and to protect and to improve. A good marriage is God’s choicest human blessing, next to having children.”
The couple discovered the Zeeland Community Hospital cafeteria in the summer of 2013, when Doris had knee replacement surgery. Vandenberg stopped there for lunch between visits. And then he began to have a tray sent up to her room so they could eat together.
After Doris left the hospital, they decided to make the cafeteria their regular lunch spot.
“We found it such a pleasant place. Friendly. Good food. And a pleasant view,” he says. “Where do you find a restaurant better than that?”
Ready for lunch, Vandenberg walks through the cafeteria, requesting a plate of beef and vegetables. He chooses a dish of cottage cheese topped with mandarin oranges for dessert. He pours a cup of coffee.
Employees smile and say hello. He is a popular customer, well known by the staff.
“I love him. He puts a smile on our face every day he comes in,” says Kendra Bossardet, a food service employee. “He’s always in good spirits.”
Employees offer to carry his tray, she says, particularly now that he uses a walker. Four months ago, he broke his leg in a fall and had a partial hip replacement.
Vandenberg, 89, brushes away offers of help with a smile. He transports the tray on the walker’s seat.
“You have to protect yourself against getting spoiled,” he says. And he laughs.
He and Doris enjoyed three years together. “Three wonderful years.”
On Jan. 2, Doris died of a sudden heart attack.
I have some good memories of this place. We had some wonderful times together, praise to God.
She was buried in the dress she wore on their wedding day.
“That was a real blow,” he says. “We had no clue. She was perfectly well the day before she died. But her heart was weaker than we knew.”
His faith helped him cope with his grief. So did keeping to his routines―such as daily lunch at the hospital cafeteria.
“I have some good memories of this place,” he says. “We had some wonderful times together, praise to God.”
He reads―nonfiction, mostly biographies. He likes to take walks, although the need for a walker takes some of the fun out of that. And he enjoys a good meal, particularly when he shares it with someone else.
“I am surprised I lived so long and in such good health,” he says. “This is the age of longevity!” And there’s that laugh again. Clearly, this is a man who loves to laugh.
Asked the secret to a long life, Vandenberg answers promptly: “Loving the Lord and loving people.”
And the retired pastor, twice-widowed, leans forward to share his thoughts on love and loss.
“Life is so uncertain. And it’s so valuable,” he says. “And it just impresses how we must guard against missing the privilege of having good people in our life.
“It’s just priceless. Priceless.”