Up until recently — before everything changed — 88-year-old Nick Avtges would wake up each morning, have his breakfast, and then head out to see his wife, Marion, at the Maristhill Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, where she’s been living for the last year. He would stay with her all day, hardly leaving her side.
“He’s been a very devoted husband,” said James Tracy, president and administrator of the Waltham center. “He never missed a day.”
But in March, as the novel coronavirus continued to spread, posing a critical threat to residents at facilities like the one where Marion Avtges, 85, is staying, the center went from reducing its visitations to not allowing visitors at all.
The precautions that kept Nick Avtges away from his wife of 61 years took an emotional toll on him, his family said, and it pained them to see him upset. So last week, with the help of a friend and some acquaintances, they pulled together an unconventional plan to get the couple back together.
Last Wednesday, with Tracy’s blessing, the family parked a truck with a bucket lift outside Maristhill. They strapped their father safely into it, and then hoisted the octogenarian three stories up — to a window where his wife sat waiting for him on the other side.
“That was the first time he saw her face-to-face in weeks," said Chris Avtges, Nick’s son. “It was just amazing.”
The wild idea to put his dad into a bucket lift came to Chris Avtges last Monday, as he sat around a bonfire in Connecticut with some friends. It was, he said, very much a joke at first.
“We laughed,” he said. “But the next morning, I got up and was kind of thinking about it a little more.”
Maybe, he thought, he could actually pull it off.
At the advice of a friend, Chris Avtges typed out a plea on Facebook asking if anyone might own — or know someone who owns — a bucket lift or truck that his family could rent or borrow for a day. As he put it during a telephone interview with the Globe this week: “Facebook actually did something good.”
Shortly after his post went up, Chris Avtges started getting comments from people who were willing to help out. Then, Peter Tzannos, a high school friend from Watertown, chimed in. He said he could make it happen.
“So I reached out to the nursing home and spoke with them and made sure they were all set with it, and the ball started rolling from there,” he said. “By Wednesday afternoon at two-o’clock, my dad was up in the air.”
At first, Tzannos, a property manager, planned to use a boom lift to get Nick Avtges up to the window to see his wife. But due to some logistical issues, he contacted his friend Ryan Donnellan, owner of a tree services company in Watertown, to ask him if he’d come out with his bucket lift instead.
“Ryan dropped what he was doing and he came out there within a couple of hours," Tzannos said.
The only words Chris Avtges could think to use to describe what happened next were “awesome and emotional, on so many different levels."
A group that included the Avtges siblings and other close family members gathered outside of the nursing home to watch the couple reunite for the first time in weeks. They scrubbed down and sanitized the bucket lift before strapping Nick Avtges — who was wearing a New England Patriots face mask and gloves — into a harness. Then they slowly raised him roughly 30 feet into the air, to a screened window.
There, on the other side, was the woman he has spent the last six decades of his life with.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Nick Avtges said he wasn’t bothered by the heights. He had just one thing on his mind at the time: “seeing my wife.”
“They could have lifted me 10 stories and it would not have bothered me,” he said, "as long as I got to see her. I was just anxious to see her.”
Once he reached the window, Marion Avtges, who has been in and out of rehab centers for a couple years as her health has declined, playfully scolded her longtime husband, the way partners do, telling him “be careful, don’t fall," he said.
Then the couple talked for around 20 minutes. At one point, Nick Avtges placed his hand up to the window. He also had a note, which read, “I Love You Sweetheart."
“I showed her the sign,” he said. “And she said, ‘I love you too, more than you know.’”