McKINNEY, Texas (AP) — Cliche or not, Kam Manthe says she fell in love the first time she saw him.
Jason was strumming a guitar, swaying slightly, his soft tenor and gentle spirit swelling into every corner of the small chapel on the campus of Concordia, a Lutheran college in Southern California.
He was playing in a band, but for Kam, the rest of the world sort of fell away except for Jason's big blue eyes and dimples.
She went back to her dorm room that night and wrote in her journal, "Today I think I met the man I want to marry."
That was in 2000. They were just kids.
Kam chuckles at the memory now.
She says their romantic beginnings are something you might read in one of those sappy Harlequin novels. But like many too-good-to-be true love stories, Kam and Jason's life took a cruel turn last fall.
At 37 years old, Jason was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
But their story started out as a fairy tale — the first kiss on a starlit beach with waves crashing at their feet; the proposal with 50 roses and a song written just for her; the fairy tale wedding in the old chapel with wooden pews and stained-glass windows; the times they prayed together; the marathons they ran together; the years they taught school together and the four beautiful children ages 7 to 1 they created together.
"I honestly think it's situations like this that are true love," Kam Manthe said, a toddler propped on her hip, standing in her McKinney kitchen. "It's all fine and dandy to love someone when they're leaving you romantic notes, when they're sweeping you off your feet.
"But this is unconditional love. This is love you give knowing he can't give anything in return," she told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/1mgrbUX ).
This is for better or for worse.
He shuffles, smiles and cries a lot, can't shave or put on his deodorant. He will answer the simplest of questions — Do you want a cookie? Are you ready for bed? — but he stares blankly at anything more complex.
Even in the realm of merciless diseases, Jason's case is heartbreaking. It just doesn't happen to a man his age.
Early-onset Alzheimer's disease means you start showing symptoms in your 60s, maybe 50s. Not in your 30s, with no trace of family history or genetic predisposition. Jason's case makes doctors shake their heads.
"We knew something was wrong; we just didn't know what it was," said Kam Manthe, who teaches third grade at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church and School in Dallas. "Jason had to quit working. He wasn't able to drive anymore. We knew there was some sort of memory, cognitive-processing issue, but they just couldn't figure it out."
Jason Manthe was the quintessential modern father — hyper-involved, reading books, rolling around on the floor, coaching basketball and football teams. But gradually, he just lost interest.
Jason wouldn't pick up a crying child or help clean the house, and his easygoing disposition had been replaced by one that was easy to anger.
Kam Manthe voiced her concerns to friends and family, but was uniformly met with the answer — "Your husband doesn't help with the house and kids? Join the club."
But she was unconvinced.
"I was like, 'Yeah, but that's not Jason. You can tell me every other guy acts this way, but I don't care, something's wrong,'" she said. "He was a hands-on parent and he was very loving. He was the kind of guy who left me notes and would play with the kids and talk to the kids all the time."
They sought marriage counseling through their church, and it seemed to help.
But their relationship wasn't always so rocky.
When Kam Manthe was pregnant with their first children, twins, doctors put her on strict bed rest for two months.
Her husband came home from work each night, made dinner, cleaned the kitchen and sat for hours with her on the couch, playing Scrabble.
That attentiveness faded.
After putting together three cribs about a year ago, he couldn't remember how to put together the fourth one.
Doctors eventually sent him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
A brain scan revealed Alzheimer's disease. And it is progressing rapidly.
Kam Manthe doesn't know whether that's an additional cruelty or a gift. Even if the disease stopped progressing now, she's sure her husband wouldn't want to live like this — dependent on people for the basics, treated like a child, greeted with eyes full of pity.
She thinks a lot about that, about dying with dignity.
"If somebody dies in a car accident, they're no longer there and you mourn their loss," she said. "But you don't see them every day. But I wake up next to him every day and have to look at him every day.
"The Jason I fell in love with, and the husband and father we know, is not there."
Alzheimer's is called the disease of the long goodbye.
Long enough for Kam Manthe to dredge up regrets — the yelling, the times she doubted his love, the regular moments she forgot to cherish.
"If I could do marriage again, I'd do it a lot differently," she said, looking at Jason across her kitchen table. "I'd be a whole lot less nitpicky, and I'd just appreciate him. I'd be grateful for those things because one day they'd be gone."
She paused, and spoke directly to Jason: "You're a good man."
There is still love, she said, but these days it's maternal — it is given, with no expectation for return.
When she bathes Jason, lathering him with a luffa, he closes his eyes and leans in. And in the mornings, she's tender, massaging lotion on his face.
Kam said she has photo albums, a few videos and many fading memories.
She runs through them in bed at night, when the house is quiet, and the shell of the man she once loved snores beside her.
She remembers their wedding day and their first dance.
A familiar tune echoed in the reception hall.
It was the song Jason wrote for her, the one he sang the night he proposed.
But he added a verse:
"To have and to hold you, in love's sweet embrace
I'm so blessed now that I can call you my wife
I promise to love you for the rest of my life."
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com