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Glen Campbell's Wife Talks about Alzheimer's and the Oscars

- Tuesday, February 24, 2015

These are bittersweet times for Kim Woollen.

This month, her husband of 32 years, Glen Campbell, won best country song at the Grammy Awards for "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," a poignant final song whose lyrics find the country legend putting a personal spin on the harsh realities of Alzheimer's disease.

Then, he was up for an Oscar for the song, which was featured in "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me," a devastating documentary that follows the singer on his final tour as the disease progresses.

In the song, he tells his wife, "You're the last person I will love / You're the last face I will recall / And best of all / I'm not gonna miss you."

Tears well up in Woollen's eyes as she recalls her first reaction to the song.

"I was astounded because it was written from the perspective of someone who had the illness," Woollen says. "It's heartbreaking to hear. On the other side, he's saying, 'Don't worry about me. I'm gonna be OK. You're the one who's gonna have a hard time.' And it's true because he doesn't know the pain we're going through. It is heartbreaking every single day. Sometimes, I'm really depressed."

The song was recorded in early 2013, when Campbell came in off the road from his Goodbye Tour. It was co-written with Julian Raymond, his friend and producer, but because of Campbell's condition, it was far from a typical writing session.

"Julian kept a journal of everything Glen would say to him," Woollen recalls. "He'd take the things that Glen would say and he'd put them to the music. Then, he would show it to Glen and Glen would go, 'Oh, I like this but I would change this tempo' or 'I don't like that said like that. Let's try this word.' "

He had more input, she says, on the writing of "Ghost on the Canvas," which was recorded in 2009 and 2010. With "I'm Gonna Miss You," it all came from Raymond's journals.

The star was diagnosed with cognitive problems in 2009. In 2011, l learned that those problems stemmed from Alzheimer's disease.

"It was heartbreaking," she says. "It scared me because I really didn't know much about Alzheimer's. So the first thing I asked the doctor was, 'Is it fatal?' I thought you just lost your memory. I didn't know that you lost your ability to think and reason. You lose your language. Then, you lose control of your bodily functions. You forget how to swallow."

At this point, Woollen says, Campbell can't really communicate, much less perform. Last year, he moved into an assisted living facility.

"He can say little sentences like 'I love you,'" she says. "Or sometimes, he'll look at me and say, 'We are so blessed.' I talked to a language expert and she told me that he can say little sentences because they're more automatic responses, just things you've always said. But to have a conversation, it's more like a word soup. The words don't relate to each other and he can't express himself. He doesn't understand anything I say to him, so you have to communicate in other ways, with hugs and kisses and smiles."

When her husband decided to launch a Goodbye Tour in 2011, Woollen says, he was still very high-functioning.

"He had been touring," she says. "So it wasn't a big stretch to say, 'OK, let's go out and do it.' We thought it was gonna be five weeks. But once we made the announcement, then we got a little worried, like, 'Maybe people won't want to come see somebody with Alzheimer's sing. Maybe we won't sell any tickets.' We worried about the disease. You know, maybe it's gonna progress quickly. Maybe he's gonna make a lot of mistakes on stage. But from the very first show we went out to do, the minute he walked out on stage, it was standing O after standing O. And we were sold-out after sold-out. It was exactly the opposite of what we'd feared."

The star was overwhelmed, Woollen says, "by the outpouring of love and respect. And it gave him the encouragement to just keep going. So it turned into 151 shows over a year and half."

He occasionally made mistakes on stage, Woollen says, but the audience didn't care.

"He would laugh about it," she says. "And they would laugh. There was one time when our teleprompter went out and he couldn't remember the words to the song so the audience sang it. It was so beautiful. It really brought out the best in humanity, his being honest and open about what he was going through."

At a certain point, though, it was obvious that Campbell could no longer tour.

"On the last show, he couldn't hear his guitar properly," Woollen recalls. "It didn't have the right sound to him. And so he turned his back to the audience and started yelling at the band. I don't blame him for being upset about it, but it was just such a distraction to him that he couldn't overcome it. By the end of the show, he really pulled it off and did a great show. But we knew. It's time."

By early 2014, he could still play a little guitar, Woollen says. And sometimes, he'll experience a moment of cognition or lucidity.

"On Christmas Day," she says, "I took him to a friend's house. And our friend has a golf simulator in the garage with the net and the big screen with Pebble Beach up there. And we gave Glen a golf club and put the ball down and he acted like he knew exactly what to do. He hit a shot and then T.K. hit a shot. And then we put another ball down for Glen and he hit another shot. And we thought 'This is amazing!' We were just freaking out, thinking, 'This is so awesome that he's doing this.' And then? It disappeared. We couldn't get him to see that there was a ball there. He couldn't hold a club. He just kept wandering around. He was lost again."

Woollen apologizes for getting emotional, then says, "The hardest part is it's my husband and I love him and I'm losing him. He's pretty content and happy and that's comforting for us. But it's just hard because I miss him."

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