by Charles McNamara
This year Grayson gave up searching for a birthday present for his wife. She had no more desires and asked for nothing. Man-made objects did not interest her. Alice had dementia.
When Grayson could no longer care for her, he moved her to a nursing home. That was two years ago. She spent her days pushing herself down the halls in a wheelchair. When she watched TV, she fell asleep. She rarely responded to people who spoke to her. When she did, her only response was “Honey.”
“Oh yeah honey.”
“Alice, do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Oh yeah honey.”
“Want me to push you around in the garden?”
“Oh, yeah honey.”
She came alive at mealtimes feeding herself then fell asleep again. She giggled and said “hi honey” when Grayson visited.
He always gave her a kiss. Anticipating his kiss, she sat up straight in the wheelchair and leaned her face toward his. That was how he knew she still recognized him.
When he wheeled her through the garden, Alice giggled with delight and pointed right and left as if giving directions without speaking. They’d been married for 45 years. He missed her.
When she went to the nursing home, he felt guilty. He wanted to continue as her caregiver, but couldn’t.
“People tend to beat themselves up over the big should, as in, I should take care of my wife,” he told one of the nurses. “This guilt is deeply embedded in our vision of the person we love. I feel it’s a reflection of my value as a person,” he said.
Friends and relatives would send gifts they thought useful like slippers or t-shirts.
Alice held them in her lap without speaking. She no longer looked at birthday cards, just held them. No one was sure if they made sense to her. Did she even know what they were? Everything now was a guessing game for those close to Alice.
Grayson lived alone in their house. Living alone meant accepting the loss of her and enduring recurring waves of grief and loneliness.
As he walked through their home, he was reminded of moments of tenderness they’d shared. Recalling those memories gradually felt like a form of insanity, but he fought off the craziness with nearly daily visits to the nursing home.
Could she recall moments in their life together? A fragrance that brought back a memory? Is this why she motioned to be wheeled through the garden?
Grayson carried this lyric on a folded paper in his wallet.
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.
Grayson told her, “I’ve given most of your clothes to Goodwill. You sure had a lot of clothes.”
“Oh yeah, honey.”
He stood in front of the empty shower where he had bathed her many times. He saw her standing there holding onto the towel bars. He wrapped a towel around her shoulders and rubbed her back. Another towel covered her head and face.
After every shower he’d pull the towel aside and look at her face.
“Who’s that beautiful lady in there?”
Alice would grin and clutch the towel around her shoulders and make buzzing sounds with her lips trying to blow bubbles as Grayson dried her hair.
“I love you today,” Grayson said.
The memory of that moment choked his heart.
I want so much to talk and laugh like we once did. I know we will be reunited in heaven but that doesn’t stop the longing I feel. I see you everywhere I go, in the things we both loved, in nature, in music, in silly things. Though you are not here with me, your presence remains, beautiful and strong.
Grayson sensed year after year she’d withdrawn farther into her own world. Yet moments of joy would surface on Alice’s face, reminding him that she was still there and was trying to tell him something.
As he wheeled her through the garden recently, he picked a pansy and handed it to her. He thought she would smell it, but instead, she put in her mouth and ate it.
Why worry? he thought. Maybe it was her way of enjoying the pansy, like a kiss.
“I…I just want to give you a kiss,” he said.
If getting past the pain means forgetting you, then I choose to suffer my entire life.