By Claire Furjanic
I sit alone on the bench, running my fingers along my light denim jeans. They used to fit me back in 1967 shortly after I got married, but now even the tightest loop on my belt can’t prevent them from hanging loosely around my thinned waist. A familiar car pulls into the almost bare parking lot and I check the time on my watch. She’s nine minutes late. The car door slams shut, and I watch my daughter hurry over to me. It’s been a few months since I’ve seen her last, and the striking similarities between her and her mother surprise me. The dark curls, the large green eyes, the irritating tendency of never being on time. I take a deep breath before standing up slowly, using the bench for balance.
“Sorry I’m late,” she pulls a vibrating phone out of her purse before glancing up at me, “This will just take a second.”
I force a smile before wandering toward the front doors of the facility. The greenery is strikingly beautiful: a mass of budding flowers, perfectly trimmed hedges, lengthened vines climbing up the side brick wall. The sign is an array of different shades of blues and greens, reading “Benson Grove” in bold. In much finer print beneath it: Assisted Living and Memory Care.
I hear the sound of my daughter’s quickened footsteps as she comes up beside me. “It’s beautiful here, Dad.”
I force a nod as we step inside the automatic sliding doors. I walk as fast as my stiff legs allow and approach the front desk. I am greeted with a smile, “What can I do for you?”
“We have a meeting scheduled,” I hesitate to glance at my daughter, whose fingers are typing rapidly on her phone. I turn back to the woman behind the desk, “Just for information.”
“Johnson.” An overwhelming rush of people stroll around with clipboards and carts, all wearing scrubs and tired smiles. The woman at the desk nods and mentions something about a man waiting for us. We follow her down the hall and into a small office, revealing a man about fifteen years younger than me, his hair just beginning to gray around the edges.
He stands and shakes both of our hands before ushering us to sit across from him in maroon cushioned chairs. I sink into the chair and shift uncomfortably, running my fingers up and down my jeans. “Mr. Johnson, tell me a little about what is going on at home right now.”
“I just don’t think I can do it anymore.” I attempt to hide shakiness in my breath.
The man gives a soft “hmm,” wanting me to go on. I don’t know if I can go on. A silence envelops the room. I look around at the plain, beige walls and the neatly folded pamphlets lining the desk, reading “Personalized Care for Seniors” with images of older folks smiling. Suddenly, the feeling I’ve had since I’ve stepped through the doors of this building becomes overwhelming. The feeling of not wanting to be here. The guilt of being here.
My gaze lands on the man before me. He leans forward, resting his elbows on the desk. His eyes are attentive behind a pair of small rectangular reading glasses. I take another breath before continuing. “She won’t do or can’t do anything, and I’m not going to force her. She is no longer the same person.”
My gaze falls to my hands as I begin sliding my wedding ring up and down my frail finger. It was just yesterday that I realized she wasn’t wearing hers. I don’t even know how long it’s been missing. I spent two hours searching underneath cushions and in between sheets before I finally gave up.
I can still remember that cloudless day I spent inside the jewelry store, following her around helplessly, attempting to hide my surprise at the prices. We were peering inside yet another glass case when she turned to me with an anxious smile and said, “Actually, I want you to pick it out.” She kissed me on the cheek and grabbed the car keys from my hand before I could say a word. That is what it was always like, her impulsive decisions and spontaneous ideas always keeping me on my toes. With the help of a patient saleswoman, I landed on a one carat round solitaire, and said a silent goodbye to my savings account. That cloudless day exists only in my memory now, no longer shared between us.
An unwelcome tear runs down my cheek and I quickly pull on my shirt to wipe it away, “I’m sorry, I just don’t know if I can do this.”
The man pushes a box of tissues my way, “You’re doing just fine, Mr. Johnson. I understand that this is very difficult, but know that we want what is best for your wife, and just as importantly, what is best for you.”
“I totally agree,” My shoulders tense at the sound of my daughter’s voice, “I want what is best for both of my parents and I worry the current situation isn’t providing that.”
I exhale a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding, clenching my fingers together into tight fists. Unable to match either of their troubled gazes, my eyes fall to a small coffee-colored stain on the carpet and remain there until I hear movement. The man leans gently back into his chair, “It is true that we have some of the most wonderful facilities, which would provide Mrs. Johnson with all of her wants and needs, along with an apartment space of her own with a beautiful, enclosed park just outside her door. I would be more than happy to show you around after our meeting.”
“Yeah, that would be great.” My daughter responds. I wonder if he’s married, and my eyes fall to his left hand to find a ring. He must know what it’s like to love someone. But he doesn’t know what it’s like when that someone forgets your name. The man’s eyes flicker between my daughter and me before proceeding, “Do you have anyone to help you out at home, with your wife’s declining condition?”
I glance at my daughter, and watch her gaze drop to the floor. I think of the closeness she shared with her mother at a young age; the little girl with brunette pigtails and stained overalls resting her head softly against her mother’s shoulder, short legs hanging around her mother’s waist. I think of the muffled whispers and giggles from within her poster-plastered room, the ‘No Boys Allowed’ sign scotch-taped to her door. And then I’m reminded of the empty promises, the unoccupied chair at the dinner table, and the untouched third burger I grill every Sunday night.
I clear my throat, “It’s just me.”
My daughter straightens in her seat, “I try to help when I can but it can be hard sometimes with how time-consuming my job is and the half-hour drive out there.”
The man nods, his eyes falling briefly to his desk before returning to mine. “It must be very difficult for you to deal with this all on your own.”
“She’s my whole life.” I don’t recognize my own voice as it comes out small and broken. I watch as my daughter drags her heel against the scratchy carpet, re-crosses her legs, and leans back into her chair with a soft sigh.
The man clears his throat, “I can see you love your wife. Can you tell me more about her?”
I continue to play with my wedding ring, considering how to respond. I recall what she was like before: always the first one to laugh, apologize, and fall asleep in movies. Never could go a night without drinking decaf black tea with a splash of milk. Never could go to a party empty-handed but always wanted to leave early so she could read a chapter of Agatha Christie before bed. My eyes catch his and I realize he’s not asking to know about the woman she used to be. He’s just looking to find out how bad the disease has gotten.
I take a deep breath. “My wife doesn’t laugh much anymore, and has trouble hearing or comprehending a word that comes out of my mouth. She forgets how to use a fork or any kitchen utensils. She walks around with two different kinds of socks on and wears the same blue t-shirt and jeans she’s been wearing for over eight months now. She won’t let me help her change.”
My daughter shifts beside me, her gaze retreating to the floor. My eyes flicker to the man, who nods for me to continue.
“She doesn’t drink tea anymore, or milk. She still asks for a cup of tea sometimes, but by the time I make it, she doesn’t want it anymore and later I find it spilled across the carpet. She doesn’t sleep through the night. She walks and mumbles to herself throughout the halls, talking nonsense. Sometimes I hear my name, or the name of her sister who passed. I’m sleeping in the guest bed now.” I swallow a sob that I feel rising in the back of my throat.
The violent vibrations of my daughter’s phone interrupt the growing silence. She meets my eyes and smiles apologetically, “I’m really sorry.”
I drop my gaze as she stands and rushes out the door, letting it slam behind her. I jolt at the sound of it clicking shut. A shaky sigh escapes me and I clench my hands into fists to prevent them from running nervously down the length of my jeans. The man’s eyes flicker to the clock on the wall, and I suddenly feel the urgency to return home to her.
“Have you allowed yourself any breaks?” The man’s voice is gentle. I think of the hours I’ve spent outside; mowing the lawn, building an art studio in my garage, building bird houses. All fun projects. All escapes from the mumbling nonsense and repeated questions. All escapes from her.
“How do you re-energize?” He rephrases the question. I meet his eyes briefly, my vision blurring. When I tell him, he nods slowly, considering. “It can be lonely, right?”
My throat dries as I feel a tear escape my right eye, and I quickly reach up to wipe it away. A heavy breath escapes me and soon enough, I’m shaking in my chair, attempting to mute my inevitable cries.
“But I made her a promise,” my voice catches.