Note from the Author: I wrote this in late March concerning a couple of people who have become very important to me. I feel honored to have come to know them and witness their love and respect for each other. Some time early this morning, May 8, 2013, the Mr. in this story passed away in his sleep. A gentle passing for a gentle man and a blessing to us all. BP
I was in the kitchen making lunch. Grilled cheese. They love my grilled cheese. It’s funny, too. They have the resources to have the best of the best. But they love my grilled cheese because it is just grilled cheese; good bread, butter and cheese. No fancy cheese, either but the mildest shredded cheddar cheese you can find. That’s it. Nothing fancy. That’s the kind of folks they are. Middle American money. They can afford a chef. They choose a neighbor who makes a simple grilled cheese. There it is; a lovely kind of thing, simple and honest and real. This is the life they live, for now, at least. I know when they were younger they travelled often and sometimes in their own plane. I have seen pictures of them both on camel back with crowns on their heads. But, even then, I suspect they preferred a good grilled cheese to gorgonzola and sprouts on gluten-free flat bread. It just seems to be who they are.
Anyway, I was in the kitchen and I could hear them. They were bickering a bit. It often sounds worse than it is because neither can hear worth a darn. Mr. was talking about buying a car. Mr. can’t drive anymore but that is not a concern to him. Mr. has always had a car and doesn’t have one now so …he needs a car. When Mrs. was in the hospital it was a common topic. We talked a lot about which make and model would be a good fit. It was as a safe topic and because he doesn’t drive, nothing would come of it. But, Mrs. is home now and for some reason when Mr. talks of getting a car it aggravates her. Mrs. told him in no uncertain terms he was not getting a car. Mr. was curious as to why not. Because of the universal inability to hear, this calm conversation is being shouted across the great distance of about three and a half feet.
Both Mr. and Mrs. are settled deeply in the envelopes they call chairs. Over time these chairs, which once could have politely been referred to as overstuffed, have given way to the irresistible force that are Mr. and Mrs. The chairs are now as completely formed to the body of the users that they might have been created by an artisan of unmatched skill. And, in a way, they have. For enumerable hours, each chair has held its occupant as they watched the world evolve through their grand picture windows. The chairs, planted in the same spots on the carpet, she on the right and he on her left, closer to both her heart and the front door, allow both proximity and distance. Only three and a little feet apart, the chairs face not each other but the same window. They face the world as a brace of shotguns; working together to see what there is to see and keep the homestead safe. And, over the hours, days, months and years those chairs have adjusted to their task and allowed themselves to cradle Mr. and Mrs. like a babe in her mother’s arms. Those chairs are so desperately in need of cleaning and repair I suffer a bit each time I look at them. Those chairs are so completely theirs that the thought of replacing them makes me want to cry.
Mrs. reminds Mr. with an insistent tone that he doesn’t have a driver’s license. No license means no driving and no driving means no car. Mr. says, “Fine. I’ll go get a license.”
The argument is familiar. He sees no reason why he shouldn’t do what he has always done. She knows that time has settled around them as they have settled into those chairs. And, the time for new cars and drives in the country has eroded away. Mr. still feels the need to be up and out and in charge. Still, instead of arguing the point he settles a little further into his chair as Mrs. states, “You can’t get a license anymore.” He bristles a bit at the remark and in his lined face and watery eyes you can see the outline of the lion he once was. Age and time have taken much but what it takes it burns in stone as immutable history. Once, not all that long ago, Mr. was a force of nature creating, driving and making both things and futures. And, while the memories fade the attitude survives.
He seems for a moment to choose to stand his ground and rage a little. Then he sees, again, who he is talking to and he softens. His face now without guile or artifice, like a child’s, he asks, “Why can’t I have a license?” Now her face, a moment ago shining with the energy of aggravation with Mr., radiates with a different energy. She exudes anger at the world but this time in defense of the lion that once was only tamed by her. I don’t know what exactly she sees when she first looks at Mr. I know when I look at my wife of nearly thirty years I often see the beautiful young woman I dated and pursued. I reckon Mrs. sees not the man of nearly ninety but the man she agreed to marry some sixty-five years ago. I think it was the unfairness of a world that respects no privacy that caused the spark in her eye. I think it was in defense of the man who loved and loves her that put the harsh tone in her voice when she said, “Because of the internet. They know what you have!”
I have been watching and listening from the kitchen. It is not the first time I have heard this conversation. But normally it is a conversation that wanders off topic before now. I think I know what is coming. I stand over my “Cuisinart Griddler” where my exceptionally simple grilled cheese is toasting and melting just as it should. I wonder if I should stick my nose in and see if I can change the subject. Maybe I can ask about the house that Mr. and I sometimes talk about that he always wanted to build on the flat ground in the back of the property. Or, maybe I could ask about one of the kids or the bevy of grand-kids. Maybe I could throw in an anecdote about my son or my daughters. But, in my indecision I have squandered my chance. Choosing what to say has also cost me the moment and now there is nothing I can do.
Because now in a much more quiet, much more open, much less certain voice comes the question. “What do I have?” he asks.
There it is; the ironic, maddening, aggravating, heart-rending question. “What do I have?” Mrs. looks Mr. in the face and now the whole world softens. The air in the room moves with a gentle caress as if to carry the caress in her voice across the three and a half-foot chasm for her. I am blessed to witness the steel in her that gives her the courage to tell the terrible truth, again, in a way that delivers a punch like a kiss.
Mrs. says, “You have Alzheimer’s.”, with a softness that resonates to my soul. Mr. looks back with no anger at all.
He does say, “I love you.” in a way that I will carry with me to my grave. He tells her he loves her in a way I hope I can someday, somehow, someway convey to my wife and children. Mr. looks at Mrs. with a face as pure as the face a father shows his newborn child and says, “But you’re OK aren’t you?”
Mrs. just looks on and wordlessly nods. He smiles and nods, and, then goes back to reading the words on the page of the paper. Words that are familiar but whose meanings elude him more and more each day. But, it doesn’t matter to him because she is OK.
It is time to serve the grilled cheese.