I shuffle into my wife’s room, with Ashley behind me carrying the lilies. “Look, Mrs. Bradley,” she enthuses. “Somebody must love you!”
Helen looks up at us with a confused expression on her face. “Is it my birthday?” she asks.
Ashley sniffs: “Uh-oh … looks like you had an accident!”
Sure enough, there’s a strong odor coming from Helen’s bed. “I’ll get one of the aides, Mr. Bradley,” she offers.
“No, no … I’ll take care of her.”
Ashley looks at me dubiously: Every time I clean Helen up, they look at me like I’m crazy. Don’t these people know what “in sickness and in health” means?
“Been cleanin’ up after my wife for 59 years — why stop now?” I smile.
Ashley laughs. “If you need help, you ring, okay?”
I take one of those adult diapers out of the drawer. “Come on, Sugar. Let’s get you fixed up.”
“Everett?” she says slowly. “Everett, I didn’t know where you went. I told these people I had to find you …”
She knows my name — it might be a good day. “Here I am, Sugar. What did you need?”
“What is this place, some hotel? I want to go home …”
“I’m afraid we’re here for a while,” I say gently.
“Then where have you been? I tried to find you …”
“Oh, I have my own room. Over in the other wing.”
“You’re my husband, Everett,” she insists. “We share rooms.”
I never know what to say to that. I shrug weakly.
“Are you off with some — floozy? No decent man has his own room.” Her eyes are burning into me.
“Well, the kids and I decided it was better that way …”
“Is it that young thing who just came in with the flowers? Is she the one?”
“No, Sugar. You’re the only one for me.” I try to kiss her lips; she turns her head away.
“Everett, I want to go home.”
“What do you have on TV here, Helen?” I ask, trying to change the subject. “The Price Is Right?”
“I don’t know,” she says peevishly. “Take me home.”
“I can’t do that, Sugar,” I sigh. “I’m afraid … you’re a little sick.”
“Don’t be foolish, I feel fine,” she snaps back. “Where did we park?”
“But you’ll get … better soon,” I say finally. “You’ll be better.”
Jesus, forgive me. She will be better, of course, once she gets to Your Place. But I don’t think that’s what she means right now, and I hate these little lies I tell every day. Forgive me, Lord; I don’t know what else to say.
“Well, I hope they find a better nurse,” Helen says, looking at the lilies with displeasure. “I didn’t order flowers.”
I can’t help chuckling: My Sugar always could make me laugh.
* * *
I finally whisper enough half-truths that Helen calms down and watches a show with me. We hold hands, just like at the movies when we were dating 60 years ago. Some things never change.
A lot of things have, though. I remember the first day I suspected something might be wrong with Helen.
One Sunday afternoon we were watching a movie with Stacy. I wasn’t enjoying it so much; it’s what they call a “chick flick”— so I offered to get ice cream. I figured I’d be back in 20 minutes.
Unfortunately, some truck driver had flipped his trailer into a ditch, so the traffic jam took me a full hour. When I got back with half-melted Rocky Road, Stacy was sitting in the living room watching a filthy talk show. The movie was long over, and Helen was nowhere in sight.
“Where’s Grammy?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Stacy said, looking a little upset. “She just left.”
Turns out that Helen had gotten up in the middle of the film and abruptly gone grocery shopping in the other car. There was nothing unusual in that, except that ordinarily, she’d never leave Stacy by herself. Except we just did “big shopping” two days before, and she knew I was at Kroger’s myself. Except by time she got out on the highway, she forgot where she was going.
We drove Stacy back to her house early that day, and when we came home, Helen cried because she was losing her mind.
The beginning is the worst part of Alzheimer’s: Helen had enough memory to know what was wrong. For a month, she cried every day and stayed in bed till noon. My Helen, the cheerful girl who’d hardly known a sad day in her life, had always bounced up before 8 a.m. The doctor finally put her on Prozac.
The smile that had lit up my days for 59 years disappeared; she started snapping for no reason. One morning I took a shower, and when I came out, she was upset that I left her alone. Another time, she accused me of stealing her glasses: Turns out she left them in a cupboard.
Then she took to wandering the house at all hours of the night. Sometimes she thought it was time to go to church on Friday evening, and would get all dressed in her Sunday best. I couldn’t make her understand that church was still days off, even though it was dark outside.
One night she took the car keys and went driving. The police found her two counties away, sitting by the roadside with no idea where she was or where she lived. Then about a week later, I was trying to get a box out of the attic when I fell off the ladder and broke my hip. That’s when our boys packed us both off to this place.
Sometimes, I think Helen must be the reason Jesus keeps me down here — to look after her. But there’s precious little I can do, and it hurts. Honestly, I wish God would take both of us Home some night in our sleep. Waking up to Jesus … now, there’s a beautiful thought! It seems like I’ve done all I can here on this earth.
Watching my Helen slip away a little more each day is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
* * *
Saturday dawns sunny with puffy white clouds moving in the breeze. Outside this air conditioning they always keep too cold, the TV says it’s 78 degrees. Before I used a blasted cane, that was my favorite walking weather. It’s a nice day for our anniversary … whether anyone comes or not.
I’ll go see Helen soon, but first I need to call Tom and Amy. No news about Stacy is not good news.
“Hello?” Amy says breathlessly. You can tell that every time the phone rings, she’s jumping a mile high, not sure whether there’s a tragedy waiting on the other end.
“It’s just me, hon,” I say. “Dad Bradley.”
“Dad,” she says. “I completely forgot about your anniversary today. I’m so sorry … I don’t think we can come, with what’s going on —”
“‘Course not, hon. You need to stay right there. Is there any news?”
“Nothing,” she says.
I can tell she’s trying not to cry. Even with all the grief that girl’s given her, Amy loves Stacy. Our stubborn little lamb just refuses to notice.
“Where’s Tommy?” I ask.
“He’s out looking,” says Amy. “He’s been trying her friends’ houses, and around the school …”
That’s my boy: Finally rising to the occasion. “Have the police done anything?”
“They wrote up some report and said she’d come home eventually.”
“Hon, you keep me posted, all right? Call any time.”
“Dad, you know what I’ve been thinking?” she says, with a catch in her voice.
“Do you remember when she used to go to church with you? She always talked about your ‘Hug Sandwiches.’ She’d get in the middle, and you and Mom would be on either side …”
“I was just thinking about those myself.”
“A couple weeks ago, we all watched a movie. And afterwards, she said we should do one. She just came out of nowhere with it … teenagers, y’know? And I thought, ‘I’m getting through to her’ …”
There’s a long silence on the line. Finally, Amy says, “Dad, please keep praying.”
“Of course I will, hon.”
As soon as we hang up, I bend my old knees and get down to business. I have a little time before Helen wakes up; better make good use of it.
* * *
An hour later, I hobble down to my Sugar’s room. She’s staring through some show on the TV.
“Happy anniversary!” I say, giving her a peck on the cheek.
Helen looks at me strangely — she’s not sure who I am today. Maybe it’s better that the kids aren’t coming.
“I’m Everett. Your husband.”
“I thought you looked familiar.” Confusion clouds those baby blue eyes as she tries to put the pieces together.
“It’s our anniversary, Sugar,” I try to explain. “We’ve been married 59 years.”
“That sounds nice,” she murmurs.
“The kids can’t make it, I’m afraid.”
“That’s good. I don’t like kids.”
In better days, Helen never met a child she didn’t like. I try to sound enthusiastic: “I thought we could watch a movie together. What do you think about that?”
“I suppose so,” she says dully.
Suddenly, I hear noises in the hallway. Ashley comes bustling into the room, full of her incorrigible cheerfulness. “Happy anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley!” she gushes. “55 years is a long time!”
“59,” I mutter, without much enthusiasm.
“I’m still praying you’ll have lots of company today!” Ashley enthuses.
I try to change the subject. “Actually, Helen and I were just thinking of popping in a movie. You know, our first date was to see On the Town. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra …”
“Who?” Ashley looks at me blankly.
“I’ll loan you the video. It’s a classic.” I can’t help smiling: There’s rarely a dull moment when Ashley’s around.
“Well, I brought somebody to see you!” She motions to a person outside the door.
I can’t imagine who it could be. Maybe Peter changed his mind … ?
It’s not him. Instead, I get the shock of my life when I see our little lost lamb standing in the doorway.
* * *
She tries to smile. “Hi, Grampy.”
“Stacy … where were you?”
“We better call Amy and your Dad. They’ve been so worried —”
Before I can pick up my cane, Stacy interrupts: “No!”
I stop and look at her carefully. At least to an old man’s eyes, she seems fine. No blood or bruises … I’ll hear her out first.
“I heard you and Grammy have been married 55 years,” Stacy says dully, as though she’s delivering a speech. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks, hon,” I say. “Grammy and I were just getting ready to celebrate.”
“Oh … well, I should go, then —”
“No, no — you sit down, hon! We might watch a movie, that’s all.”
Ashley slides silently out the door, leaving us to talk. Stacy glances over at Helen. My Sugar’s got a tissue in her hands that she’s tearing apart, and she’s not hearing us.
“Happy anniversary, Grammy,” Stacy says loudly, as she sits in a chair.
Helen doesn’t look up from her tissue. There’s a long silence.
“I went over — to this guy’s house,” Stacy finally volunteers.
I nod. This isn’t sounding good.
“His name’s Nolan. I thought … he said he liked me, a lot.”
I’m still nodding.
Then suddenly, it’s like a floodgate opens, and words just start spilling out, one on top of the next. “He said his mom wouldn’t be home all weekend, so he invited me over, and I thought we would … well, I was kinda scared, but I was like, well, he actually cares about me. I mean, he was always asking about how stuff was going with Dad, and he would let me copy when the homework was hard … and, I mean, people do it when they care about each other, right?”
Stacy looks at me, a sideways glance to make sure Ol’ Gramps understands the insinuations. I just keep nodding, but my jaw’s clenched. If I had that boy in front of me … well, I may be old, but I have a cane.
“When I got there, he … he wouldn’t let me in. Like, he wouldn’t even come to the door till I knocked about 10 times. And then I saw this other girl sitting behind him, and she was wearing a bedsheet is all … and he was really mean, just trying to make me go away. I knew it was just like what Mom said: They pretend they care to get one thing, just like … like Dad did with her.
“So I guess … I was stuck. I couldn’t go home, so I walked to Mom’s, like five miles. And I told her what happened, and she was like, ‘men are pigs,’ and then we both — well, we drank a lot.”
My jaw clenches even tighter. If I had a chance, I’d take my cane to Mom when I was done with Nolan.
“Then this morning, I couldn’t sleep ’cause I had the worst headache in history. And I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ Mom doesn’t care. Nolan’s a pig. I totally blew it with Amy.” She looks down miserably. “We had this fight …”
“Amy wants you home, hon,” I tell her. “She’s been looking everywhere —”
“… I was like, ‘where can I go?’ And I thought about you and Grammy, and how we used to go to church, and …”
Then suddenly, she springs out of her chair, and she’s bawling like the little girl she still is sometimes, and she buries her head in my shoulder, and I hug her tight. Then I’m crying too, and I pat her back gently, while I whisper that Grammy and I love her so much.
* * *
So it turns out that Tom and Amy come visiting on our anniversary after all, though Helen and I aren’t the guests of honor anymore. That distinction is reserved for Stacy, but it’s okay by me.
Helen has to ask Tom for his name twice, but she seems to know he looks familiar. It could be worse.
Stacy mumbles apologies to her Dad and Amy for running off. I can tell Tom’s trying to decide between ripping a strip off her hide and giving her a hug. Amy takes the decision out of his hands by pulling our little lost lamb close and giving her a kiss.
Amazingly, Stacy kisses her back. They start talking in low tones — probably comparing notes about what bums men are.
I pull Tom aside in the midst of the girl talk. “You need to spend some time with Stacy, Tommy,” I tell him, pointing my lecture finger.
“I know, Dad.” Tom slouches his shoulders and looks at the floor. Ever since he was a kid, that’s been a good sign he’s listening.
“Might not hurt to take her to church, either,” I suggest.
“I’ll think about it,” Tom mutters. “Maybe Amy can drive her.”
“While you’re at it, get a haircut, turn down that music, and tuck in your shirt.” I smirk.
“Quit while you’re ahead,” he says, smirking back.
I motion towards Stacy. “You could start now, y’know … spending time with your girl.”
Tom hesitates. “Maybe,” he mutters. He hesitantly walks over to his wife and daughter, not sure if he’ll be welcome or not. I say a quick prayer for all three of them.
Then I see Ashley coming back down the hall — and she looks pretty smug. I have a feeling it’s my turn to get lectured.
I hobble out into the hall. Tommy doesn’t need to hear his old man getting a taste of his own medicine.
* * *
“My, my … it’s amazing what prayer can do, huh, Mr. Bradley? Your family’s here, just like I asked for.” She grins at me, looking pretty superior. “Of course, I hear God listens extra-hard to nurses —”
“Wipe that smile off your face, young lady. Retired pastors have far more clout Upstairs —”
“Apparently not. Missy slept straight through last night. Didn’t cry once.”
“Doggone it. I’ll have to pray harder.” I grin right back at her.
Ashley just shakes her head, humoring the cranky old geezer again. Finally, she asks, “So that’s your granddaughter, huh?”
“Our little lost lamb. Ran away from home two days ago.”
“And she came to you when she wanted to be found, huh?”
I shrug. “There’s no accounting for taste.”
Ashley brings out her lecture finger. “Now, Mr. Bradley!” she says. “We both know she came here because somebody loved her —”
“I suppose so —”
“— And maybe God still has a few things left on earth for you to do.”
“It’s possible,” I admit grudgingly.
“So why aren’t you in there with your family?” She puts her hands on her hips and stares me down — all five feet, two inches of her.
“Going … going,” I mutter.
I turn back towards the door. Nurses have far too much power at this place.
* * *
As I walk back into Helen’s room, there’s a beautiful sight waiting for me.
Tom and Amy have our little lamb in the middle of a Hug Sandwich. And just as I come in, Helen is climbing out of bed to join in. She wraps her thin, gaunt arms around Stacy too, and then slowly, in a voice that’s rougher than it used to be but still sweet and beautiful, my Helen begins to sing.
“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so …”
Amy joins in the song, and so does Stacy. Tom doesn’t sing right away, but then Amy gives him the evil eye. He wisely decides to chime in.
“Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong …”
As the chorus goes on —”Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me” repeated enough times that the great truth can even sink into an old man’s stubborn heart, I pass a hand over my eyes. Looks like I’m crying for the second time today.
The song comes to an end, but the Hug Sandwich goes right on. Finally, Helen looks up at me — I’m still standing a little bit outside the circle with my cane. “This little girl needs to be loved,” she says, reprimanding me.
“Don’t we all,” I mutter sheepishly. I shuffle over and join the hug.
“Thank you, Grammy,” says Stacy softly, giving her a little squeeze.
“‘Grammy?’ Well, I suppose you can call me that,” says Helen.
Then it dawns on me — my Sugar doesn’t know who Stacy is — or Tom or Amy. Chances are, she won’t remember this happened by lunchtime, and she’ll be asking for all of our names again. But whoever she thinks this little lost lamb is, Helen does know that she needed a Hug Sandwich.
And a little bit of Jesus, too. That’s more than enough for anybody.
Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.