Late Sunday morning. Carol is drowsing, almost asleep, then sort of awake. I’ve been to the store to pick up the Times and Carol’s Sunday breakfast treat of a blueberry muffin. After breakfast, she was convinced her mother was waiting for her. Telling her that her mother is in assisted living and not expecting her did not pull her into the here and now. She was fixed in some past moment. Her eyes are now closed, and then she calls my name. Sometimes she does that just, it seems, to assure herself that I, or maybe her memory of me, is around. I expect she will fall fully asleep.
I’ve got classical music playing from the local public radio station in part to counter the wind outside, and in part, to provide background while I write for a while.
This morning I did what I always do upon rising from my bed on the couch. I moved the pillow and blanket out of sight.
Carol, eyes closed, is yelling at some voice or action in her head. Nothing I can usefully respond to.
Until today, I did not pause to think why I do this. On a day when I expect a visit from somebody, moving my sleeping material out of sight makes a little bit of sense although I am sure my visitor would not care one way or another.
But I would.
And that is the point, I realized today, and explains why even on a Sunday when nobody is expected, I repeat this minor straightening up activity.
I want the room to look as much as possible as it always did. That is not a new thought, of course. But until today, I had not applied it to my morning routine. Just another of the ways, big and small, I continue to struggle with my refusal to abandon the Carol that was. Perhaps readers will tire of hearing that refrain, but it is the context within which I live, and it will poke its head out, unbidden and unwanted.
A piece of music has just ended, the wind continues to make noise outside, and Carol’s eyes are closed. The dog is sprawled asleep on the floor.
I realize that writing now as we move into Sunday afternoon is a good counter measure to my loneliness.
I can at least commune with myself.
This struggle between the then and now took a very particular shape these past few weeks. Looming ahead was my grandson’s bar mitzvah on Long Island, N.Y.
The word “looming” might sound inappropriate.
But it is not.
It focuses quite precisely on this then/now dichotomy.
I pause. The English professor in me objects. “Dichotomy” is not the right word. It suggests a division, a clean separation between two opposites. Night and day. Good and evil.
My then/now situation is not so clear. It is this lack of clarity that argues for the applicability of “looming,” which suggests an event or circumstance you would rather avoid. I will try to explain how the word fit this upcoming event, which presented me with a decision I would rather not have had to make, but one I could not avoid. Whatever I did would leave me unhappy.
I could not simply book a flight as I did two years ago when I attended the bar mitzvah of the older brother of the one whose rite was coming up. Then, I was able to leave Carol at her mother’s house while I flew to New York. Her mother was being taken care of round the clock by several caregivers, and Carol was still functional enough to not strain that set-up.
Her mother is now in a care facility, so that option was not available. This time I would need to find a respite facility for Carol where I would leave her alone, and I would return to an empty house.
Of course, she would not be literally alone, and the house would only be empty until she returned the next day.
This scenario in my mind was a precursor, perhaps, of what awaits me and her down the road.
Still, I shoved these negative thoughts, whom I imagine to be a shrouded figure in a black robe, sort of like death itself without the scythe, into a closet. I shut the door, and began working to make this trip possible.
I soon discovered that respite facilities do not take reservations because their business models, reasonably enough, seek to have all beds occupied all the time.
But with some difficulty, I found a facility that could be persuaded by a non-refundable deposit to hold a bed open. Because I was unable to book a flight much in advance, I decided to drive. My route would take me through Canada into upstate New York with a stop in Syracuse overnight with very good friends, and then on to Long Island where I would stay for two or three days with other friends whom I’ve known since college, and on the grounds of whose house Carol and I were married thirty-two years ago.
I booked the dog into the kennel we use, arranged to have a hospital bed installed in the facility for Carol, reminded myself that I would have to put a hold on our mail and stop the newspaper delivery. I made sure I had my abbreviated passport for the passage into Canada, and even dug out a handful of Canadian currency from the last time we had taken this route.
The prospect of a long car trip, something I always enjoy, the stops with friends, and, of course, the celebration itself kept the door of that closet shut.
The black robed figure scratched and scratched.
Then one last problem arose, and forced that door open.
I got a call from the nurse at the hospital who was arranging for the ambulance to take Carol to the facility. It would cost, she said, eleven hundred dollars each way. An outrageous amount for a twenty-four mile trip.
Ignoring that shrouded figure, now fully out of the closet, I got in touch with the new chief of our local fire department, which has an ambulance, to see if he could provide transportation. I had made his acquaintance some time ago when I enlisted his help to move Carol from the couch onto the hospital bed that had just been set up in our living room. He had said, then, to call when I needed help. I knew not to take that statement too literally, and that asking for the use of the department’s ambulance for a non-emergency trip would leave it unable to respond to an actual emergency.
It was a long shot.
Of course, with many apologies the chief said he couldn’t leave his department in such an untenable position.
Further efforts to find an alternative, private or public came up empty.
I could have sucked it up, and agreed to pay the outrageous price.
But I could not convince myself to do that. The shrouded figure had a bony finger on my shoulder.
He had won.
And I decided to stay home.
I am afraid that some family members have concluded that I did not make the trip because I could not afford it.
That is not right, but I understand why they might think so since I did tell them that the exorbitant transport fee was what decided me against going.
If the situation were as simple as paying the fee would have caused me and Carol to live on peanut butter sandwiches for a month, then the fee would have been the cause.
But that was not the case.
If, like two years ago, I could have comfortably left Carol with her mother, both of them being taken care of by her family, I most likely would have unhappily paid the fee.
But that was not the case.
I could not comfortably leave Carol, not even remotely so.
The fee tipped the balance.
One morning while I was wrestling with this situation, I walked back into the living room after attending to some minor household chore, and saw that Carol was visibly upset, trembling and near tears. As I approached her, she reached out, and said, “Oh, you’re back.”
I leaned over her bed, and she took my arm and pulled it to her. We sat that way for some time.
And then I was able to get up and prepare our breakfasts.
It is probably hard for those not in my situation to fully grasp both the poignancy of that little scene, and its ambiguity. In terms of the latter, I accepted that she recognized me for her present Steve rather than her memory of me. Maybe that is false. But I don’t think so. And in any case, that is how I perceived it.
That made leaving her in a respite facility, as a precursor of a permanent move to such a place, like getting a kick in the stomach.
Or consider the following conversation from a few days later.
I came back into the living room from the kitchen singing nonsense words off key.
I do this whenever my mood dictates. It’s my way of being cheery.
Carol looked up and with some effort formed the word “singing.”
“Yes,” I answered. “But I don’t sing on key.” I paused. “You like to sing, don’t you?”
She smiled, and we were, for the moment, together in the here and now. I pushed the envelope to see how far we could go.
“When we first moved here,” I continued, “you joined a chorus in town.”
She looked puzzled.
“Did I?” she murmured.
“Yes,” I replied.
And then we were lost somewhere between now and then, her memory having failed to bring up what was, in truth, a minor episode, as for reasons I no longer recall she did not stay with that singing group very long.
I turned the conversation back to a firm foothold in the now.
“I’ve got a scone for breakfast for you.”
“Scones, they’re good.”
“And I went to the co-op and got you the pear juice you like.”
That brings a big smile, and for the moment, we are back together in the same time frame, hanging on to a shared memory.
And so it goes, from moment to moment, and day to day, like spent waves approaching our footprints in the damp sand and then with the next incursion of the incoming tide washing them away .
Going to New York would have yanked me back to dry sand beneath my feet.
Perhaps a good thing.
But I wasn’t ready for it.
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