No matter how old we get, to me, she’ll always be the same sweet girl I married, who thought about everyone except herself
“Look what I have for my favorite wife.”
The confusion on Lillian’s face hits me like a punch to the gut. Is it so unusual for me to give her a gift? Or is this something even worse…?
It takes only a moment for her to recover.
“I better be your only wife,” she says with a playful smile, a comment so typically Lillian that my breathing eases.
I mock-bow in front of her, the emerald and diamond encrusted pendant in my palm where she can see it, long gold chain dangling behind my hand.
She smiles — that same shy smile all the wrinkles in the world can’t change, the smile that made me want to marry her 50 years ago. And that now makes me regret every single thing I never gave her.
“But… why?” is all she manages to say.
“Because you deserve it. Now that I’m able to give it to you, I want you to have it.”
She lifts the pendant, and with a blush creeping up her cheeks, she shifts her glance from me to the shining stones.
“Why would you think I deserve…” She tilts the pendant, letting it catch the light, a mixture of awe and confusion playing on her face “…this?”
I pull up a chair so I’m sitting beside her and wave my arm, gesturing to the entire dining room in front of us.
“Remember all those walks we used to take on the boulevard? You loved to walk past all those huge, magnificent houses. You’d talk about all the wonderful things we would do with a house like that. You’d imagine the huge dining rooms and dream about all the family we could host. Your eyes would glow as you spoke about all the lonely people who’d find a place to stay with us. Well, your vision allowed me to make it a reality.
“Look at all the people here. They’re here because of you. If it was up to me, I would’ve spent my money on fine wine and cigars.” I wink at her. Nodding my head toward the room, I continue. “Now that we can afford a home like this, would you have it any other way?”
Lillian looks out at the room, as if seeing it for the first time. Finally, she nods. “It’s true, nothing is worth having if you can’t share it,” she says softly.
“That’s what you always said.” I point at the ceiling. “What would be the point of those beautiful chandeliers or,” I point toward the windows, “large picture windows overlooking our gardens or,” I pat the table in front of us, “fine Italian furniture, if we weren’t sharing it with other people so they can also enjoy it?
“When I have so much to give other people, can’t I give my wife a single necklace?” I say, tilting my face to her.
She blushes again as she fingers the necklace, and the years slip away before my eyes. No matter how old we get, to me, she’ll always be the same sweet girl I married, who thought about everyone except herself.
“It’s beautiful. Thank you. But all I want is more time with you.” She looks at the floor, opens her mouth to speak, and closes it. Then, very quietly, “When was the last time you spent more than a few hours at home? I don’t even remember…. Maybe you could work less and be home more?”
Her tone is soft, she’s not accusing me, just suggesting an idea, like this is the first time she’s thought of it, even though she says it often.
My heart twists. How I wish I could spend more time with her, but there’s no way for me to explain to her why I can’t. I glance at my watch and invite Lillian to walk with me.
I like to walk the halls with Lillian at this hour; it’s too late in the day for anyone to be napping, and too early for bedtime, so the halls tend to be empty and quiet.
It’s as if we’re walking back in time as we slowly meander down the hallways. Occasionally someone passes, but Lillian and I are in our own little bubble and barely notice.
We share a million do-you-remember-whens, the little fears about the kids that never came to be and how well they all turned out, our hopes and dreams. At moments like these, you can’t convince me we’re two old folk shuffling along. All I see is my young bride, and I know by the way Lillian is looking at me that she also sees the chap I once was. Part of me wishes we could walk straight into the past.
I point out fine details of our home: this carved molding, that custom couch, the fine art. They are jarring jolts back to the present, yet I desperately want to convince Lillian that things have only gotten better for us.
But it is only in our memories that I can hold time still, and eventually I have to go. I lead Lillian toward the bedroom.
“You’re not leaving, are you?”
I point at the doors we’re passing, some closed, some open, revealing neat little bedrooms beyond. “Look at all the lonely souls we’re able to accommodate. Where would they be without us?”
I see the struggle in her brown eyes, the color of caramel. I see through those eyes straight into her mind. I’ve pitted Lillian’s deepest values against each other. I want to slither away from the guilt that claws at me, but I force myself to hold her gaze and be there with her through the difficult decision I’ve forced her into. It’s not really a fair battle — I already know which side will emerge the victor.
“But, but I barely see you,” she pleads. “I wake up, you’re not there. I go to sleep and you’re not there….” The truth stings. I resist the urge to look away — not out of bravery, but because this is a dance we’ve danced so many times before that I already know my steps. I’m doing the right thing, even if I lack the words to explain it to her.
“Lillian, please believe me that I spend every moment that I can with you.”
She smiles with a mischievous glint in those caramel-colored eyes, and I know what she’s about to say. “Maybe if you have to work so many hours, I could join you?”
I glance at the floor for just a moment, because what I’m about to say is slightly less true. “Why should you be sleep deprived because I have to go to bed after you and wake up before you?” I ask, aiming for a lighthearted tone. “Someone has to keep this place running. Who would the staff come to with their questions if you ran around with me all day?”
Right on cue, a young woman in a white uniform with “Candice” on her name tag approaches us. “Mrs. Lillian, it’s getting chillier at night. Do you think I should put the heat on earlier or raise the temperature?”
Lillian looks at her, as if trying to understand what she’s just said, but just as Candice is about to repeat herself, Lillian looks at her with finality. “Both. The heat should go on at whatever hour it’s needed and at whichever temperature is necessary to be pleasant.”
“You got it, Mrs. Lillian,” Candice says as she walks off.
“See? What would happen if you weren’t here? Do you want everyone here to freeze so we can have a few more minutes together?” And we both know I’m not really asking.
Lillian looks resigned to the reality, and I wonder if hearts really can break, because that’s what it feels like as I lead her to the room where she spends long, lonely hours.
She sits and takes off the necklace. I place it on the night table by her bed, where she can see it.
Her eyes fly open. “Don’t leave it there, someone could steal it.”
I slip the necklace into my pocket. I’ll give it to her again tomorrow, and she won’t remember I already gave it to her today. Several times today she’d noticed it around her neck and asked me where it came from.
She looks past me through a time tunnel only she can see.
“You’ve always given me such pretty things; remember that gorgeous blue gown? That stunning sable fur coat?
Once upon a time, when we were young and struggling with finances, we’d stroll the exclusive shopping districts and I would point out items in the display. “I can just imagine you in that gown, Lillain,” and “One day I’m going to buy you that fur coat,” I’d say.
As age alternately steals and blurs her memory, it leaves a small gift, as if compensation for all the trouble it has caused: Lillian remembers all the things I ever wanted to give her as if I actually had. All those beautiful and expensive gifts hover in her mind’s eye.
“Goodnight Lill, I must get going,” I say from the door, raising my hand in a wave.
“Do you have to go already? Maybe I can come with you?” she asks, eyebrows raised, face open and hopeful.
I glance into the hallway; the institutional beige walls, the aging linoleum and industrial ceiling tiles, the rows of florescent bulbs of Briarlake Estates Jewish Assisted Living Facility vaporize my carefully crafted illusions. The 20-dollar necklace from Target feels heavy in my pocket.
I don’t think I’m lying when I tell Lill everything here is because of her — isn’t it the sweet, pure souls like hers that keep the world spinning on its axis? And if poor vision and failing memory have given me the opportunity to transform my wife from a victim of dementia wasting in an old-age home during what I thought would be our golden years together into the matron of her mansion, should I not take advantage? Candice and the other nurses are more than happy to play along; I just wish I could afford one more bed here, so I didn’t have to leave her every night.
I look back to answer her.
“I wish you could come with me Lill. Oh, how I wish you could.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 776)
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