Updated: Oct 14, 2020
What one man taught without even knowing he was doing it
A bird in a bookstore
He led her into the bookstore, moving slowly, pulling her with the hand that wrapped around her bony fingers. At first, I thought she was blind because of the odd way she turned her head, but it wasn’t that exactly. It was the way her neck twisted, gyrating her tiny, frail frame. The quick blinking of her vacant eyes. The nervous tension that vibrated out of her.
She was a tethered, wounded bird.
The man guided her, step by step, to a cafe table right next to ours. When they got closer, I realized this woman wasn’t blind at all. She was addled. Maybe not totally gone, but not quite right. As she tottered next to me, I watched a flicker of recognition spark in her eyes. For one instant, she recognized the bookstore. I could see it. But then in a flash, all understanding was gone and her eyes began that rapid blinking over a blank blue stare.
My husband and I sat at our table reading, but neither of us could concentrate. We were both watching this older man patiently take care of his wife. He moved her gently to her seat, making sure her bottom was lined up with the chair before he nudged her back to sit. He gently took off her shawl and laid it over the back of her chair. He opened a magazine in front of her before patting her hand and sitting down, facing her directly.
My powers of observation kicked in, and random thoughts proliferated. Like, “He must have ironed his pants himself.” I knew the woman couldn’t have done it, and crisp creased lines ran down the length of his khaki slacks. Maybe he had been in the military and the importance of a neat appearance had been drilled into his psyche. Maybe when the rest of his world was falling to pieces, his appearance was the one thing he could control. Maybe he filled his time with domestic duties like ironing to keep his mind off of his problems. Maybe he had lots of money and had people to help him: a maid to iron his clothes, a cook to fix his food, a nurse to care for his wife when he had to sleep.
My writer’s brain kept creating all sorts of possibilities for the details of his life when the gentleman leaned forward and smiled.
“Would you watch my Sadie while I get coffee?”
Of course, I would, although I admit to being rattled rattle me when he said,
“If she tries to run, just tell her that I’ll be right back.”
Sadie didn’t run, but she was nervous, turning her head this way and that. When her eyes landed on my face, I smiled — the warmest, most non-threatening, “I’m-here-to-help-you” smile I could muster.
My smile was not enough
Sadie put her palms on the table and began to stand up. I didn’t want to let the man down by letting her escape, so I reached out and patted the hand closest to me. Gently. Ever so gently. She sat down again, turning her head every which way, never focusing on anything. But at least she was sitting where she was supposed to be.
The man returned soon after, bearing a cup of coffee and a large oatmeal cookie that he broke into bits. One small crumble at a time, he lifted his big hands and dropped a morsel into Sadie’s open mouth. As he fed her, he talked.
“Sadie used to be a prominent artist. She was very good, and very well-known in the region.”
I struggled to connect this frightened bird-like woman with the image of a successful, creative artist, but I’m sure it was true. Age and dementia do terrible things to people. He was obviously very proud of his wife and her accomplishments. Maybe remembering what she used to be like helped him deal with what she was like now.
We were a willing audience, and he kept talking softly to us, commenting on the watercolors his Sadie had done, the exhibits she had, and how much they liked to come to the bookstore together.
He may have enjoyed this clean, safe place with other people around to talk to, but I doubted that being in a bookstore mattered at all to Sadie.
After a while, his conversation spent, the gentleman began to read. Sadie was sitting still. My husband reached under the table to hold my free hand. He, too, had felt the love and loyalty this husband showed to his wife.
But things changed from sweetness and light to darkness and distress
When I got up to get coffee, Sadie reached out and snatched my hand, like talons squeezing an unsuspecting rabbit. She began whispering fast. Then a little louder. Soon words were streaming out of her mouth as she held my hand in a death-like grip, murmuring,
“You’re so pretty. You’re so pretty. You’re so pretty. Oh, honey. I love you, honey. I love you. I love you, I love you!”
I wasn’t alarmed at her words, but I was freaked out by her actions. While her husband conversed with mine, Sadie clutched my hand — encased in her two surprisingly strong hands — and brought it her lips. Under the cover of her fingers, she began kissing my hand over and over. Wet, liquid smacks.
Sadie’s kisses became more aggressive, and with her mouth hidden behind her fingers, her behavior got more erratic. She was licking my fingers, long tongue laps down the length of my pointer. Then short, little kitten laps in the empty spots between digits. When I tried to pull back, she gripped even harder. Licking and slobbering turned to nipping.
This was a woman whose mind was in some netherworld where actions differed from those in this reality. I didn’t want to frighten her or humiliate her by jerking my hand away, but there was a limit to my compassion.
When she bit down on the first joint of my index finger, I squealed and yanked my whole arm backward, not caring that I might throw this demented little woman off her chair and onto the floor.
A glimpse of what unconditional love really means
This man was caring for his wife “through better or worse. In sickness and health.” He was performing acts of unbelievable love every day. Devoted. Patient. Kind. Always watchful. Never knowing what might happen next.
My husband and I were sobered and moved by the experience, each of us wondering if our love would be steadfast as the love of the gentleman in the bookstore. Even though we’d want to, would we have the fortitude to care for each other if we were affected by Alzheimer’s? Would we take care of each other while it was still physically possible without becoming bitter or depressed? Could we retain the sense of humanity that this man so obviously did?
Was he ever frightened? Frustrated? Did he ever sit down and cry? Did he think about putting her in a home where someone else could care for her? Did he contemplate giving up?
How hard his life must be.
How much he must love her.
How much I want to be like him.
Bless his soul.
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