“I’m sorry, Mr. Lewis, I don’t know what it is you think I can do for you. There is no money to be had from your reverse mortgage. I understand this is a difficult time for you and here is a list of agencies that might be able to assist in your situation. There is nothing I can do for you.” The lady at the bank smiled as she handed him the department on aging’s list of contacts for assistance, of which he had at least thirty copies of at home.
No one said they would live so long. No one said that being old would be so painful, so stressful, so cold. It was getting to the point that his bright and shiny bride of 63 years, was deteriorating rapidly and the doctors were piling on the expense of caring for her. He stiffened as he reached to open the door to leave the bank. He had to hurry home and give her medication but he didn’t have enough in the bank to pay for all of it. He knew which pills were most important but those were the most expensive. He had hoped that he could have gotten the money he needed from the bank but that was a bust.
Grace had been his rock. She had raised their children, cooked, cleaned and lavished him with a friendship he never knew was possible. He hated knowing that his only option was to let her down and allow her to suffer just a little more with each passing month. He hadn’t even told her that he had already sold the car. He couldn’t admit how bad and hard it really was becoming. He just could not imagine it getting any worse.
Walking to the pharmacy, he was reminded of how vibrant Grace had been through their lives. She was the sunshine that illuminated even the darkest of times. He had to walk past the dilapidated theatre they used to attend every Saturday night. The condition of the theatre seemed to mirror the state that Clayton was in, massive disrepair, broken windows, trash piling up in the corners. It made him long for the heyday of the theatre. It was their escape, back in the day. Nothing got in the way of Grace dressing for the theatre. No matter what was going on in their lives, they joyously clung to the hope sold at that theatre. He recalled taking Grace to the movies after learning of the loss of their oldest son in Vietnam. He couldn’t remember the movie that played that night but he remembered her laughter and smile. How it had reassured them both that not only was their son safe and at peace but that they would survive his loss.
Clayton wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep it together for Grace. He had never been as strong or as positive as she was. He marveled at the strength of her heart, despite all of her health problems. He just wasn’t sure how much longer he could go on pretending he was strong. He knew it was a farce. He knew the lies he was telling her would soon crumble before both of them. He was envious of Grace’s eternal optimism. She could take anything and spin it into gold. They didn’t make them like they used to. Even their two daughters, were just a pale reflection of their mother.
Clayton looked up at the busted sign over their old haunt and sighed. He realized that what they were living was just a holding pattern for death. He always thought that it would be her that would mourn him. Now, he wasn’t sure what tomorrow would bring other than cereal for supper and pills for dessert. He was trying to convince himself that what they had left was still worth fighting the good fight for or if maybe the good fight had another path.
He reached for the door of the pharmacy and stumbled as he entered. Fred was behind the counter. That meant he would have to make up some excuse for just getting enough for Grace to get by to the second Wednesday of the month. His mind was spinning with a myriad of reasons and excuses. He had tried to get enough money but failed. How could he get out of here without Fred knowing he was such a pathetic loser that couldn’t even provide the necessities for Grace, beautiful, sweet Grace? The only companion Clayton had ever known. He had tried holding a job but between his difficulty in moving at least as quickly as the slowest kid at the store and caring for Grace, it just wasn’t an option. He looked down at the crumpled list in his hand from the lady at the bank knowing the exact number of hours he had wasted filling out forms and applying for help only to be turned away because of some insignificant rule come up with by some heartless suit in DC.
He threw it in the trash as he reached into his back pocket and decided to say nothing to Fred and just write a hot check for Grace’s medicine. He had decided what needed to be done. The hot check he was writing would be the least of his worries after tomorrow. There was really no other option that he could discern. He bit down on the inside of his lower lip as Fred happily handed him Grace’s pills and gave Clayton the total of $2,898.63. Clayton filled in the check and took the package off the counter. He swiftly exited the pharmacy to avoid giving any indication of what he intended to do.
As soon as Clayton rounded the corner into the neighborhood, he began to allow a few small tears to fall from his eyes. He shook off these as pity for himself. It was a kindness he intended to do. He knew how painful it was to be Grace. He knew how tired she was of being here. He knew that their daughters might hate him but he knew of no other option. It was painfully obvious to Clayton that what they were living was no life at all and that when the money was gone there was nothing left to do.
The rough grey sidewalk crumbled beneath his life worn shoes. He could almost see the concrete sparkle in the sunlight. He could see the kids as they were little, avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, laughing and reveling in the delight of the contest. He could scarcely see a faint image of Grace in the garden tending to her row of Peace roses. As he looked up at the home they’d shared all these years that was now owned by Uncle Sam, he shrugged at the last of Grace’s Peace rosebushes. It had vibrant, glowing emerald, gold and red leaves. He wasn’t as good at caring for them as Grace was. He spotted one blooming flower in amongst the foliage.
Clayton rushed over to view the first bloom on Grace’s rosebush. He dropped the bag of medicine and reached into his deep pocket to retrieve his pocket knife to remove the bloom that he might bring a smile to her face. Her smiles were Clayton’s currency. There was nothing he enjoyed more in life than to see her happy and smiling. He deftly grabbed the stem and removed the thorns before cutting it. He grabbed the bag and walked briskly into their home.
He went immediately to the curio cabinet in the front room and selected a deep blue glass vase for Grace’s first rose of the season. The colors of yellow and pink swelling into a divine peach hue in the slender, cobalt blue vase took Clayton back to the sunrise they shared after he proposed to her. He had never understood religion until her and he worshipped her everyday of their now, too long lives. He was so tired of being on the altar waiting for the time to be done.
He went into the kitchen. It was never as nice as it had been. It was a little more dingy, a little more run down. Clayton reminded himself that he did his best and Grace was just a magical creature that saw fit to hang around with him. Their situation weighed heavy on Clayton’s 89 year old heart. He filled the vase with water while trying to cover up his deep despair. He placed the rose under the running water, just like he had watched Grace do numerous times before. He cut the stem. He gently removed three sets of leaves and placed his offering in the water. He looked out the kitchen window. There was something else she did. He couldn’t quite recall. What was it she did? He stared off into the sky searching his mind for what Grace had done with roses all these years. He spilled out some of the water into the sink and placed the vase on the kitchen counter. He looked up at the clock. It was 11:30. She would be up from her morning rest soon.
The ringing of the phone startled Clayton out of his racing thoughts. He reached over and grabbed the house phone. “Lewis residence. This is Clayton” he sighed at the futility of it all.
“Mr. Lewis, this is Theresa with United Way. I was calling to inform you that we have reached our budget limit for assistance with prescriptions this year but we encourage you to reapply at the end of the year to ensure that your application is closer to the top of the list next year. Again, I apologize that we could not provide assistance for you at this time. There’s always next year.”
“Oh, okay. Well, thank you for your time.” His grip on the phone loosened and he looked down the hall to where Grace was still sleeping. “You have a nice day, Theresa. Thank you.” He thought to himself what was he thanking her for. She hadn’t helped them at all. As a matter of fact, it was the same response he got everywhere. There were always so many that needed much more than they did. He knew that they were just disposable. Their time had come and gone. He gathered together her pills and got a glass of water. He placed them on a tray. He took the vase and gently set it on the tray.
He straightened himself out and walked towards the bedroom. Sometimes, he would brace himself for finding that she had left without him. Now, he settled himself for the long drawn out battle their life had become. The hall always seemed longer when he could hear her stirring awake. He hated that he couldn’t help her. The best he could do was go on and move through the quiet, dark moments just to give her a small semblance of security. He hated that he couldn’t tell her how bad it really was for them.
He gave one last look at the tray as he was about to open the door. “Shit! I forgot the toast! We have no bread. Let alone butter or marmalade to put on it. She would be awake soon and needed to eat something with all that medicine.” He quickly went back into the kitchen. He looked in the fridge for something, anything. There was a half of an Ensure that she had not finished from last week. He doubted that would be good. There was an old beaten up carton of eggs. Maybe, there would be something in there. He opened it and spied a single egg with splintered cracks leading to an open top. It had frozen. No dice. He closed the refrigerator.
He walked over to his snack drawer. As he opened it, he could hear Grace beginning to call for him from the room. He left it open without having even glanced in the drawer. He had to go. She needed him to get her to the bathroom, dress her for the rest of the day and get her pills.
He moved as quickly as his tired bones could carry him because Grace didn’t like to not be able to do for herself and if he wasn’t right there when she had to go it would be a disaster. She would do it herself and that never came out okay.
He burst into the room just as she was struggling to sit herself up on the bed. “Dear, these adult diapers are so uncomfortable. They’re all bunched up and wet and Oh, Lordy, the smell!”
“I know sweetheart. I know. I’ll help you out. We can get them off and get you dressed and ready for the day.” All those years that her hands changed diapers, this was Clayton’s penance for being a better provider than helper. He knelt down next to her on the floor by the bed.
She smiled as she placed her arthritic, crumpled hand on his shoulder. Her limbs were so thin, so frail. Clayton was in wonder with how long she had held on to this torture. Her face was gaunt. He knew that she really needed more than toast and cereal for nourishment. All their lives, she had needed more than what Clayton felt he was capable of giving.
Grace never saw Clayton with such judgmental eyes. He was her champion. He was what kept her clinging to what little life she seemed to have left. She recalled being young and beautiful, demanding that he live right because she wanted her fifty years with him. There was no option for her. She insisted that he give her at least fifty years. They were now more than a decade past her requirement.
Clayton looked up and noticed a glow emanating from her weary blue eyes. He marveled that at even this late in life she had never lost color in her bright blue eyes. He knew she lived for him. He knew that her heart beat for both of them and as long as he was there she would remain. He delicately removed her pajama pants and ripped the sides of her diaper so he could remove it without her having to move too much.
As he scooted her legs around to the edge of the bed, he just gazed into her eyes. He helped her to stand and began the long walk to their bathroom. He sat her on the toilet with care not to set her down too hard.
“I’m okay, dear. I think I would like to wear my pink cashmere sweater with those soft tan pants Tracy gave me for my birthday last year, if you don’t mind.” She looked up at him, smiling.
“I can get that together for you while you’re busy. I like the way you look in that. That would be nice for today. I have a little surprise for you on your tray for today. Would you like to take it in bed or do you feel like being in the living room after we’re done?”
“Oh, darling, that sounds so nice. I’m excited to see what it is. You are always so good and faithful to me. Thank you.”
Clayton left her to gather her clothes for the day and retrieved the tray. He set the tray on their dresser, in case she decided to stay in bed for the day. On decent days she might go to the living room for the rest of the day but if her body was extra vicious to her she would remain in the bedroom. Her bedroom days were becoming the norm as time and her diseases increased. Clayton was grateful for all of the days they were able to share. He just hated himself for how this was all coming in around them.
He took her pink cashmere sweater off the hanger and tried not to let his rough calloused hands snag on the soft fabric. He went to the dresser and took out the pants she requested. He gathered a pair of panties and bra to go with her clothes. Then he took a dusty bottle of Anais Anais perfume and lightly spritzed her ensemble. He inhaled the intoxicating scent she rarely went without.
He peeked into the bathroom and saw her struggling to gather a small amount of toilet paper to wipe with. “Let me get that for you. That’s my job, now don’t take it from me.”
She giggled and replied “You caught me. I thought it would take you longer to get that sweater for me. I was trying to do it myself. You already do so much for me as it is. I am so blessed to have such a gentle man to care for me.” She relented her effort and allowed him to clean her up.
He helped her out of the bathroom to the chair beside the bed. He helped her step into her panties and then her pants. He knew she would be mortified if he set her on the chair without them. He helped her into the bra and leaned her slightly forward to clasp the hooks. She smiled at him remembering how much trouble Clayton had always had attempting to get her out of her bra. The irony of the ease at which he seemed to move putting a bra on her, tickled her.
The sweet smell of her perfume delighted her. He had always been so thoughtful. She was in awe with how kind he had been to her. This was how he had always been with her. It was then that she noticed the beautifully bright bloom sitting quietly in her favorite vase. Its colors magically transporting her through time and pain, to a place that existed only in her heart, now. The deep blue of the vase, the vibrant green of the stem and the swirling, intermingling yellows, pinks and peaches were near identical to the morning he had given her the world. It melted all her pain, stress and uplifted her to a plain of near heavenly bliss.
With a quick flash of electric fire, screaming from her shoulder blade to her neck, she was violently ripped from memory to reality. “Oooh! Ouch, ouch, ouch! Damnit, that smarts!” Grace grimaced with the intensity of the pain.
“Shhh. Shhh. I know. I know. Almost done. Almost done. I just have to get your other arm in the sweater. Do you need to take a moment? I don’t want to hurt you. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Grace.” He stopped trying to put her sweater on.
“No, I know you’re not hurting me. It’s my arthritis. It’s just hard. Sometimes it’s just so immense.” She bit her bottom lip, adjusted in her seat, lifted her arms as high as she could and leaned her head on Clayton’s belly to try and hide the tears that came from that kind of pain. She had never wanted Clayton to feel bad for her circumstances. It wasn’t his fault that she was ill but she knew that he carried her condition around much like Sisyphus and his rock. She hated anything that would remind them of how bad things really were. Clayton finished dressing her and gave her the water and her pills.
“That rose looks stunning. Is it one of ours?” she tried to get Clayton’s mind off of her suffering.
“Oh, yes, sweetheart. I picked it on my way in the house from the pharmacy.” His wrinkled face began to lighten. “I saw it and knew that you just had to have it to know I hadn’t killed all of your roses.”
“It is so lovely! I still can’t believe that any of them survived at all! I’m so blessed to have such a devoted husband. Thank you. That has certainly lifted my spirits. You are such a chivalrous man!” She stretched out her thin, gnarled arms toward him. He obliged her and bent to accept her embrace.
He lifted her from the chair and carried her into the living room to the couch they sat on during her good days. Clayton decided this would be a good day for Grace. She was so light. He could tell that she was continuing to lose weight. These last twenty years of caring for Grace, he was in tuned to even the slightest change in any of Grace’s statistics. So, this had to be a good day but for Grace. Not for him, his heart was way too heavy with what he had done earlier and what would be necessary for him to remedy the situation.
After placing her on the couch and turning on the television, he went back into the kitchen to look for something she could eat with her medication. In the back corner of his snack drawer was a half-eaten pack of peanut butter and cheese crackers. He took them and got a small plate from the cupboard. He placed two crackers on the plate. He went to the bedroom and got the tray with her water, pills and the rose.
It was almost 2 in the afternoon. He set the tray on a stand in front of her and turned the channel to the same talk show they watched every afternoon. He sat down next to Grace and squeezed her knotted hand.
She looked at her caretaker, her husband and her friend. “I don’t think either of us expected it to be like this. I know I insisted on getting my fifty but I’m no longer interested in racking up years. I’m so tired, Clay. I know you’re tired, too. I never expected to be such a burden. This has got to come to an end at some point.”
Clayton was caught off guard by Grace’s words. She had never complained to him before. He didn’t see what he did for her as a burden. It was his duty. It was getting more and more difficult. It certainly wouldn’t improve. “Grace you can’t really mean what you’re saying. Can you? I mean, yeah, it is difficult but since when has life been anything but? I love you and want you to know that you are not a burden. You’re not! All right? You’re just not and I won’t have you go on like that!”
“I’m just tired of going to bed and waking up disappointed that I have one more day to deal with. I know that’s wrong. I don’t have the strength to do anything silly but I just keep questioning what this torture is for. You love me but I see it in your eyes. The worry, stress, all of it. You know this doesn’t make sense to you, either.”
“Grace, I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what to do. I just want to make sure that whatever we have left is at least as good as we can make it. You are my soul. I love you more with every day. You have never been a burden.”
The day went on with Clayton and Grace sitting in silence watching their appointed shows. Clayton wrestled with what Grace had said. He knew that he had painted himself in a corner with the pharmacy. He wanted to tell Grace how bad it really was but she depended on him to make life better. Sixty years with someone, he just couldn’t do what she had seemed to be asking him to do. Was she asking him to do that? What about making this a good day for her? He had bungled it all and had given them no options.
The hours seemed paced to drive Clayton crazy. It was finally five o’clock. He could go into the kitchen and prepare their cereal dinner. He took and poured her a small bowl of corn flakes. He drizzled a tiny amount of honey. He had to dilute a can of evaporated milk to pour on their cereal. He got her pills together with a glass of water and brought it out to her in the living room.
While they were eating, he kept thinking of how he could give her some tiny bit of pleasure, so she didn’t feel so disappointed about being a burden and partly out of guilt for even considering the option she had placed before him. His mind sorted through sixty some years of their lives together to find something small and simple. Then it struck him. A memory of three tiny children pounding on the bathroom door pleading for their beloved mother to allow them entrance. A headstrong Grace refusing to respond, mostly because she could scarcely hear the cries of her young brood over the water giving birth to luxuriously sweet smelling bubbles. Yes, she might take delight in a nice warm bubble bath.
After they had finished supper, he asked her “Grace, how about I go and run you a bubble bath? That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, Clay, that sounds lovely. I think I would like that very much. You are so thoughtful.” She smiled at him sweetly and with such warmth.
He felt such guilt for even contemplating giving in to the thoughts of their declining value. He stood up from the couch and went to prepare the most wonderful bath he could.
Sitting next to her while she was in the tub his heart ached with the knowledge of what he had to do. Was this a betrayal of her? Of them? Of their children? What else could he do? He could see her standing in front of him, not as she was now, but as his young bride. She was so beautiful. She was so vibrant and smart. He had never been able to understand why she had selected him. Now, he was going to do this.
He eased the washcloth over her supple wrinkles. Then he instructed her to ease her head backward and gently washed her long silver hair. He knew she kept it long to please him. He knew that she would much rather have it short. That was one of the many tiny things that he adored about her. How could he even consider this? This was wrong. He would surely be damning himself to an eternity in hell, wouldn’t he? All of the things that she had given him. He couldn’t manage to do this small thing for her? Or was he hearing what he wanted to hear? What kind of selfish pig was he? He was a pig for considering it and a cold hearted bastard for not.
This wasn’t something you do to the one you have loved for an entire lifetime. This was cold, calculated. It was not a well-reasoned response. The only person it would serve would be himself. He couldn’t do it. He would have to face the music for what he did today. That would leave her to suffer at the hands of a nursing home. The nightly news was full of horror stories of Grace’s kind being abused and neglected at the state run homes. After all of this, he couldn’t tolerate the thought of her being treated that way. She deserved more, so much more. Clayton had nothing left. He had given his all. The thoughts raced through his mind as he shed a tear while rinsing the shampoo from her hair.
He then helped her out of the bath. She was so small and fragile, now. He helped to dry her off and softly rubbed lotion into her skin. He noticed how near transparent it had become. She was so delicate. He was afraid to apply too much pressure against her frail frame.
“I am so thankful for such a wonderful evening. If I were a spryer young woman, you’d be in trouble.” She smiled at him slyly. She had always enjoyed Clay’s company. He was so handsome, even now. She yearned for the ability to respond to his kindness with her own special way. That was long ago. She and Clay were more cuddle buddies with her multiple medical issues. Their lives were more about maintaining and trying not to slip up.
He put her robe on. Grace noticed the warmth. Clay had just got it out of the dryer. He was always so attentive and thoughtful. He helped her over to her chair next to their bed. He plugged in a hair dryer and began brushing and drying her hair. He remembered when it was a rich, deep chestnut. Now, it was strands of silver floss. He checked the dryer to make certain it was just on warm. Grace couldn’t tolerate it too hot or too cold.
Clay was trying to make Grace’s night a special one. He was terrified of talking with her. He was certain that if he opened his mouth, his emotions would overwhelm him and he would just crumble into a blathering mess. He still didn’t want to even consider what he thought he might have to do. He just wanted this day to end as a good day for Grace. When her hair had finished drying, Clay put the hair dryer in a drawer in the bathroom. He looked down at the brush in his hand. It was like an old time Christmas tree, covered in tinsel. He pulled the hairs out of the bristles and deposited them in the trash. He thought about how he could just throw all he had away. He couldn’t do it. He immediately felt nauseated and dizzy. He grabbed the countertop to steady himself.
His world was increasingly caving in on him. He just didn’t know what to do. He knew that he could not abandon Grace in such a vulnerable state. He knew that she was tired of suffering. He could see as her strength continually slipped away. He gathered up her pajamas and helped her into them.
He went and made her favorite coffee, lots of sugar, cream and just a splash of Frangelico. Well, maybe a little more than a splash for tonight. When he put the liquor in the cabinet, he took a swig out of his bottle of Crown Royal. “Might as well” he thought. He chased it with a test sip of her coffee. “Ooh, yuck! Way too sweet for me.” He shook his head as he gathered her pills the rose in her favorite vase and placed all of them on her tray.
“You are so precious to me. You know that. Grace, I’ll never know why you picked me. The fact is you did. I am forever indebted to you for all that we’ve shared.” He could feel his throat tighten and the tears were just on the verge of showing. He scrambled to busy himself with getting her dressed for bed.
“Clay, you picked me, silly. I don’t recall there ever being a day that I was disappointed to be in your presence. I know this is harder than anything we’ve been through. I don’t think it would be possible for anyone besides me to be okay with suffering so. You have made it easier. I have adored you from the first moment. I’m so tired and so ready to go home. I know it’s not for me to decide. I wish it were but it’s not. I love you, dear, sweet Clay.” Her gnarled hands reached out to touch Clay’s.
Clay rubbed the top of her hands. He was so unsure in the kitchen but now, with Grace’s words loudly moving through the memories of their lives. He knew that to honor all Grace had meant to him and their children, she needed to go home. Not the home they had shared through all the crazy decades, but their real home. The one abided by their Creator. The one with loved ones passed awaiting the reunion. The home where Grace’s strength would be returned to her and where her pain would be erased. He watched as she chased her pills with a gulp of her evening coffee.
She smiled as the flavors of sweet hazelnut, coffee and cream danced about her mouth and tongue. “Absolutely, divine. Thank you. I’m ready for bed now. It has been a really good day for me, today. How about you?”
“Grace, it has been sublime.” He slipped her quietly beneath the sheets. He checked to make sure she had taken all of her medicine as he leaned down to kiss her lips. He held his breath and hoped she wouldn’t take note of the fact that he went for her lips as opposed to her forehead, which had become the norm. He could feel her lips curl into a laughing smile under his. She didn’t mind the change. She knew that his intent was to give her a better day.
Clay put himself into bed next to her and waited for her sleeping pills to kick in. He felt as if his brain and heart were in a race to see which would explode first. This was wrong. It was murder. Cold, calculated, premeditated murder. That was not how you love someone. Not at all. What was wrong with him? She would do just fine without him. He couldn’t be certain that she’d be abused if he were to go to jail for the hot check. He wanted to pace the floor but that would be out of the ordinary and alert Grace to something being wrong. He didn’t even know if he had bullets. He laid there waiting for her to drift away to a happy dream that way she wouldn’t know what happened.
While he began to hear her snore, his mind flashed through their wedding, the day and the night, the birth of their three children, every anniversary date, every birthday, every Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve midnight kiss. The tears coming so fast and fierce that he could scarce open his eyes to sneak from their bed.
He quietly moved from the bed to their closet and retrieved the pistol he used to shoot targets when he was younger and angrier. He trembled as he fought to load the chamber. Just one, if I can’t get it in one then it wasn’t meant to happen. Clay was daring God to interfere much like the story of Abraham and his son Isaac. This was not his job. This was not what a gentleman does. She loved him. He loved her. This was the greatest conundrum he had ever faced. A few bullets spilled to the floor as he fumbled with the box.
He took a deep breath and still could not cease his involuntary trembling. He shuffled silently to her side of the bed. He watched as she lay before him. God, she was so beautiful. She began to stir but her eyes remained closed. Clay knew that she had horrible muscle spasms at night but it startled him so much that he almost dropped the gun. He became instantly aware that not only was he shaking uncontrollably but his body was quickly drowning in sweat.
Just as he was about to cancel his attempt Grace’s hand reached out to his empty hand and her eyes opened. He thought that she was about to scold him but her voice never faltered and was clear.
“Clay, I’m tired and ready to go home. I’ll wait for you to come home. Thank you for everything. I love you, dear Clay.” she squeezed as hard as her arthritic hand would allow and shut her eyes as he placed the barrel to her temple and pulled the trigger.
He fell to the floor and wept. “I’m sorry, Grace. I love you.”