She lay on their unmade bed every day after work and for many hours on the weekends. On her right lay a brown plastic tray with a mug of coffee, usually cold, and a pear shaped ashtray full of butts. The yellow rotary phone sat on the nightstand to her left, easily accessible since she spent a lot of time gossipping with her friends.
Early on I nicknamed their bed “command central.” as several times a day she belted out, “Waaaaalt, followed by a one or two word command.’”
“Waaaalt . . . Coffee.”
“Waaaalt . . . Pack of Cigarettes.”
“Waaaalt . . . Pepsi.”
“Waaaalt . . . Snickers Bar.”
“Waaaalt . . . Charleston Chew.”
“Waaaalt . . . Has the mail come?”
He never complained. Every “phase” she went through he supported with a smile. When she suddenly decided to go garage sale-ing every weekend, he would get up early and drive her around. This was necessary because some time during my high school years she decided she was afraid to make left turns which resulted in her driving in different sized squares around our home but nowhere else.
When she said she wished she had an office he spent the day transforming the closet in their bedroom into a desk, putting up shelves beside it for all her books. She also received breakfast in bed for as long as I’ve been alive. I’m not sure if she asked for this, or if my dad just did it, but that was the norm. Anything mom wanted, dad did.
Mom often thought he didn’t love her because she wanted a husband who would bring her flowers, tell her she was beautiful, plan romantic trips and buy her jewelry. Ironically, she wasn’t a woman who wore jewelry, liked to travel or was very romantic herself.
She loved going to Reno to gamble, which my dad hated, but he always took her and though he didn’t gamble he would stay near in case she needed change or a coffee. It was amazing that she would get angry at my dad and feel hurt when he would get her a roll of quarters for their anniversary along with a card that simply said “Reno.” She sadly missed the subtleties of his love and devotion until much later.
I remember one time when she was in skilled nursing she complained because he had not done some “romantic” thing she wanted him to do – (he often missed her cues – like if she held her hand out to hold his hand he would pet the dog – or if she asked him if he loved her he wouldn’t answer – he is mostly deaf after all.) I asked her where she thought he would have learned how to be romantic and reminded her that he grew up in a ghetto in Shanghai after fleeing Austria. I’m fairly sure he never had an example of a husband bringing flowers home, or any of those types of things. I think a lightbulb when off for her when I said that; at least I hope it did – because my mom ended up with the most devoted partner I could ever imagine.
Three years ago my mother began to lose her memory. With time she has forgotten to ask my father to do things. Though he probably went deaf on purpose so he could stop waiting on her, (her Waaaalt calls were answered less frequently which pissed her off), he never did stop doing things for her because much of his purpose has always been to tend to her. He just responded slower.
Now he does things without being asked, but many things make her unhappy. If he brings her water she thinks he is trying to drown her. If he tells her to eat he is trying to make her fat. If he tells her to walk he is torturing her. If he tells her not to rub her eye he is yelling at her. Yet, when he goes to walk the dog she relapses into the 5 year old little girl whose dad went to work one day and never came back – and she looks at the door frightened he will never return. Though he truly is mostly deaf now, he probably wishes he could hear a “Waaaalt command” one more time. Her memory loss is upending him as he struggles to blindly anticipate her needs.
They live in an apartment in a retirement community and eat most of their meals in the dining room on site. They aren’t allowed to take home leftovers because management fears the “old people may forget the food is in the fridge and eat it after it has spoiled.” This really irks my parents who both grew up poor and pay an exorbitant amount for their meals.
My dad has a rebellious side and at every meal he sneaks two things out, always with a twinkle in his eye. He takes a plastic baggie from his pocket, places it on his lap and proceeds to drop things into it, accidentally . . . NOT. First, something for his dog and then the hard, red wax coating from the chunk of gouda cheese served on their cheese platter.
When he gets home, while they watch TV he takes the red wax and warms it in his hands, kneading it until it becomes soft and pliable. Once it is, he begins to craft the wax into an animal. His hands which have grown stiff over his 87 years and are no longer as nimble as they once were – work diligently – push the wax, pull the wax, shape it, hold it out so he can see it better, rework a piece – until it is perfect enough for him to feel a worthy gift for her. When he is finished he presents to her a new animal. This delights her and every time I visit she shows me the latest animal, sometimes a few times. So far this little menagerie includes a duck, two dogs, a swan, a pig, a chicken, a cat, a horse, and at least three types of snakes (which I suspect are the easiest to make.)
Things change over time, but somehow stay the same. She no longer spends most of her time in bed, but she does spend it in an electric recliner that helps her stand up. The tray has been replaced with a rolling tray table. A cup of coffee can still be seen on the table still usually cold, as well as the phone which she no longer knows how to use. The cigarettes are long gone but have been replaced by candy. “I like candy!” she often exclaims.
And next to those things is the little menagerie, his daily labor of love to the woman he promised to love til death do them part.
The menagerie lies on the dresser – at some point he stopped making animals because “he couldn’t think of any other animal to make – and an elephant would take a lot of wax.”
I got to watch my parents fall in love again these last few months. I had never really seen this side of them before.
I witnessed the most heartbreakingly tender words, moments and actions between my parents. Each act making me believe more and more in love that lasts forever. Their relationship was not always perfect or easy; there were times they almost gave up – but they forged through – and the reward was apparent.
Towards the end, she didn’t say much; her phrases were few and basic:
“I love you.”
“Where is Walter?” “I love Walter.” “Walter is my husband.” “When is Walter coming back?” “I don’t know where Walter is.”
Everything became about Walter. And for him, everything became about her. “Anna, please eat.” “Anna, you have to get up.” “Anna, work hard so you can come home.” “Anna, imagine all the fun we will have when you get home.”
She finally came home, and it wasn’t fun; but it was peaceful – more or less. The end came quickly and I think she passed happy.
Ironically, she took her last breath while he was out walking the dog.