He walked away from the casket, his heart heavy and his spirit weary. Did he do the right thing?
“She is happy now.” Someone said to him last night at the viewing.
Yes, he thought, she can be happy. Now that her soul is free and her mind released from the torture we call Alzheimer's. An unexpected pain pricked at his heart. Wasn’t she happy before? Wasn’t she happy with me? he wondered and the pain increased.
Surely there were enough moments they shared that made her happy. A frown creased his forehead, he already knew the answer to that. If she had had any happy moments over the past ten years they were only memories of her childhood relived.
She was happy with her daddy. No happy moments had been shared with her husband, her children, or the grandchildren that she never got to know. At the end, she barely even knew who he was.
So, she is happy now, he thought again, a renewed pain spiked his heart, this one different. This one a pain that he had become all too familiar with lately. But shouldn’t he be happy now too? The weight of that question had settled heavy on his chest and he found it hard to breathe.
His feet shuffled along the ground. Heartsick and feeling broken he hadn’t the strength to lift them as he walked into his house. The home they no longer shared. The wheelchair met him at the bedroom door, the pillow in the seat still molded to her frail form. Empty now.
He stared at it. She had spent most of her last months in that chair. Unaware of whether she was with him in their room listening to the music that seemed to soothe her, or in the kitchen being encouraged to take ‘one more bite’ or drink just ‘one more sip’.
For another moment he stood there, then turned and walked into the kitchen. Wearily he sank down into a chair at the table. A tray of medicine bottles still remained in the place they had occupied for so many years. She hated taking those pills.
Why hadn’t he thrown them away yet? Getting her to swallow the drugs that kept her going was one struggle that had been eliminated when he made his decision several weeks before. No more tears or screaming or fighting when he gave them to her, or when the nurse tried to take her blood sugar before the daily insulin shots.
Could he admit that life had been easier for her, for him, without those trying moments? But he had only ever tried to do what was best for her. He shook his head. She was happier. And he felt the added pain of his relief that she never understood that he had not listened to her. Had ignored the conversation that they had years ago when her own mother was suffering from the same disease that later, almost inevitably, stole her from him.
“No heroics,” she said to him then. “If this happens to me, don’t do this. If I am not me I don’t want you to hang onto to what only used to be me.” He had nodded in response to her pleas. There were no words to say, to let her know how all of that made him feel.
She was far too young to have her life snatched out of her hands. Away from him. She started forgetting things. Small things. We all do - so it was easy to dismiss the signs. At least for him. Ignoring it was easy. But not for her, she knew what would happen, probably sooner than later.
Again she reminded him. “If I have to take drugs to keep me alive, I don’t want them.” The look in her eyes haunted him then, haunted him still. “Please,” she had said. “Remember what we talked about. I can’t bear the thought of becoming a burden to you. To the kids.”
But she was not a burden. No, he never thought that. Caring for her gave him a new perspective on life. A new purpose. He became proactive in enlisting the help of a whole team of caregivers for her. He kept schedules for doctors appointments, nurse visits, meals, administering her meds.
He kept her favorite music playing. He fed her each meal. They spent their days together. He loved her. She knew that, didn’t she?
On his 90th birthday, he fed her bites of his cake. Her birthday was to follow next month, he wondered if she would be here to celebrate it. She giggled with a mouthful of chocolate. Another birthday made her happy - her own - decades ago. He felt it then. She had left him behind again. Regressing into a world where he did not exist.
And he felt it. She was not happy. For years something he could never share often brought tears to her eyes and sudden fits of anger that somehow were immediately followed by her sweet girl-like laughter. The mood swings confused him. No, he would never understand where she went, what happened to her there.
So the rest of the day, his birthday, followed in that upsetting pattern. She was terrified when the nurse pricked her finger to test her blood. He fought back tears as she howled like a wounded animal when the insulin shot came. It was worse today. He felt it.
She smiled when he pulled the bed covers up to her neck and kissed her forehead. “Goodnight my love,” he said.
Her eyes sparkled. If she could speak she would say “daddy”. She smiled again.
He sat in his chair. Thinking. “I’ve been such a coward,” he muttered softly, finally admitting to himself that night that the problem was with him. He didn’t think he could live without her. And, after a sleepless night, he had made the decision. He kissed her again and picked up the phone.
The hardest thing he had ever done in his life was the one thing he knew she wanted from him. After more than ten years. After countless one-sided conversations. After recounting her words numerous times, he understood at last what she was saying. He had to let her go.
A few weeks later, on a quiet night, she fell asleep and never woke up. He watched her, as he did so often. She looked so peaceful, so calm, so happy. He cried all day.
Tears came to his eyes now. He had finally listened to her. She was happy now. He was alone. He stands and leaves the kitchen to sit down in one of the twin recliners in front of the TV. The black screen stares back at him but his mind is far away. Thinking. I was the last one to understand. That brought a new pain to his broken heart.
His son found him after the funeral. After the lovely dinner at the church. After most everyone else had left. “You doing okay dad?” he asked, sitting down next to his father.
He nodded, patting his son’s hand. No words could say how he was feeling right now. His son understood.
“She would’ve wanted it this way,” he said. They both nodded and sat in silence.
And he hoped that she was happy.