I think you have to suffer in a hospital before you fear being in one. That or watch someone else suffer. Nursing homes are the same way. When I was younger, of course, I'd seen no such thing, so I put my hand upon the wall to feel the nubbly plastic coated wallpaper that ran along the hall of this assisted living home where an old friend of my parents lived with his wife. I trailed behind my four siblings who followed my parents down the sunlit hall. People talked in rooms, traversed the hall or just sat in stopped wheelchairs, enfolded in faded pajamas. The place was calm and pleasant. I didn't think of suffering. I didn't feel any fear.
What we did during the summers usually, and sometimes during the school year, too, was travel. Travel and sing. We'd come on this Sunday afternoon, to this clean and quiet place to sing to a retired minister and his wife. We filed into their room and after greeting them both, become bashfully aware that she was not all right. She had Alzheimer's disease. This was back when the country was becoming aware of what this Alzheimer's thing was, what it did, how it couldn't be stopped. A living death, many called it. A cruel and slow death, they said. Panic arose in the collective consciousness- the loss of control! The loss of dignity!
My brothers and sisters and I didn't understand what was happening to her, but we saw that she was childish and forgetful, sweet but set adrift. There was no calling her back it seemed. He sat beside her on the bed and held her hand. He told us about the progress of the disease and he told us about the progress of their love. "Sometimes when I tell her I love her, she smiles and says I love you, too. She can tell that she's loved. Even when she doesn't know for sure who I am." She smiled at him and then turned and gave the very same smile to all of us. For some reason, this was distressing to watch.
She could still go to the bathroom by herself and she did. But when she opened the door, she'd managed to pull her underwear back on, but not her pants. He said, "She forgets. I'll help her out." He closed the door for a moment and then led her out, still smiling at us. That smile still breaking our hearts.
We were dignified children for the most part. Raised by our parents to believe in a level of kindness and responsibility that would be foreign to many adults, not to mention children our own age. There were no rolled eyes or muttered comments between us. There would be no mocking discussion later. There was no doubt. We all stood in the same place. Sadness and tenderness were the two things filling us up just then.
We'd been brought to sing to her- to him, too, of course- but mainly to her. He'd asked us to sing. And we did try. But a few words into the first song, the thing was impossible, and words choking, tears rolling, we fell into silence. Not, I want you to understand this- not because we felt sorry for her, although, we did definitely feel sorry for her. We were crying because we were standing in front of probably the most gorgeous thing we'd ever seen in our lives. Heartbreakingly beautiful this thing was.
She was losing herself, day after day. She was going to be completely lost- even to herself. She would not know herself any longer. She would not know anyone who loved her any longer. And yet... he watched over her. He would not abandon her, nor would he take advantage of her weakness. He stood guard over her very life and would even when she was no longer aware of his love, of his protection. She was falling apart in front of him and yet she was safe. She could not be separated from his love. She could not be lost to it, even as she was losing her ability to know it. What we saw explained masculinity to us. What we saw even explained God.
We did sing for them, finally- because it was more important to give them something than to experience those overwhelming emotions fully just then. But we were quiet when we left. Most of us cried in the car on the way home.
His name was Reverend Boggs. I've forgotten her name. But I can't forget her. And that seems perfectly right, now that I think about it.
I wish you could have seen how she was loved.