I’m ashamed. It wasn’t my intent to neglect you. Really.
I was charmed by short stories contests and I needed all those ideas in hopes of getting published. I know, it was hurtful to ignore you for so long, but there is good news. I did get published and now I can share my winning entries with you. See, good things come from change. And now that I’m back, I’ll be sharing more often. I hope they make you smile.
Sincerely, Diane M. How
This short story was published in the 2014 Saturday Writer’s Anthology, UNDER THE SURFACE, Anthology #8.
I noted my morning appointment on the calendar. The fine print underneath my scribble caught my attention. Valentine’s Day. It probably would have slipped by unnoticed had I not checked my schedule.
Amorous fantasies of this holiday had faded into reality sometime during our 40-plus years of marriage. Perhaps its complacency or indifference, whatever, but a simple exchange of a box of candy or a purchased card usually marks the occasion.
But, romanticism is incurable. While the sea appears calm, under currents are never still. Dreams, as translucent as they are, swirl just below the surface, waiting to be resurrected. My romantic dream involves a scripted poem or a passionately profound thought, penned on linen paper, left on my pillow or tucked somewhere unexpected.
With my empty coffee cup placed in the already cluttered sink, I grabbed my coat and looked for my husband to say goodbye.
“I’ll wash those when I get back,” I nodded toward the kitchen.
“Ok. Be safe.” He gives me a quick peck before trailing off into the computer room.
Guess he didn’t remember either, I reason. A deep sigh escaped my lips while I buckled the seat belt and pondered the dispassionate parting. Even our kisses had faded to a mere brush of our lips. I tried to remember the last time we’d hugged.
The thought dissipated when Willie Nelson’s voice echoed through the radio speakers. You Were Always on My Mind. The song always makes me cry, so I pushed the scan button and searched for a distraction.
I pulled into the driveway of the couple I’ve come to visit and opened the car door. The wicked, cold wind blew the notepaper from my hand, but I quickly caught it before it got away. I grumbled under my breath while I fought to untangle the graying strands that whipped across my face as I walked to the entrance of the brick bungalow.
“Good morning, Mr. Smith.” I said to the slightly built fellow when he opened the aging red door. “Just wanted to drop by for a short visit to see how you’re doing.”
“Please, please, come in out of the cold.” The elderly man ushered me in and closed the door. I followed him as he shuffled past the antiquated brown couch into the tidy family room where his wife rested in a medical reclining chair.
“Look who came to see us. It’s the hospice volunteer that called earlier.” He grinned at the woman he had spent 67 years adoring. I couldn’t help but notice the difference in their size. Mrs. Smith outweighed her husband by at least 30 pounds. How did he manage to get her into the chair, I wondered?
“Good morning Mrs. Smith. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
The woman’s eyes darted in my direction then quickly returned to study the loose thread that dangled from the soft purple quilt wrapped around her legs.
“Oh, my.” Mr. Smith clasped his wrinkled forehead. “I completely forgot. I’m not very good at remembering those things. I should’ve bought her some flowers.” The man berated himself as he leaned over and kissed the woman’s cheek. “I’m sorry honey,” his voice barely audible.
“Habada, habada, habada, habada, habada.” The robust woman smiled as she loudly proclaimed her repetitive gibberish reply. She might be unintelligible but she’s seldom silent, I thought.
“Can you understand her?” The 93-year-old’s voice paled in comparison to the volume coming from his wife. His eyes pleaded with me to explain what she said.
Mr. Smith stroked his wife’s hand gently while he waited on my reply.
“Not really, but I think she forgives you. Look at that beautiful smile.”
The man took a deep breath, patted his wife’s shoulder and wandered toward the kitchen.
“Sometimes, she seems happy, like today. Other times, she fusses like she’s angry and her chant is more like an argument with herself, or maybe the disease.” The old man’s voice quivered with emotion as he spoke.
“It must be difficult not knowing what she’s trying to say.”
I looked up at the framed certificate on the wall, recognition from a prominent senator for Mrs. Smith’s efforts as chairwoman of his campaign. Next to it hung a plaque engraved with stellar remarks for her accomplishments as an instructor of English as a second language.
Every room was adorned with paintings created by Mrs. Smith. On either side of the cherry wood china cabinet were two exquisitely detailed landscapes she painted while in Germany. A portrait of a Japanese emperor was suspended over the piano.
Pleasant reminders of yesteryears, of happy times before Alzheimer’s disease invaded her brain and slowly stole away her ability to function independently. It was an eleven year battle nearing the end.
“Can I help you?” I asked as I watched Mr. Smith begin the daily routine.
“No. I can manage,” he insisted.
The frail man picked up a plastic medicine bottle and studied it carefully before removing the cap. He placed a pill in a ceramic bowl and then repeated the effort three more times. Next, he prepared some instant oatmeal for the microwave.
“At least let me fix her scrambled egg.” I suggested.
“No. I know just how she likes it. I have to stick to my routine or I’ll forget something.”
His eyes lingered on the microwave oven as if he was trying to decide which buttons to push. I worried about the inevitable. How much longer could he care for her in the home without more assistance?
I looked at the large metal contraption that consumed most of the dining room floor. It looked like an oversize sling shot. It was another sign that the disease was progressing rapidly. “I see the medical lift arrived. Will you be able to learn how to use it?”
“The nurse told me not to touch it. She said it’ll help the staff when they give her a shower or move her from the bedroom to the chair.” He muttered in a defeated voice.
“But if you can’t use it yourself, how are you going to get her up every day and then back to bed in the evening? You’re going to need to make other arrangements soon.” It was a subject I hated approaching as much as the man hated hearing.
“I’ll find a way.” The proud man pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and lifted his glasses to dab his eyes.
The despondent look made me decide to table the discussion.
Mr. Smith wheeled his wife into the kitchen and secured her chair next to the table. He picked up the bowl with the pills in it and using a pestle, he pulverized the contents into a white powder. He then mixed all of it into some applesauce.
His wife continued to jabber as the proud man fed her each spoonful until every drop was scraped from the bowl. Next, he tested the oatmeal with his lips to be sure it was the right temperature and consistency. I felt like an intruder watching their intimate ritual.
I search for a new subject to discuss. I decide my romantic curiosity needed to hear their love story again.
“How did you meet your wife?”
“We both grew up in small towns in southwest Missouri, not too far from each other. I was home on leave from the Army and my buddy told me about this diner, so I decided to try it out. The misses strolled over to my booth, chewing gum and holding a pencil in one hand and a note pad in the other. She had on a white pinafore apron and her curly red hair was tucked behind her ear.” His eyes glistened as he spoke. He paused to gently wipe a napkin across the woman’s lips.
“When I ordered toast and eggs, she scowled at me and told me I needed to gain some weight.” He chuckled as he told the story. “Those emerald green eyes hooked me and she pretty much ran the show ever since.” He brushed his hand across her cheek.
I pointed to the collage of pictures hanging on the wall.
“You were an officer in the Army?”
“I was an airplane pilot During World War II. She spent a lot of lonely days and nights worrying about being a widow. But she never complained. When the Korean War began, I flew a helicopter. She wrote to me every day. That’s what got me through each week.”
He nodded his head and glanced back toward his wife. “We had some good times too. She loved Germany and Japan. She even learned to speak German and a little Japanese. I think sometimes she speaks German when she’s talking. She loved being an officer’s wife. It wasn’t always easy, but she stayed by me through it all.”
“I can see how much you love her. It shows in the way you fix her meals and give her the meds, even in the way you touch her so tenderly.”
“She took care of me for more than 50 years. She kept me on schedule and made sure I remembered people’s names. I couldn’t have done it without her.” He gazed into her eyes as he spoke.
“I never told her how much I appreciated it. I often forgot her birthday. I seldom sent her flowers, never had a romantic bone in my body. But I love her and hope she knows it. Now, it’s my turn to take care of her,” he said as he brushed her thinning silver hair. “I just hope I’m doing it half as well as she did.”
His soft spoken words made the tears spill from my eyes. There it was. Love in its most powerful form. Tested and true. Unwritten. Unspoken. Unconditional love.
I cleared my throat and wiped my eyes. “Actions speak louder than words. You’re doing just fine.” I reassured the gentleman as I prepared to leave. He walked me to the door and I gave his hand a gentle squeeze.
The morning replayed in my mind as I drove home. No flowers, no candy, no card. Yet, the profound love I had just witnessed left an imprint on my heart and inspired me to make a detour before going home.
A short time later, I pulled into the garage and gathered the grocery bags out of the back seat. As I climbed the stairs of our split level house, I heard my husband get up from the couch and meet me at the top of the stairs.
“You went shopping?” he asked.
“Thought I’d fix us some steaks and potatoes for dinner tonight.” I replied as I put the items away.
“Sorry, I forgot to wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day before you left,” he said.
The sun reflected on the shiny, clean counter top. I glanced toward the sink and noticed the dishes had disappeared and the floor had been mopped. I smiled to myself.
I drew him close and the unexpected passionate kiss I planted on his lips brought a smile to his face. “I was going to say thanks, but actions speak louder than words,” I said as I took his hand and led him into the bedroom.