Many years ago a friend and I met another friend for lunch. He’d retired early to care for his wife, who’d been stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s. A home health-care aide visited a few hours a week to stay with her, so he could buy groceries, pick up medicine, or get a haircut. On this day, he chose to use this valuable time to meet us at a restaurant.
They had several children, who never visited. They couldn’t bear seeing the woman who was no longer their mother, he said. He forgave them, but there was an edge of bitterness in his voice.
He knew something was wrong when he found a gallon of milk beneath the sink. The disease progressed quickly, and in a few short months the mother of his six children babbled incoherently, and was constantly in motion – pacing, trying to unlock the door, apparently unaware of her surroundings.
When I first met him, he worked at an automobile manufacturing facility in human resources, behind a steel desk. Once a month or so, we’d pile in my car and drive to his favorite restaurant, where he always ordered the same thing. I knew he liked me when we arrived and as he emerged from the back seat noticed the gear-shift lever. “Mrs. J$@!(&!”, the name he called his co-worker who was the same age as his daughter, and a year younger than me. “Did you know she was driving a stick-shift car?”
Mrs. J$@!(&!” who had been riding in the front seat, chuckled. As he held the door to the restaurant for us, he said, “It was as smooth as an automatic transmission!”
At this lunch, less than a year after he retired, he was already waiting at the dimly lit, otherwise empty restaurant close to his home. The ashtray already held a couple of crushed-out Salems. He stood and kissed each of us on the cheek before handing us menus.
He looked at me somberly. “Mrs. J$@!&!” tells me you’re getting divorced.”
I smiled. “Yeah, but it’s okay.”
Mrs. J$@!&!” put her hand on my forearm and smiled. “She’s fine.” Mrs. J$@!&!” had taken over his position when he retired, and had continued to send me work during a challenging time in my life.
“Good.” He lit another cigarette.
Our waitress arrived. I ordered a salad. I don’t remember what Mrs. J$@!&!” ordered, but he commented, as usual, “I don’t see how she can eat that much, but she always does. Mrs. J$@!&!” laughed. The waitress didn’t take his order. She already knew.
“You’ll get through this,” he said. “Just don’t think.”