Reading a magazine in the dentist waiting room, I saw someone in my peripheral vision pushing a wheelchair. I didn’t look up until I heard the familiar voice of a man facing the receptionist window.
I looked to the wheelchair and locked eyes with a woman staring at me. Even though I haven’t seen her in a couple of years, I instantly recognized her. I smiled and waved, but she flatly stared into my eyes without blinking or a hint of emotion.
She was diagnosed four years ago with early onset dementia. We worked together for over 15 years and she was an extremely responsible, competent individual who rose to every task and challenge ever thrown her way.
But now, she didn’t know me. She was looking right at me, but didn’t see. She was there, but not here; alive, but not living.
She was always a stylish dresser and would’ve thrown a hissy fit if she’d known how she looked. She wore comfortable slip on clothes with sandals over her white socks. A light blanket draped her shoulders and her slick, short gray hair was combed straight down with a part carefully combed at the side. Her pupils were small and constricted as she kept her light blue eyes fixed on mine.
I wanted to say or do something for my friend, but quite frankly, at that moment I was as much at a loss for words and ideas as she was.
The receptionist finished, and without looking up, her husband turned and gently wheeled her to the side of the room next to an open chair. She never moved when he wheeled her chair, and then sat blankly staring at the wall.
He gave the room a quick glance and jumped up to sit beside me.
He quietly said she doesn’t know him now, or anyone else for that matter. She fell at home two years ago and broke a hip while he was making supper. She recovered at an assisted living center, but he didn’t like how she was being absorbed in the elderly masses. He felt she didn’t get enough attention, so he moved her back home where he could take care of her.
He brings the love of his life to the dentist every other month to make sure there are no dental issues causing her pain.
His face showed the stress and aging from the last few years, and he’s a little heavier, trying to keep his energy up to meet the ongoing demands made on his body and spirit. His eyes were tired, really tired, but his expression showed deep compassion as he talked.
He said there was no chance of her memory returning and, in fact, the doctor said she’d already lived longer than expected. In all likelihood, she wouldn’t survive a major incident like another broken hip, or possibly, even a common cold.
“She was always good to me”, he said, “and I’m just glad I can take care of her right now”.
Still tongue tied, I told him how deeply I respected him.
“Well,” he said, looking off into some distant place, “Thank you, but I’m just trying to hold out as long as I can for her. She’s really gone in a lot of ways, but I want to take care of the part that’s still here.”
A minute later, the receptionist called his wife’s name. We shook hands as he got up and he began softly speaking to his wife as he pushed her chair through the open door.
Over the centuries kids have asked, students studied, adults debated — “What is true love?”
In my book, this is!