“I shall love you in December with the love I gave in May.”
Seventeen summers ago, Muriel and I began our journey into the twilight. It’s midnight now, at least for her, and sometimes I wonder when dawn will break. Even the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease isn’t supposed to attack so early and torment so long. Yet, in her silent world, Muriel is so content, so lovable. If she were to die, how I would miss her gentle, sweet presence. Yes, there are times when I get irritated, but not often. It doesn’t make sense to get angry. And besides, perhaps God has been answering the prayer of my youth to mellow my spirit.
Once, though, I completely lost it. In the days when Muriel could still stand and walk and we had not resorted to diapers, sometimes there were “accidents.” I was on my knees beside her, trying to clean up the mess as she stood, confused, by the toilet. It would have been easier if she weren’t so insistent on helping. I got more and more frustrated. Suddenly, to make her stand still, I slapped her calf-as if that would do any good. It wasn’t a hard slap, but she was startled. I was, too.
Never in our forty-four years of marriage had I ever so much as touched her in anger or in rebuke of any kind. Never. I wasn’t even tempted, in fact. But now, when she needed me most. . . .
Sobbing, I pleaded with her to forgive me-no matter that she didn’t understand words any better than she could speak them. So I prayed and said how sorry I was. It took me days to get over it. Maybe I bottled those tears to quench the fires that might ignite again some day.
A young friend recently asked me, “Don’t you ever get tired?”
“Tired? Every night. That’s why I go to bed.”
“No, I mean tired of . . .” and she tilted her head toward Muriel, who sat silently in her wheelchair, her vacant eyes saying, “No one at home just now.” I responded to my friend, “Why, no, I don’t get tired. I love to care for her. She’s my precious.”
Love is said to evaporate if the relationship is not mutual, if it’s not physical, if the other person doesn’t communicate or if one party doesn’t carry his or her share of the load. When I hear the litany of essentials for a happy marriage, I count off what my beloved can no longer contribute, and then I contemplate how truly mysterious love is. What some people find so hard to understand is that loving Muriel isn’t hard. They wonder about my former loves-like my work. “Do you miss being president?” a university student asked as we sat in our little garden.
I told him I’d never thought about it, but, on reflection, no. As exhilarating as my work had been, I enjoyed learning to cook and keep house. No, I’d never looked back. But that night I did reflect on his question and prayed, “I like this assignment, and I have no regrets. But if a coach puts a man on the bench, he must not want him in the game. You needn’t tell me, of course, but I’d like to know-why didn’t you keep me in the game?” I didn’t sleep well that night and awoke contemplating the puzzle. Muriel was still mobile at that time, so we set out on our morning walk around the block. She wasn’t too sure on her feet, so we went slowly and held hands as we always do. This day I heard footsteps behind me and looked back to see the familiar form of a local derelict behind us. He staggered past us, then turned and looked us up and down. “Tha’s good.
I likes ‘at,” he said. “That’s real good. I likes it.” He turned and headed back down the street, mumbling to himself over and over, “Tha’s good. I likes it.” When Muriel and I reached our little garden and sat down, his words came back to me. God had spoken through an inebriated old derelict. “It is you who is whispering to my spirit, ‘I likes it, tha’s good,’” I said aloud. “I may be on the bench, but if you like it and say it’s good, that’s all that counts.”
People ask me, “How do you do it?” Praise helps-Muriel is a joy to me, and life is good to both of us, in different ways. And we have family and friends who care for us lovingly.
Memories help, too. Muriel stocked the cupboard of my mind with the best of them. I often live again a special moment of love she planned or laugh at some remembered outburst of her irrepressible approach to life. Sometimes the happy doesn’t bubble up with joy but rains down gently with tears. In the movie Shadowlands, when Joy Gresham reminds C. S. Lewis that their joy would soon end, that she would die, he replies that he doesn’t want to think about it. Joy responds, “The pain is part of the happiness. That’s the deal.”
Muriel hasn’t spoken a coherent word in months-years, if you mean a sentence, a conversation-though occasionally she tries, mumbling nonwords. Would I never hear that voice again?
Then came February 14, 1995.
Valentine’s Day was always special at our house because that was the day in 1948 that Muriel accepted my marriage proposal. On the eve of Valentine’s Day in 1995, I bathed Muriel, kissed her good night and whispered a prayer over her, “Dear Lord, you love sweet Muriel more than I, so please keep my beloved through the night; may she hear the angel choirs.”
The next morning I was peddling on my exercise bike at the foot of her bed and reminiscing about some of our happy lovers’ days long gone while Muriel slowly emerged from sleep. Finally, she popped awake and, as she often does, smiled at me. Then, for the first time in months she spoke, calling out to me in a voice as clear as a crystal chime, “Love . . . love . . . love.”
I jumped from my cycle and ran to embrace her. “Honey, you really do love me, don’t you?” Holding me with her eyes and patting my back, she responded with the only words she could find to say yes. “I’m nice,” she said.
Tha’s good. I likes it.