Remember me to one who lives there
Was there a glint of mischief in her eyes as she handed the chocolate to him? Or had he imagined it?
HE was eighty and she was seventy-four when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
In privacy, the doctor had told him that her memory would start deteriorating. In the advanced stages, she was likely to not only forget her past and the present, she might even lose track of who she was. The most important thing was to engage her intellectually. Talking to her about their past, and gently probing her to answer. A sort of a mental exercise. She should feel neither threatened nor challenged. In addition, she could take some medication which would only stall the progress of the disease, but not cure it.
The doctor concluded, "Don't worry. Things don't change much in a day. You will see differences only over months, perhaps years."
Things didn't change much in a day; over months and years, they did. Like an inexorable eraser, the disease went about its business. Moving over the page of her memory, it wiped clean everything in its wake. A stroke here today, an unpredictable stroke there tomorrow.
He had the minor troubles that one had at eighty, nothing very debilitating. He felt it was very unfair that he should enjoy such decidedly superior health, and she should become a fading picture. But quickly he made peace with his good health. If he were also infirm, who would look after her? They had no children or surviving siblings.
He never grew battle weary for he knew no life other than being with her. He cooked for her, gave her the medicines at the appointed times, and cleaned her house. He made sure that the bed sheet and bed cover were pristine white. She was very particular. Or at least had been. Thankfully, she could conduct her own affairs including bathing and dressing.
Diligently he carried out the doctor's instruction day after day. Holding conversations about their past, and being gentle and unthreatening about it. She responded to his memory teasers saying, "Yes, yes... " while nodding with a beatific smile. When he probed further, most of the time she knew nothing. Her love for him seemed to have armed her with one powerful weapon against the disease: the overarching desire to please him and not alarm him by giving him a blank look. With incredible consistency, she responded day after day with her "yes, yes." Occasionally, however, she threw a surprise with a graphic recall.
He pointed to the scars on his face, "Do you remember how this happened?"
They had been to Bangkok on a sightseeing trip about fifty years ago. After desperately searching for vegetarian food, he had located for her a packet of peanuts. She was famished and angry. She opened the peanuts packet, popped some into her mouth, and spat them out with fury. The peanuts were coated with garlic which she hated.
"You must be more tolerant when we travel." He did not mean to sound so querulous, but he was also exhausted from the hunt for vegetarian food.
She had walked up to him like an offended tigress and clawed him in the face.
"Do you remember?" he repeated, his fingers delicately massaging the scars.
"Yes, yes" she said with her beatific smile, but did not continue.
It was clear that she had no recollection of the incident.
"Do you recall our trip to Munnar?"
"Yes, yes," she said and smiled.
"How green and beautiful it was. The fresh air. The floating clouds. And in the night, the lights twinkling from the valley. Like a sky below?"
"Do you remember what you said when we got off the car?" he queried softly.
He still remembered. She had remarked at the spread of the lush tea gardens that it appeared like somebody had wrapped the hills with a giant green velvet blanket.
Now she smiled wordlessly. He waited. Her smile did not disappear.
He sighed and decided to change course.
Her twentieth birthday had fallen during their brief courtship between the betrothal and the wedding. Her parents had whisked her away to a wedding in Hyderabad. Lovelorn and torn by the pangs of separation, he had mailed her a birthday greeting and a bar of chocolate. After a couple of days, he received in mail a packet from her. It contained half a bar of the chocolate wrapped in its packing. Since then the chocolate eating had remained a ritual throughout their marriage. She would bite off half the bar, wrap it carefully, and hand it to him.
He now made his way to the kitchen and groped inside the fridge for the bar of chocolate he had bought that morning. For decades now they had eaten the same brand. She was watching TV when he held it out to her. Displaying no irritation that her viewing had been interrupted, she looked at the bar of chocolate turning it around one or two times.
She opened the chocolate with frail, trembling fingers. Then she bit off half the chocolate manoeuvring her jaws carefully to manage the large chunk. With great care, she wrapped the remaining chocolate and handed it back to him.
His heart started beating fast. Was there a glint of mischief in her eyes as she handed the chocolate to him? Or had he imagined it?
Before he could speak, she said, "I feel very tired. May I go to sleep?"
Her eyes were red-rimmed and exhausted. He was disappointed, but nodded "yes."
After she lay down, he stroked her head a few times. He stopped briefly to restore some unruly strands of her grey-streaked hair and resumed his stroking. Almost immediately, she fell asleep.
She had the gift of sleeping instantly on being stroked. One of her few gifts, he prayed, stay with her for the rest of her life.
He looked at the wrapped chocolate in his hand. This conversation could be continued tomorrow. Things don't change much in a day.
The author writes fiction and non-fiction. He is Director-Consulting and Enterprise Solutions, Satyam Computer Services Ltd. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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