I am so busy taking care of things, that sometimes I forget to look at him. Doctor’s appointments. Medications. Physical therapists, occupational therapists. Who is scheduled this week? What day? What time? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?
I see him, of course. I see his thin, white hair, his faded blue eyes, his false teeth that sometimes slip when he’s talking, the way his mother’s did, his hearing aid that shrieks its presence but is as useless as a bandaid behind his deaf ear. An old man in an old chair, struggling to see, to hear, to keep up, to get up, and to not give up.
He is my uncle but I hardly know him. He is 93 and has lived 1,400 miles away for a long time. But what I know of him, I love. He is kind and he is funny and he doesn’t complain and he calls me sweetheart in the same way my father did. When he was a boy he looked up to my father. He tells me this. He tells me that before the war, my father was fun. “Carefree,” he says. “He was in five invasions. He saw too much.”
My uncle’s wife died in mid-March, and only days later his bad knee gave out and he fell. An ambulance came and took him to a hospital, where he got a cortisone shot and recuperated. Then he was transferred to a rehabilitation center.
Because he hadn’t been vaccinated, he was placed in isolation. And though staff came in and out of his room, they were gowned and masked so he couldn’t see their faces or hear their words. My husband and I flew to Florida to rescue him.
We brought him back to his home, put a Pocketalker on his ears — a device recommended by a doctor friend that amplifies sounds and reduces background noise — and I spoke into its attached microphone. And instead of saying, “I love you,” and “I am so sorry your wife died and you’ve had to go through all this,” I said “Can you hear me? Is this thing working?,” as if hearing were the miracle he was waiting for.
Tasks detoured personal conversation. My husband and I spent our days sorting through documents, filling out forms, driving to banks, to the lawyer, to the funeral parlor, taking him to the doctor, paying his bills, fixing his car, arranging for his care.
I never once talked about the loss of the woman he loved and was married to for 56 years.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. “How’s your knee feeling?” “Would you like some water?”
I shout to him over the phone when I get home. A new phone, guaranteed to augment his hearing. It hasn’t.
I make an appointment with an audiologist. I shout this into the phone. “What?” he says. “WHAT?”
On the drive home from rehab in April, he talked about the last time he saw his wife. “Her eyes were closed and her hands were crossed on top of her chest. Like this,” he said, showing us. He said he took her hand and held it. That’s when he noticed that her wedding ring was gone. “It had three diamonds,” he said. “She never took it off.”
He showed us the $60 in his wallet, too. And the slip in his discharge papers that said he’d had $100 when he was admitted.
It bothered him, these thefts. But he shrugged. I’ve lost so much more, the shrug seemed to say.
A woman we hired to help him a few hours a week is kind and trustworthy. On Tuesday afternoons, she takes him to the grocery store where he stocks up on apple pie. He likes apple pie. And cheeseburgers. This woman, a stranger a month ago, stops by on weekends, too, to bring him fresh pie and to check on him. She refuses to be paid for this.
We want him to move into a senior community, to be safe, to be with other people. But he wants to stay in his home. We can’t talk about this on the phone. We can’t talk about so many things. So we fly back to Florida.
And this time we do talk, not just about appointments and therapists and where he might live but about the life he has lived, a good, long life with a woman he loved.
And we talk, too, about the most important thing: how hard it will be, no matter where he lives, to go on without her.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. Read more at beverlybeckham.com.