Monday, December 26, 2011

For Better or Worse, a love story

This is something I wrote many years ago after my grandpa died.  He and my grandma were significant inspirations in my life.  When I think of a great love story, they always come to mind.  This is for my Grandpa Bill and Grandma Pearl--both gone now, but living forever in my heart.  

For Better or Worse, a love story
by Amber Lea Easton

Dark, scarred bricks rose up from the frozen ground.  Dormant ivy vines covered the the side of the building like brittle lace.  Wind howled in mutinous glory and whipped everything in its path. Low silver clouds rolled and swirled across the gray sky.  Forecast called for snow.  Good thing he’d decided to come early today.  
Simple things like walking weren’t easy these days.  Cold, crisp air heavy with the smell of snow filled his lungs.  He pulled the coat tightly around his chest, the cap low over his forehead and shuffled toward the building, steps true despite the stroke.  The doctors, physical therapists, all of them had said he wouldn’t be able to walk again.   
Well, he’d never had much faith in the medical profession.  Ninety-two years old and he still walked the earth under his own power. Maybe a little slower, true.  Yes, his back was bent, his speech slurred and his mouth a bit crooked, but the sparkle in his blue eyes hinted at the sharp mind beneath the gray hair.   
Bill pushed open the door to the Odd Fellows Home, his wife’s home for close to a decade.
“Hey, Bill.  Good to see you.”  A nurse stopped in the hallway, a bright smile on her chubby face.  She fidgeted with a pen in the pocket of her blue smock while her eyes scanned him from head-to-toe.  Her name tag said Mary Jo. 
Always sizing me up, she is.  Probably wondering how long I’ll be able to get around on my own.  Bill laughed at the private thoughts.  
“How is she today then?”  Speaking proved difficult since the stroke, but he did it well enough to be understood.  
“She’s awake.  That’s something.” 
“Good mood or bad?”
“Not bad.”  The nurse squeezed his arm before moving down the hallway.  
His wife, Pearl, suffered from Alzheimer’s for over a decade.  In two months, she’d celebrate her ninetieth birthday.  He still lived at the farm where they’d raised their four children, where they’d laughed with friends, where their grandchildren had played.  He’d tried to care for her himself for a long time.  Hired at-home nurses, twenty-four hour care.  He’d promised never to put her in a home.  Oh, how he’d tried to keep that promise.  
Even after the violent outbursts began, he’d tried to keep that promise.  But then it all came tumbling down. Once she’d locked him out in sub-zero temperatures during the middle of a harsh South Dakota winter.  She hadn’t known him any longer, had thought him a stranger.  
That’s what had hurt the most--the fact that his wife hadn’t known him any longer.  
He shuffled toward the room at the far end of the hall.  Brightly colored paintings of Christmas trees and Santa Clause decorated the wall, done by local school children.   
He hesitated in the doorway at the sight of Pearl sitting in the green recliner near the window.  Guilt collided with love. 
My bride for nearly 65 years now...still as beautiful as the day I met her.  Sure her hair is white now when it used to be strawberry blonde, but I barely notice.  No, when I look at Pearl I see the feisty young woman I fell in love with, the woman with the quick laugh and snapping blue eyes.  The woman—the only woman—I’ve ever needed.
 “Hello, ma,” he said, taking a seat on the bed next to her chair.  “It’s a nasty day out.  The wind is blowing something fierce.” 
Gently, he lifted her hand and rubbed her favorite rose scented lotion into her translucent skin. He hadn’t realized he’d missed that smell until she hadn’t been able to pamper herself any longer.  
“Hi.”  Pearl finally noticed him with vague recognition in her eyes. Sixty-five years of marriage leaves a lasting impression, even in the path of Alzheimer’s.   
History reverberated through the air like a million little shockwaves.  There were many things he missed talking to her about, little things like the weather and big things like grandchildren.  
“Did you do the chores today?”  she asked him with an innocent, loving smile.
“Sure did.  Need you to gather the eggs, though.”  I can’t tell her that I sold all the cattle this autumn.  I wonder what she would say, though, if she knew.  
He patted her hand and held it against his knee.
“Those damn boys were fighting behind the barn again last night.  Always fighting those two and getting into trouble.  You need to knock their heads together, Bill.”   She shook her white head and laughed a minute before the blankness reclaimed her eyes.
They’d had four children together.  Two boys and two girls.  Harold and Cliff had always been into some type of brawl.    
He laughed, too, and smoothed his finger over the top of the raised veins on her hand.  She used to shoot a cap gun into the air to get the boys’ attention.  That usually put an end to whatever scuffle was ensuing at the time.  
That’s my Pearl, my bride.  Forever feisty.  I think the boys were more intimidated by her than me.  
“I miss you at the house, ma,” he said. 
A vague smile flittered across her lips, but her eyes were distant.  
He held her hand a bit longer, wanting another glimpse of the woman locked inside the elderly body.  He wondered what went on behind those eyes and imagined a constant replay of years past that she now believed to be present. 
I’d like to believe she’s remembering me as a handsome young man with a full head of dark hair.  I’d like to think she’s trapped in a time when we had a house full of children and friends stopping over for dinner. A happy time.   
No words were spoken for a long time. He held her hand while she gazed unseeing at the television droning on about the winter storm.    
“I love you, ma.”  He kissed her on the forehead and squeezed her hand one more time before standing.
“That’s nice,” she said with a fragile smile hovering on her mouth.  For a moment, an old familiar light gleamed in her eyes. For a moment, he believed she'd been present.    
Tears blurred his vision when he turned from his wife.  Time to go.  There were still some chores to be done, even if the cattle were gone.  Still some sheep and dogs to care for, things to do, a life to live even at ninety-two.  
Mary Jo waved from the nurse’s station.  He noticed the way she looked at his shuffling steps.  You won’t be seeing me in here any time soon, he thought. Pearl isn’t the only feisty one in our marriage.
The door slammed when he stepped back into the cold air. 
Snowflakes blew horizontally across the parking lot.  The wind slapped hard against his face.  Cold seeped into his bones.  He grinned and rubbed his hands together.  Breath formed a cloud in front of his face.  
He welcomed the biting wind and the harsh cold air rushing into his lungs.  He lived.  He loved. He had things to do.  He'd return tomorrow, maybe stop by the store to bring her some orange slices.  She'd always loved orange slices. He revved the engine of the Chevy truck, looked back at the brick building with a twisted grin and a whole lot of longing and sped out of the parking lot toward home.   

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