I wake up with a start to a rattling noise. Blinking, I see a tea trolley in front of me and a young woman handing me a cup. I look around the room. It looks like any sitting room, with overstuffed armchairs, little side tables and a cabinet full of knick-knacks in one corner, but it’s hot and there’s a smell of disinfectant. There are a couple of elderly gents sitting in the other chairs, one doing a crossword in the newspaper and the other muttering irritably at the talking head on the television. I don’t know them. Anxious now, I put the teacup down and ask her where I am. She smiles and pats my hand.
“Don’t you remember, love? You live here now.”
I sit up straight and glare at her.
“I’ll have you know that the name is Joseph Davis and I’m not your love. I need to know what time my daughter is coming to pick me up. What’s your name?”
“I’m Sarah. There, there, Mr. Davis. I’m sorry,” she says, smiling. “Your daughter Deborah brought you here. You weren’t managing so well on your own without your wife.”
My wife? I rack my brain and furrow my brow, trying to picture her. A dim image forms, but I can’t bring her into focus. Sarah takes a framed photograph from the side table, crouches down to my level and holds it up in front of me. A younger version of me smiles back. A young woman leans against me, her lips curved in a mischievous smile. The sun glints on water in the background and picks out highlights in her chestnut hair.
“That’s my Linda,” I say, unable to stop a smile. “We loved that lake. We met there.”
For a moment the suffocating atmosphere recedes, and I can smell the lemon scent of her hair, the aroma of the pine trees and feel the cool breeze. The image shimmers and dissolves as if I were looking at a reflection on water. I feel Sarah putting a tissue in my hand and realize that my eyes were welling with tears.
“Oh, dear, Mr. Davis, I didn’t mean to upset you,” Sarah says, looking worried.
I hear her voice as if from afar. I am with Linda, remembering her laugh, the music she loved, the way she teased me when I got grumpy. Where is she? Why am I on my own?
I turn to Sarah and clutch her arm. She winces and I release my grip.
“Why am I here? What is this place? Linda wouldn’t like it. She never kept the house like this. She liked fresh air. She must be worrying about me.”
She seats herself in the chair next to mine.
“Mr. Davis, Linda died two months ago. Deborah thought you weren’t taking care of yourself, so she arranged for you to stay with us. This is a care home.”
I stare at her indignantly.
“A care home? That’s for old guys like those two, not for me. But wait, you said Linda died?”
I wipe my eyes as tears build up again. Suddenly, I see Linda. She still has that sweet smile, but her hair is white, and she looks drawn and tired. I’m sitting by her bedside. That’s strange. Linda never goes to bed during the day unless she is sick, and she is never sick. At least she never tells me she is sick until she can’t avoid it. Men are big babies, she says when I ask her why. I’d get upset and then she’d have to take care of me. It’s insulting, but I have to admit she has a point. I do my best to take care of her. She never wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, so she is too kind to laugh at my cooking efforts, but I can tell she is relieved when Deborah and the neighbors start bringing food. I try to keep the house as clean as she likes, but I always miss dust that she can spot at a hundred feet. We struggle along for a while, hospitals, doctors, treatments, but she continues to get weaker. One day I persuade her to come on an outing to the lake. She leans on me as we carefully pick our way from the car to a bench overlooking the water. She refuses to use a cane or wheelchair in public. We sit together in the sunshine, gaze out over the water and share memories. I feel hopeful.
“See, sweetheart, you’re getting better,” I say. “You’ll soon have your strength back. We see that new doctor next week.”
She shakes her head and straightens up. I see her expression and know from experience that this means she is serious. She looks at me steadily.
“Joe, we have to talk about that. I can’t do this much longer. I’m tired. Tired of doctors and medicines and appointments. I want to enjoy a few days like today at the lake, not in a hospital.”
Panic surges over me. What will I do without her? Then I look at her and realize she has struggled as hard as she can for me. I see the exhaustion in her gaunt face and curse myself for not noticing sooner.
“Sweetheart, I’m so sorry. This isn’t about me. It’s about you and we will do whatever you want from now on.”
She sighs as if a burden has been lifted from her shoulders. She smiles, and for a few moments my beautiful chestnut-haired girl is back, sparkling with life and humor. She caresses my cheek and tweaks my ear.
“Thank you for understanding,” she whispers. “Let’s go home.”
I return to the hot, stale room and find Sarah watching me anxiously.
“Don’t worry,” I say, smiling at her. She sighs with relief. I look down at the picture. “I remember it all now, but I’ll be alright. I have Linda with me.”
I carefully get to my feet, holding the framed picture, and go to my room.