Ruth gazed pensively at the lines on the back of her eighty-five-year-old hands. They stood out like railway lines, the tracks of her life. There had been derailments, rough journeys and times when life needed much trackwork. That’s funny, really, considering that Jim has always loved the railways so much.
The last few years in particular had been difficult, especially adjusting to changed circumstances, but today was to be special. James was arriving by ambulance transport to take up residence in the facility. She was a little nervous, unsure what to expect, but ready to accept whatever was to come. Will he know me? It’s been three months.
A tap on the door caught her attention. A young woman with dark frizzy hair appeared in the doorway, flashing a beaming smile. “Hello, Ruth. Are you ready?”
Ruth returned the smile. “As ready as I’ll ever be. You must be new here?”
“Yes. I’m Belinda. I moved from the city last month with my family. My husband Dave has taken a position at the council. The kids are settling well, loving the tree-change.”
“How old are your children?”
“Ten, eight and five. They keep me on my toes with their three very different personalities.” Belinda laughed. “One’s like Dave, one’s like me and we’re not sure where the little one fits in.”
Ruth smiled again. “Ah yes, they can be a mystery sometimes, that’s for sure.”
Hand under a fragile arm, Belinda assisted Ruth to stand, then into her wheelchair for the short journey outside. She handed Ruth her glasses and a box of tissues.
“So, your husband is arriving soon. Have you missed him?”
“I have, but I’m not sure what to expect today. He wasn’t himself last time I saw him.”
Belinda was curious. “How long have you been married?”
“It was our sixtieth anniversary five months ago. When we were children, we lived across the road from each other. We’d walk to school together, go to the movies and do all sorts of things that kids do. Sometimes the boys would tease me, and Jim would always come to my rescue. As the years went by, he decided romance was on the cards. He would stand outside my bedroom window every morning, serenading me with love songs, and said he wouldn’t stop until I agreed to marry him. Eventually I couldn’t stand his singing any longer and gave in.” Ruth glanced at her bedside table which held their sepia-tone wedding photo. “We had four children, three years apart each. He hasn’t always been the easiest person to live with.
In fact, we separated for a few years when our youngest was six. I managed to find a job and borrowed some money to buy an old, small house. It was cramped with five of us in two bedrooms. But we survived, and thrived, really.”
Belinda raised her eyebrows. “Wow. That’s a tough gig supporting four kids alone, whether then or now. What happened?”
“I had a lot of support from a local church, which helped. Eventually we sorted out our differences and reconciled. He still wasn’t easy to live with, but we had a healthy respect for each other’s personal space. His was the shed, mine the sewing machine.” Ruth sighed, and indicated a journal resting in front of the wedding photo. “Life has taken a huge curve in the last couple of years, and I’ve started recording a memoir of the last sixty. We’ve struggled with health issues and separate care needs. Coming here has been a godsend for me.”
“How did you end up in this town?”
“I had a couple of falls and spent time in hospital. My daughter would spend time with her father looking after him. One day she realised something was terribly wrong, when she found him locked out of the house and sitting on the front step. He had gone for a walk, leaving the gas stove fully on with an egg boiling in a saucepan. He didn’t know where he was or what was happening. The family called a meeting and arranged for us both to go into care. We were in the same facility together in the city, but two of our sons are here, and they organised for us to go on a waiting list to be closer. My place came up first and they’ve been waiting for a vacancy to become available for Jim, which has just happened.” Ruth sighed again. “The last time I saw him his memory was receding quickly. He didn’t realise or know or understand that he is a man with a family either. For all intents and purposes, he is eight years old again.” She dabbed tears from the corner of her eyes. “Dementia is a cruel task-master.” She blew her nose. “But you know, sometimes it restores what was lost. And I wonder whether people are actually better off for the restoration of another lifetime.”
It was Belinda’s turn to be pensive. “It certainly is hard. That’s so sad after such a long life together. I guess you have grandchildren?”
“Yes, twelve, and quite a few great-grandchildren. I used to keep up with all of their birthdays, but it became overwhelming. I hope they understand. My oldest granddaughter comes to visit with her husband when she can, but there’s the tyranny of distance. She also works in aged care and isn’t always available.” Ruth dabbed her eyes again. “We share a birthday and have a special bond. She’s really upset about her grandfather’s detoriation, especially as she spent a large part of her childhood with him, too. She understands what has happened to him, especially as an aged-care worker, but it doesn’t alleviate the pain. I suppose it’s all water under the bridge now.” She straightened her back against the wheelchair support, as a small ambulance van cruised past her window. “Well, I suppose it’s time now. Looks like he’s arrived.”
Belinda grasped the wheelchair handles and leaned forward to whisper. “You’re a brave woman, Ruth. Shall we go?”
The nursing assistant and the resident proceeded to the front door along a corridor. Glancing to her left, Ruth observed that the recreation room had been decorated.
A large coloured paper banner hung over the long craft table, printed with the words, “Welcome, James.” There were simple activities set out: colouring pictures, pencils, coloured paper, glue. Afternoon tea was laid out on another table. On the top of a white lace cloth sat a teapot and dainty cups and saucers. Ruth noticed a packet of Jim’s favourite biscuits, Honey Jumbles. He could always demolish a packet of those, unaided, and had done so for a large part of his life. There were always some on hand at home. Belinda caught Ruth’s eye.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it? I’ve noticed that the staff are so caring here and try to go the extra mile to accommodate everybody. Do you think he’ll like it?”
“I’m certain he will. At our last facility, he proudly showed me the recreation area and said that they had desks the same as his classroom.”
They continued along the corridor. Ruth held back some tears as Belinda opened the main facility doors and pushed the wheelchair forward.
The ambulance driver slid open the van door and assisted a slightly built old man down the step. The man’s face was tired and drawn, his pallor grey. He took a moment to look around, confused.
“Where have you brought me?”
“This is your new home,” replied the driver. “And here’s the welcoming committee.”
Jim had his back to the wheelchair at first, then turned to face Ruth. He grinned widely.
“I know you,” he said. “You’re the girl who lives across the road from me.”
Ruth beamed in return. “That’s right. Are you ready for tea and Honey Jumbles?”
“Oh, my favourite! Let’s go.” And the lady in the wheelchair offered her hand to her childhood sweetheart once again.