“Your wife's confusion is partly due to salicylate poisoning,” the young doctor explains.
Orville waits patiently for him to continue, holding his wife’s sweater while she dresses in the examination room. The doctor’s office is too cold, as Texans like their air conditioning glacial. It hurts his knees.
“Essentially she is taking far too much aspirin,” the doctor says. “This inhibits the Krebs cycle, causing her to produce less ATP. She may only be in Phase I, as exhibited by her hyperventilation.”
Orville feels older than his years—and far less confident—the longer the young man talks. Orville wants to apologize to the doctor for allowing his wife to poison herself. He should be better at taking care of her.
He remains silent for a time, until he swallows enough pride to ask the doctor one simple question: “What do I do?”
“We have treated her with activated charcoal which should absorb the excess aspirin in her gastrointestinal tract. However, you will need to find all of her bottles of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen as well as any bottles of acetaminophen. Collect them. Keep them out of reach.” The doctor no longer directly talks to Orville, but to the file folder he is quickly marking up in front of him.
Get the bottles. Keep them out of reach as if she were a child. Like the Flintstone vitamins we had to hide when the kids were little. They would pick out the orange ones and eat them until their stomachs ached.
“All right then,” Orville says and stands. His left knee protests, but he pays it no mind.
“As you know, your wife’s dementia is progressing as well,” the doctor states flatly.
Confused for a moment because both progressing and well sound hopeful, Orville concedes, “She has good days and bad days.”
“At this point, I think we can classify your wife as being in Stage 4.”
“I thought we were in Phase I?”
“Phase I for the salicylate poisoning,” the doctor explains. “Stage 4 for her dementia. She has clearly moved from a mild to a moderate decline. You should expect a further decrease in her short-term memory, her forgetting specific details about the past. Have you noticed anything distressing her lately?”
Orville is quiet again. The doctor need not know everything. Orville finally asks: “How many stages are in Alzheimer’s?”
“There are seven progressive stages, ranging from no impairment to very severe decline. If you’d like, I can refer you to another neurologist or geriatrician to conduct further tests,” the doctor offers.
“We have done the tests,” Orville murmurs. Three more stages left. He holds his wife’s sweater more firmly. Oh, my little dear.
“Here we are,” a nurse says brightly, entering the doctor’s office with his wife. She is still so lovely, a little spitfire with cornflower blue eyes, looking around the room for anything familiar. Her relief is plain on her face when she sees him.
“Ollie, let’s get out of here,” she says, pulling her sweater out of his hands.
“All right then,” he says, nodding to the doctor and the nurse.
“How about we stop and get a hamburger?” Orville asks as they drive back home.
“I’d like that, Ollie.”
While he eats his cheeseburger, Orville watches his wife relishing her large Cherry Coke, tightly holding onto it with both hands. She has already refilled her cup twice, leaving her meal untouched. Her taste for sweets now supersedes any other sensation. Orville watches her pick the pickles off her hamburger. She used to pick snap peas out of her little garden, eating them right off the vine. The garden lay fallow now, the gardener no longer able to organize even the simplest of tasks.
It is a short drive home, the exterior looking as worn and tired as its occupants. Before, his wife had been a fastidious housekeeper, sweeping the front walk each morning. Now, half-drunk cans of soda pop and candy wrappers dot the house. He doesn’t mind picking up after her, since she certainly did her time taking good care of all of them over the decades.
He wishes the kids would call more frequently, but there isn’t much to say and they keep talking about retirement homes. This agitates him. He swears at his seemingly ungrateful adult children, vowing as long as his wife recognizes him that she’ll stay in her own home. So they don’t call very much and the visits are winnowing down to just the major holidays. Orville knows they have busy lives. He can’t remember being that busy, but he is a simple man from a far simpler time. His wife used to be the busy one, constantly writing lists and sending out greeting cards with $25 checks inside and running endless errands. She doesn’t drive now, ever since she’d backed into the neighbor’s garage door across the street.
That’s another curse of old age: the embarrassment of it all. I apologize for my wife damaging your garage door. I’m sorry my wife picked up your baby, but she thought it was hers. My wife isn’t feeling well, so she forgot to dress before going outside to get the mail. The indignity of the pitying looks taxes Orville’s patience. Gossipy fishwives at church mouth: How is she doing? Dusty old men, older than he, looking at him with cold sympathy, encircling their own wives with gratitude that they haven’t lost it. The neighborhood children run and scamper, looking at them both like specters when they do emerge from their shabby house.
Orville sinks into his stained recliner and turns on the television, showing him a world he doesn’t care much for anymore. After a few moments, he hears his wife rustling through the back bedroom closet, and he briefly wonders if he should check on her. His knees tell him not to, to just rest for a bit longer.
His eyes open as she stands in front of him, dressed in a pretty party dress. She used to take great pride in being the same dress size as the day they were married. Although she is wearing two different high heels, she is all the more lovely for it.
“Dance with me, Ollie?” she coyly asks. It is the same question she asked him nearly 60-odd years ago. Bold of her, even at a Sadie Hawkins dance in a community center’s multipurpose room.
“All right then,” he says softly, ignores his knee yet again, and holds his wife tenderly while music from ages past plays in both their respective memories.