After they both ordered salads, John crossed his arms, tucked his hands behind his biceps, and leaned back. He wanted to hear Bob talk his way out of this. Dawn, his wife, was worse. John was hurt by Dawn, and tired of Bob preaching patience. Results are what he wanted. He didn’t like being vindictive, but he was ready to remove Dawn or send her to Memory Care. John was paying the money, so he didn’t mind seeing Bob squirm.
“You had some concerns when you called?” Bob said.
“I do. Every time I’m here, Dawn is hanging onto that Paul guy,” John said. “She never smiles at me. She doesn’t remember me.”
“This happens sometimes. They form quick bonds with someone to adjust to the new environment. They can’t express it, but these changes are stressful. With dementia, it’s not uncommon to forget those who were important before. I hope she has recollections of you when things settle down.”
“Recollections? Is that what we’re calling it this week?” John said as he envisioned little shards being swept away. “That’s what you said after Christmas. Now the snow is gone, the grass is green, and Dawn is lost.”
“It takes time.”
“I’m here twice a week, and I see nothing to suggest Dawn will improve. She doesn’t talk to me.”
“Paul is popular –“
“I don’t care if Paul’s President. I’m paying for this,” John said as he waved his hands above and out. “You said this was for Dawn. And me. Remember? My wife doesn’t remember. It’s like ninth grade in here and she’s going steady with Paul. Don’t tell me about popularity or patience. Tell me how you’re going to change it.”
“I know it’s painful, her forgetting the things you shared. We can’t stop that. She may never get those memories back. It’s more about Dawn living safely and happily, and giving you the freedom to continue your life.”
John hesitated. He wanted to threaten to take Dawn home, but false threats never worked. He was bruised, but Dawn at the house would be bad for him, and for her.
“So what do you propose?” John said.
“I’m hoping Dawn rebounds,” Bob said. “That happens to some patients, and I don’t know if Dawn will. I know it’s heart-breaking to see her with someone else.”
“You don’t know. You’re married right?” John said and pointed at Bob’s ring.
“Yes,” Bob said.
“Have you seen your wife whispering in another guy’s ear, caressing his hand, so he knows she’s there for him? Doing those little things women do to flatter their guy? But it’s not you?”
“No,” Bob said.
“So you don’t know. You’d say whatever to keep someone paying the bills.”
“That’s not true. We do what’s best for the patient.”
“Okay, explain to me what’s best for Dawn?”
“For Dawn, she’s doing well in this new life. I hear warning signs, like diminished strength, more forgetfulness, but she is seventy-two with dementia. For you, don’t spend so much time here.”
John had been thinking he should stop visiting, and now he felt lighter, like his GP told him to have two glasses of wine with dinner instead of one. This was medical advice on what he wanted, not on how to abstain. Bob wasn’t a psychologist or a doctor, he was a salesman, but now John wanted to see Bob as an expert - from fool to expert in five minutes.
“You’re healthy, and what, seventy?” Bob said.
“No. Seventy- three.”
“You’re young. You can do so much more. We’ve got brochures, lists of support groups you can look into. There are a lot of people in your situation, who want to go out and meet new people.”
The waitress set their salads in front of them, and John smiled for the first time.
After lunch, Bob took John to say goodbye to Dawn. She was with Paul in the café chatting with friends. They were holding hands. When Dawn saw John she put both hands on Paul’s left hand and began massaging it. She partially recognizes me, John thought, but I’m some threat or authority figure. John remembered on one of their early dates, Dawn held John’s hand and said “My Mom used say to me ‘you have to let go of one hand to take another.’”
“I don’t like it,” John said to Bob.
“What, the hands? It makes them comfortable. They’re filling roles they had before.”
“Yeah, and I don’t like it.”
“I think if you asked Dawn, she’d say she’s happy.”
Bob excused himself to speak with one of the staff. John sat down in a cushy chair across the atrium from Dawn. This marriage was John and Dawn’s second, and they went into it with eyes wide open, neither one of them thinking one would forget the other. They spent time on end-of-life scenarios, but not enough on what to do when the mind faltered quicker than the body.
Dawn wasn’t allowed to make financial decisions, but she could decide who to hang out with. That didn’t make sense, but it was probably one of those arguments for freedom that was trotted out when policing became too expensive. They had no kids, but now he felt like a father, and Dads weren’t perfect, like making spiteful decisions to keep daughters away from someone they didn’t like. Paul complimented the scene by playing the sulky teenager. John could move Dawn and give Paul a figurative poke in the eye at the same time. Spite tasted good now, but left a lingering taste of remorse.
Dawn’s friend Bunny, who divorced three times, said the second marriage is the best. She claimed you’ve gone through all the battles of kids, emotions, sex and boredom to come out less stressed, no pressure. It’s what John called Bunny advice and told Dawn, if your first marriage ended in ruin, your second marriage had a low bar to beat.
The question was why get married. Or why care about it? John could find companionship or sex if he wanted. Kids, or a bigger place, didn’t matter. So why did he get married again? He didn’t get married because it made sense. He thought of Dawn and Paul and marriage. For them, why bother? For him, why bother with Dawn? What Dawn had left mentally was searching for something. She found it. Rational thinking or not, she was right – at this age you had to change the goal.
Before they got engaged, Dawn said she was wishing away the days after her husband left, and then the days got a little better by keeping her expectations low. “Then I met you,” she said as she snuggled her head against John’s neck. He didn’t want to forget that.
Stifled hormones, light petting and awkward memory moments made Assisted Living the new High School. John was sure behind closed doors, there was more than heavy petting going on, and that was hard for him to square when it was Dawn.
“Thanks for waiting.” Bob said. “Feeling better?”
“Umm, not really,” John said. “When I first visited, you pointed out that when your loved one deteriorated, you could move them into the next level.”
“Yes, the memory-care facility.”
“I’d like to tour it again,” John said.
“Dawn doesn’t need that yet. Memory-care can be disturbing for patients and guests.”
John didn’t like seeing the shells of lonely people who were devoid of personality. Occasionally an emotion passed through one of them like a ghost, and you could almost see it pass under their skin, and then vanish. Bob was right, it was disturbing.
They stopped in the reception area as Bob went to get some brochures. John sat in another cushy chair and looked at the sunshine outside. He smiled as he thought of Dawn and how she liked to rub her head against his head when they were first married, like a cat against your hand. He thought of what Dawn’s mother said about letting go.
Bob came back and said “This one is perfect for you,” and circled it.
“Let’s get rid of Paul.” John said, knowing he had moved past Paul. He wanted to needle Bob because it made him feel more carefree and confident, and those two felt good when mixed.
Bob said there was nothing they could do if the relationship was safe and healthy.
“I know,” John said as he took the brochures without looking at them, “and Thanks.” John waved the paper by the side of his head as he entered the revolving door. In the parking lot, the sun made him squint. He liked the warmth on his face, and he thought of another hand to hold, or a caress behind his neck. And he needed a smile, someone to smile at him. Where would he find that? Where didn’t matter. He knew what he was looking for.