It’s New Years Eve, and for the first time in more than half a century, I am celebrating it alone. Alone. Lonely. Sad words for what should be a happy celebration. I stare out the window at the empty, snow-covered street in front of the condo. Ah, Marilyn…why did you have to die?
I turn away from the window, forcing back tears that come unbidden every time I think about her. This year had been the roughest yet, with her Alzheimer’s becoming more and more obvious and pain increasing from those damned lumbar fractures. Even with all that, she’d been alive. Here in this room. Not well, but sitting there in that big, black armchair, wheelchair next to it, pillows puffed up around her. And even with all her problems, she managed to smile. That wonderful smile lighting up her face, still beautiful, although age and pain had taken their toll. Lighting up my life, too.
I remember waiting up with her until midnight a year ago to usher in the new year. Because Covid had spread through the land, we were celebrating without company.
“Here’s to a much better year to come,” I said. We had opened a chilled bottle of Asti Spumonte and clinked the long-stemmed flutes we rarely used.
“How did we celebrate last year?” she asked. She knew she had a memory problem, but I never mentioned Alzheimer’s as they had suggested after she had been diagnosed the previous year.
“Just like this,” I answered.
“I recall going out to a movie and then to Rose’s house.”
“That was a while back…before…before the Pandemic,” I managed to sputter. “We did that for a good many years.”
“That was fun. I wish we could do it again,” she said looking at the wheelchair. “When I get better.”
“Maybe next year,” I said. “We can go to a movie and then have everyone over here. How would you like that?”
“That would be great,” she answered raising her glass of sparkling wine. “Here’s to next year.”
My Marilyn. My wife of so many years. It is difficult to think of her in the past tense. I had known her for all of her life and most of mine. She was eight years younger than me, but I had known her since she was born…even before that when her Mom, my future mother-in-law, was pregnant with her. Marilyn was the younger sister of Gilbert, one of my oldest and best friends since kindergarten. I had often visited his house located a block from the school we attended.
I really never paid much attention to her growing-up years until she graduated high school. Gil asked me to help chaperone her graduation party. Some chaperones we turned out to be! Gil had brought along a fifth of Old Forester which we finished while the party was going on. Apparently I had asked her out for a date. I didn’t remember until she called me the next day and asked if I was serious about the date. That was the beginning of our time together. My favorite quip after we were married was that I really had not paid attention to her until she grew boobs. I had repeated this in company so often, she finally said to me, “Enough about my boobs or you won’t be seeing them any more.”
Memories. It is all I have left. Although sometimes comforting when they come, they bring on the terrible emptiness I feel now. It has not been that long since her death…unexpected, rapid, heartbreaking. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s nor the spinal problems that caused her to pass away. Ironically, it was her transplanted kidney that finally faltered after adding twenty-four happy years to our life together.
“It’s for the best,” my sons collectively said, grieving as I was. “She’s no longer in pain, and the Alzheimer’s hadn’t yet taken her completely away from us.” That much was true but did little to abate the pain I felt.
When Marilyn felt pain, you knew it must really be severe. She had the highest pain threshold imaginable, even having her teeth drilled upon without anesthetics because she was allergic to Novocaine and derivatives. Through the years, she had suffered numerous, severe medical problems including the kidney transplant but retained that unshakable optimism. So much better than I did.
I refill my long-stemmed flute from the bottle of Asti I had purchased in memory of our usual New Year’s Eve rite. Perhaps, I think as I take a sip, I won’t be feeling much pain by midnight if I continue to refill my glass. I sit down in the black armchair which had been exclusively hers for many years, my thoughts rambling on.
When she sat back in this chair, her feet did not reach the floor. She was only 4’ll” tall or, rather, short. In her youth, she was a true beauty—long, light-auburn hair, fair complexion, that dazzling smile. She had a great sense of humor, always with a sassy, yet friendly, comment or comeback, pert and perky, honest, never unkind or hurtful, and upbeat even through all her setbacks.
The failed kidneys were one of her most severe setbacks. Kidney failure meant dialysis, a life-preserving procedure requiring frequent trips to a dialysis center to keep her going. Even on vacations during those years, we had to plan ahead, not only to book transportation and hotels, but to arrange for visits to a dialysis center wherever we went.
“Are you sure you want to go on this trip?” I once asked.
“Ed, I won’t let this thing change what we like to do,” she said. “Here’s a dialysis center near the hotel where we’ll be staying. Hand me the phone.”
And it was Marilyn who did most of that planning, never complaining, accepting it as a fact of life. I was the one who had difficulty accepting it.
We were on a transplant waiting list, and when word came that a kidney was available, everyone in the family was jubilant. She had turned down all offers from family members for kidney donation, not even wanting them to find out if they were an acceptable donor. The successful transplant helped us to enjoy life again.
But those inoperable spinal fractures eventually overcame her pain tolerance and made her an invalid. That began four years ago. She required first a walker, then a wheelchair, plus heavy pain medication. Still, Marilyn took it in stride, as they say, even though she could not stride at all. But, I could tell that pain was eroding her usual resiliency.
The television is blaring away now with the New York celebration in Times Square, the big ball ready to drop in a short while. I refill my glass with Asti and note that the bottle is half-finished. Let’s get it over with, I think, so I can go to bed. Marilyn always liked to watch that big ball drop. I am just doing it in her memory.
Memory, or lack of it, began our initial association with Alzheimer’s. Marilyn was experiencing some memory problems. A brain scan disclosed past mini strokes. The doctor’s analysis: the onset of dementia, the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. He recommended that we tell her it was age-related memory loss but to watch it carefully. That was the most awful news of all to me, knowing that as this insidious disease advances, it will steal away her memories and awareness. I became a caregiver-husband with outside help from professional care providers.
Although she tried to keep up her usual good spirits, evidence of that unrelenting disease kept intruding. Even Marilyn became aware that something more than memory loss was happening. For the first time in our long life together, she became fearful, antagonistic at times, very forgetful.
“It’s a manifestation of the disease,” an Alzheimer’s advisor explained to me. “Although she does not know it as Alzheimer’s, she knows something’s not right. And she’s experiencing what we call the Sundown Syndrome…when the symptoms become most apparent.”
My job, one I lovingly undertook, was to comfort her during these interludes, to talk with her even if she did not respond much. To try and get her interested in activities she had once enjoyed. We put together simple picture puzzles. We sorted photos of our kids, relatives and friends. Often she would ask who was that person in the photo. We played a kid’s card game, called “War” because she no longer remembered how to play her favorite card game, Gin Rummy. I was watching the Marilyn I had loved for so long slowly disappear.
One day, she looked me straight on and asked, “Where’s Ed? Why isn’t he here?”
I was devastated. IT had finally revealed our future. I knew then there really was no hope, only worse to come. But I turned to her and said, “I’m back, honey,” and she replied, “Oh, hi, Ed. Turn on the TV.”
It is almost midnight, the New York telecast is focusing on the giant ball. The countdown has begun. I watch the ball descend. Host Ryan Seacrest counts along with the New York crowd, “…four, three, two, one…Happy New Year, everyone.”
Tears stream down my face as I lift my glass.
“Happy New Year, my love,” I say, knowing that the old year had been the worst in my life, and, without her, the new one will be just as bleak.