The Last Picnic
It was a beautiful day in early September, the kind of day his late father called a Glory Day, the requirements of which were a deep blue sky, if there were any clouds at all they had to be the soft, very white, billowy type, and the temperature neither too hot, nor too cool. Perfect picnic weather.
And a picnic was just what he had planned for himself and his sweetheart-wife of 47 years. Good years. Ladened, as the song goes, with happiness and tears. But even the tears were mostly tears of happiness, tears of shared understanding that, mingled together, became the agent and catalyst of an emotional epoxy, binding them all the more . . . one to the other.
But a solvent had slowly, insidiously dissolved the bonds of common memories . . . a thief had stolen the most precious possession they had . . . their mutual love. Alienation of affection, that's what his legalistic lawyer's mind would have called it, if it had been another man. But how can one fight disease?
He had always been the sick one. Born with a closed, undeveloped eye, this cruelty of nature wasn't enough. At eight, he had protracted infantile paralysis . . .polio. (Dr. Salk had not yet discovered his merciful vaccine.) He had recovered, but not without the further disfigurement of a lingering limp. He was certain she had not married him for his looks!
His weakened frame was susceptible to every flu virus and other communicable disease that came along. And she had been his Florence Nightingale, attending every need, never complaining . . . giving loving care that can only come from its namesake . . . love. Now, it was her sickness. And this time it was not a childhood disease. It was an old person's disease . . . Alzheimer's. Painless, but oh how she would rather have endured endless pain.
It began by just forgetting where she had left things, could have happened to anybody. Then she would repeat herself. "You just told me that 5 minutes ago", he would laugh. But, when she began going blank during her lectures at the university, it was obvious that something was happening to her. Early Onset Alzheimer’s, that was the diagnosis.
"What a shame,” her friends and colleagues whispered, "to lose such a scholar; she had such a brilliant mind."
"Yes. Had it been something else, any number of other calamities, she very well could have gone on teaching,” the dean lamented. "Well, at least she's got John. He makes a good living and can afford the best for her.”
Six years. That's all it took to go from lecturing college classes in philosophy to the blank, unrecognizing stare that greeted John each time he looked into her eyes. She could no longer even take care of her most basic bodily needs.
John didn't mind that. He would gladly take care of every need, no matter how menial or humbling. She would have done as much for him. It was the loss of companionship, the loss of that sympathetic vibration of two souls in tune with each other that had become unbearable. He was lovingly caring for her body, but where was her soul? Had it already been released? Was it still imprisoned within the irreversibly paralyzed mind?
They used to laugh, and love, and talk . . . hours on end. Only those who have experienced the inexpressible comfort of looking across a crowded room and catching the eye of their loved one and seeing the understanding smile break across their face can know the ecstasy of this companionship.
The smile still returns, but now a simple, child-like, trusting smile that is more involuntary reflex than recognition, and certainly not understanding.
Still, it reminded him of the good old days, days when they would pack a lunch in the woven reed picnic basket she had inherited from her parents, and take off for that special place, their place. Even into their fifties, they would return to the spot a few miles out of town where he had carved their initials in the Sycamore nearly half a century ago. Miraculously, the spot hadn't been encroached by the new subdivisions the ever-growing little college town had spawned. Each time they returned he had refreshed the carving so that now it still emblazoned a very mature creek side tree.
Now they return once more. It is their anniversary. He gets the basket out of the car, puts a quilt under his arm, and goes around to open the door for his wife. Arm-in-arm they walk slowly down to the bottomland beside the creek. Under the Sycamore, he unfolds the quilt. A special quilt his grandmother had made it for him many years ago before her death. It had always lain at the foot of the bed in the guest room. Bright yellow scraps of old dresses had been lovingly sewn into interlocking circles representing rings. It had been her wedding present to the couple so many years ago. Too dear to be used, yet too proud not to be displayed, it was still in perfect condition. But today was a special day.
They sit down on the quilt. He spreads the contents of the basket, complete with real plates cradled in rattan holders, worn silverware and checkered cloth napkins. They had always prided themselves in using the old utensils of the previous generation. Even the wine glasses were real... no plastic, no paper, no synthetics . . . except life . . . life wasn't real anymore.
Out came the fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, iced tea from the old vacuum thermos bottle, everything they had grown to expect of a proper picnic banquet. He tied a cord around the wine bottle and dropped it into the stream to cool. Lastly, he reached in the basket and extracted an old turn-of-the-century book of poetry, the same book from which he had read on previous picnics, olive green with gold-leafed lettering on the cover, James Whitcomb Riley's Love-Lyrics.
They ate. He had to feed her between bites for himself, and give her drink, and wipe her mouth. He didn't mind. And he thought maybe she was enjoying it. Maybe she still remembered, somewhere deep within her, the earlier times, the happier times. And then he read.
He read aloud the poems to her: When She Comes Home; Their Sweet Sorrow; My Bride That Is to Be. Each seemed to suddenly have a new and deeper meaning than ever before.
Finally, his favorite, An Old Sweetheart of Mine
As one who cons at evening o'er an album all alone,
And muses on the faces of the friends that he has known,
So I turn the leaves of fancy till, in shadowy design,
I find the smiling features of an old sweetheart of mine . . .
. . . When I should be her lover forever and a day,
And she my faithful sweetheart till the golden hair was gray;
And we should be so happy that when either's lips were dumb
They would not smile in Heaven till the other's kiss had come . . .
Tears had formed in his eyes, just as they had many years ago when he first read her the poem. She smiled, but not a smile of understanding. It was more of a baby's smile of unconscious contentment. He could have read her the most grotesque of horror stories and produced the same result.
He got up and retrieved the wine from the water and poured them each a glass. Then, reaching into the basket, he withdrew one more item...a large bottle of pills . . .
"Here, Dearest, take some of these. That a girl. Want a sip of wine? Now some more of the pills. Socrates had his hemlock. I'm afraid I have nothing quite so legendary for you, my little philosopher. Save some for me!"
They laid back on the quilt. His arms enfolded her. She rested her head on his shoulder. They looked up at the sky, the clouds, the leafy arbor already beginning to show the signs of fall. He slowly focused on the spot where he had carved their initials so long ago, once again almost faded away by new growth.
He thought back over the years, the courtship, the elopement, their first baby, stillborn, doctors said "no more,” the church wedding renewal of vows they treated themselves to on their 25th anniversary, the trip to Europe. It had been a good life, all in all. It had been a full life. Perhaps, it should have ended a little sooner. How did that poem go about the athlete dying young? Oh, he didn't mean her life...he wouldn't have wished that on her. He meant his, so he wouldn't have had to witness her decline. But, then who would have taken care of her? His mind was getting fuzzy.
He counted it a privilege to be able to give back a little of the care she had so selflessly given him for over 40 years. Was he doing the right thing now? But, for over a year now her spirit has either been gone or trapped in a body that would not release it. "Oh, God! Forgive me, but I love her so!" Sleepy.... "Esmeralda, your Quasimodo will protect you." Sleepy . . .
"Over here, Sheriff! Right where his note said!"
"Yep, cold as clay, both of 'em! Been here since yesterday, I'd say."
"What a shame. Nice old couple like that... Reckon why people do something like this?"
"Ain't it strange, looks like both of 'em have little smiles on their faces. Jes' laying there, all cuddled up together, like they's in their own bed at home."
"Looks like they had themselves a picnic 'fore they done it."
"Yeah, some picnic."