Although the Bible says man can live to be a hundred and twenty years old, I don’t want to. My body is falling apart. My kidneys are beginning to fail and my heart rate is decreasing every month. What is worse, I have cancer again, this time of the prostate. This is my third battle with the unseen enemy, and it will take me eventually, though not till I say it is time. The doctors are worried about me, but I am not. I have no time for worry now.
Of our five children, four are still living, and though it is hard for them to visit, they come often, and for this, I am thankful. But even when they aren’t here, they come alive in my mind every day, each of them, and they bring to mind the smiles and tears that come with raising a family. There are many pictures on the walls of my room. My children are my contribution to the world. I am very proud. Sometimes I wonder what my wife thinks of them as she dreams, or if she thinks of them at all, or if she even dreams. There is so much about her I don’t understand anymore.
«My name,» I say, «is Duke.» I have always been a John Wayne fan.
«Duke,» she whispers to herself, «Duke.» She thinks for a moment.
«Yes,» I say, «I’m here for you.» And always will be, I think to myself.
She flushes with my answer. Her eyes become wet and red, and tears begin to fall. My heart aches for her, but there is nothing I could do.
She says, «I’m sorry. I don’t understand anything that’s happening to me right now. Even you. When I listen to you talk I feel like I should know you, but I don’t. I don’t even know my name.» She wipes at her tears and says, «Help me, Duke, help me remember who I am. Or at least, who I was. I feel so lost.»
I answer from my heart, but I lie to her about her name. As I have about my own. There is a reason for this.
«You are Hannah, a lover of life, a loyal friend. You are a dream, a creator of happiness, an artist who has touched a thousand souls. You’ve led a full life and wanted for nothing, because your needs are spiritual and you have only to look inside you. You are kind, and you are able to see beauty where others do not. You are a teacher of wonderful lessons, a dreamer of better things.»
She does not respond. Instead, she stares at me for a long while, until our breathing coincides. In. Out. In. Out.
In. Out. Deep breaths. I wonder if she knows I think she’s beautiful.
«Would you stay with me a while?» she finally asks.
I smile and nod. She smiles back. She reaches for my hand, takes it gently and pulls it to her waist. She stares at the knots that deform my fingers and touches them gently. Her hands are still those of an angel.
«Come,» I say as I stand with great effort, «let’s go for a walk. The air is fresh and the birds are waiting. It’s beautiful today.» I am staring at her as I say these last few words. She blushes. It makes me feel young again.
SHE WAS FAMOUS, of course. One of the best southern painters of the twentieth century, some said, and I was, and am, proud of her. Her paintings are in museums around the world, but I have kept only two for myself. The first one she ever gave me and the last one. They hang in my room, and late at night I sit and stare and sometimes cry when I look at them. I don’t know why.
And so the years passed. We led our lives, working, painting, raising children, loving each other. I see photos of Christmases, family trips, of graduations and of weddings. I see grandchildren and happy faces. I see photos of us, our hair growing whiter, the lines in our faces deeper. A lifetime that seems so typical, yet uncommon.
We could not foresee the future, but who can? I do not live now as I expected to. But I am not bitter. Our lives can’t be measured by our final years, of this I am sure.
Looking back, I suppose it seems obvious, but at first, I thought her confusion understandable and not unique. She would forget where she placed her keys, but who has not done that? She would forget a neighbour’s name, but not someone we knew well or with whom we socialized. Sometimes she would write the wrong year when she made out her cheques, but again I took it for simple mistakes that one makes when thinking of other things.
But when the more obvious events occurred I began to suspect the worst. An iron in the freezer, clothes in the dishwasher, books in the oven. Other things, too. But the day I found her in the car three blocks away, crying because she couldn’t find her way home, was the first day I was really frightened. And she was frightened, too, for when I tapped on her window, she turned to me and said, «Oh God, what’s happening to me? Please help me.» A knot twisted in my stomach, but I dared not think the worst.
Six days later the doctor saw her and began a series of tests. I did not understand them then and I do not understand them now, but I suppose it is because I am afraid to know. She spent almost an hour with Dr. Barnwell. Finally, he called us both into his office and sat us down. She held my arm confidently, but I remember clearly that my own hands were shaking.