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A slow goodbye


By Alma Barkman


“There she is!”

Whatever else dementia had stolen from him, my husband, Leo, still recognized me. From his wheel chair beside the nursing station, he beamed with delight each time I stepped off the elevator, and the staff smiled knowingly.

Caring for him at home the past five years I had regretfully watched him inch down that slow decline into the abyss of dementia. At first there was only his confusion as to the days of the week, then occasional disorientation, then the failure to recognize familiar people. He slowly lost initiative in gardening, house upkeep and car repairs — things he had always done. He could not remember the deaths of his siblings and grieved for them anew each time I had to explain they were gone. As time went by he started to dress himself all topsy-turvy — four sweaters, socks over shoes, pyjamas under pants, but he was compliant when I would help him.

The last six months, however, his condition degenerated rapidly, and on a frigid January night he decided to go outside to start the car, wearing no jacket, mitts, hat or overshoes. In the interest of safety I had long before swapped his real key for a fake one and when his attempts to get the false key into the ignition failed, he became irritated and angry. Determined to “go home,” he started walking down the driveway into the vicious northwest wind. Fearing for his safety, I called the city police, who kindly escorted us to the hospital where he was admitted.

I knew this day would come, but the reality was the difference between expecting a punch and feeling the blow. After 58 years of marriage, walking out of the hospital carrying Leo’s hat and coat — the fuzzy one he always loved, and the tweed hat that suited him so well — I had the feeling he would never come home again.

And I was right.

My son and I drove home in silence, struggling to maintain composure. I inserted the key into the back door. Leo’s old work shoes were lying there to greet me, his ragged old sweater in the closet. I fell into our son’s arms and sobbed.

Shuffling down the hall, I passed Leo’s music room with the star quilt and the orange thermal blanket, the Bose radio preset to classical and sacred music stations, his old Bible ragged from use, a pile of hymn books on his desk. He had been a church music conductor, starting at age 16. Now there would be no more pleasant mornings as he listened to his favourite songs while I quilted, nobody to admire my handiwork or check my progress.

Exhausted, I crawled into bed, where for over 50 years I had fallen asleep with my head resting in the crook of my husband’s arm. It was here our four children had been joyfully conceived. Leo had cradled and comforted each newborn in his muscular arms, tears of wonderment brimming in his hazel eyes. As they grew he had diligently taught each one of them piano, giving them lessons and supervising their practices until all four were accomplished pianists. Of late music had been the one thing that reassured and comforted him when he was confronted by the many imaginary fears generated by dementia.

I fell into a fitful sleep, only to keep waking because I thought I heard Leo roaming about the house. Come the morning, I set the table for one. No more bowl of porridge, two slices of toast with peanut butter, a cup of decaf coffee, cream but no sugar — his usual breakfast.

I ran the water into the sink and imagined I heard him shuffling down the hall to dry dishes. It’s what he’d done every day since he had taken early retirement 30 years ago. Next to God, family and music, he loved the suburban bungalow we’d built together 50 years ago, the garden, and his car.

He enjoyed road trips because they gave him an excuse to update our cars, and there were many.

About three months after he’d been admitted to hospital I was asked to sign the paper to put him in line for a nursing home. Despite authoring nine books and publishing hundreds of articles, putting my signature on that consent form was the most difficult line I have ever written. I doubt if any divorce papers or even death certificates have ever been dampened with so many kinds of tears — of regret, doubt, tears of loss, anguish, betrayal, tears of separation. I felt I was abandoning him even though I visited him at the hospital twice a day, always to be greeted by those same three words, “There she is!”

At one point a nurse told me his vital signs were so stable he could live for years. Would he have to linger in this state for that long? And how could I continue to bear up under the emotional strain? Ephesians 6:10 came to mind: “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” And God was good, providing daily support through the hospital staff, my family, my friends and my faith.

The day came when I went to visit Leo and found him in physical distress, his breathing laboured. I stayed with him long into the night and returned early the next morning. My son Lyle and his wife, Kathy, kept vigil that afternoon while I went home to grab some sleep.

I was just about to lie down when Kathy phoned. “You better come, Mom. There’s been a change.”

Ten minutes later I was at his bedside, but too late. Kathy said he had kept reaching up, reaching up. Then he opened his eyes wide, exclaimed, “Angels!” and he was gone.

While I was disappointed I had not been at his bedside, such a unique home-going serves to soften my sorrows and reinforces my belief in heaven. I fully expect when the day comes that the angels accompany me Home they will smile knowingly as I step onto that eternal shore and Leo exclaims, “There she is!”

Barkman is a freelance writer from Winnipeg.