The pictures tumbled onto the floor, old snapshots scattering at Lily’s feet; brow wrinkled with question, she stooped to gather a handful. What on earth were these?
She stared at the photos, struggling to recognize the faces, they looked familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. Why on earth did she have this box of pictures on the shelf of her closet? Why on earth had she been in the closet? Was this even her closet? She had no clue. She let the handful of pictures fall from her hand, as they fell she spied one of them that captured her attention. Fingers trembling she picked it up and regarded it.
Who were these people? Where was this taken? The background was sand, ocean, and sea grass, a family photo with three boys, one a teenager with a scowl on his face, two younger ones grinning and squinting in the sun, a man—Lily touched his face with her finger, a wave of affection filling her momentarily before flittering away, leaving a hole that caused her to recoil her finger as if she had touched something hot. The man was smiling and holding a little girl with bright eyes and tousled hair, a pretty little thing, Lily thought, and a woman sitting in the center of the group, laughter on her face.
The smell of the ocean air filled Lily’s nostrils. Wiggling her toes reflexively she could almost feel the warmth of sand on her feet. So real, palatable causing a desire for the waves to well up in her only to come crashing down, leaving her confused. She looked around her. Who had spilled all these pictures on the floor? Well, they could just clean up their own mess. The family beach photo became a wad in her fist as she thrust it into her pocket.
Home-Todd County, Kentucky
No matter how well you eat, how active you stay, or how much you try to stay young, time, like rain and wind on a rock, chisels away at the flesh. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The thought was not a new one to Max, but he hated how his own body with its age related infirmities confirmed the erosion. He shuffled from barn to house across ayard which only a few years before he crossed with the wide gait of a tall man. He stooped slightly now, leaning to accommodate the catch in his hip present since he broke it two years earlier. He remembered following his granddaddy on this path as a boy. The distance looked shorter, but felt longer. Max remembered how feeble the old man became before he died and wondered if he looked that old and crippled. Humph! Well, of course he did! At eighty-seven he was older than his granddaddy had been when he died. Max did the math in his head—he preferred doing math there, not relying on pen and paper or electronic gadgets. Ezra Carnes died whenMax was twelve. Ezra was seventy-five that same year. Max shook his head. Granddaddy had been dead seventy-five years! Max paused, took a breath, exhaling a sigh. Whew! Seventy-five years!
He was thankful for the memories that remained. Many had vanished. Max acknowledged his good fortune to have known his granddaddy and to remember their times together. Max savored the value of those times as he hobbled toward the front steps. He’d have paid more attention to remembering, if he’d known how important it could be.
Max focused on the steps. These days avoiding falling concerned him. The shortest trip, the simplest activity required careful planning. Once he would not have paid a lick of attention to the ordinary act of walking. Now Max planned ahead when he moved. When he reached the house he’d fix Lily and himself two tall glasses of lemonade. It would be his reward for having gotten all the way to the barn and back with no mishaps. The plot of ground he was crossing contained more foot traps than mine fields he’d crossed during World War II. The catch in his hip reminded him of that fact every day, but the accomplishment of crossing the yard was worth the danger. What fun is life without a little danger?
He paused at the foot of the steps to the porch, catching his breath and preparing for what he knew he would encounter at the top. He could see Lily from where he leaned on the railing. While Lily remained a wisp of a woman, her catlike agility and her lively wit had faded. She stared out at a world she no longer understood, a world that once beckoned her, now only baffled her. People, family, even Max at times created such anxiety for her that she trembled and wept. Lately, however, she had been some better. At least she seemed less frightened. He had worried this morning when he found her sitting on the bedroom floor, an upended box of old photos scattered around her. He feared she would be agitated, episodes like that paralyzed her at times. But, thankfully she seemed more concerned that “whoever made the mess in the floor needed to get right in there and clean it up” than frightened. Yes, today she had even agreed to venture onto the porch.
Max watched her. She rocked in the chair, picking with her fingers at something on the lap throw that shielded her legs. Pick, Pick, Pick. Rock, Rock, Rock. Max studied her for a moment, trying desperately to glimpse into the present Lily, his Lily. He shook his head and chided himself. In spite of evidence to the contrary, his Lilyremained. The years had taken their toll on him as well. He was hardly the man she’d married. The trip to the barn and back proved that fact. Yes, Lily had changed, but deep down the essence of Lily remained. Sixty-five years ago he’d promised to love her and protect her all the days of his life and with the help of God, he intended to do it.
There was no recognition in her eyes as he approached; only questioning. He smiled in greeting.
“Hello, Lily,” he said, keeping his voice even. He had learned to avoid startling her and to follow her lead in conversation. She continued to observe him, but she was calm. The tremors did not overtake her.
At the onset of her memory loss, he’d kept the rigid rules the experts laid out and reminded Lily constantly that he was her husband, that the man who came every day was their youngest son, Andrew, who lived across the road, that she had three sons and onedaughter, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Over and over, day after day he reminded her of innumerable lost memories, only to watch her descend into a pit of anxiousness and despair.
Initially, she would repeat what he said immediately after he said it, clinging to the words only to watch them dissolve. Later, she began repeating simultaneously, which tended to confuse not only Lily, but also Max, so that both of them lost the root of the conversation. Five years earlier similar incidents summoned a shared silliness with laughter as the result. Lily rarely laughed now. Max heeded the orders of the professionals, until one day she dissolved into tremors that left her sputtering nonsense.
That’s when Max called it quits with the doctors and hit the brakes. Hadn’t he promised to love not torture? He made up his mind he’d learn to love the Lily of the here and now without forcing her to join him there. The doctors who told him to keep her based in reality also told him that she would never recover. The disease, bit by bit, would steal her from him. Torturing her wasn’t going to cure her. His intention from that moment was to bring whatever bits of joy he could to Lily daily. He determined to share whatever life they had left on the earth, to follow her lead and trust the good Lord for the outcome.
Leaving the course set by the so-called experts, he returned to the pattern of love they had honored throughout their marriage. He found in this path that his love for her deepened and as her ability to love him back slipped beneath the surface, Max gasped for air, but held on.
His broken hip had left him with a limp, but he didn’t badger it constantly to move like it had before. He did his best to exercise it and adjust to the new way of walking. He didn’t chide Lily either. He intended to love her and care for her the best he could. She wasn’t the same but she was a part of him. They were one flesh. She was watching him quizzically now, unsure but not frightened. He continued smiling.
“Do I know you, sir?”
“I’m Max.” His steady voice contradicted the hurt he felt, when she asked such questions.
“Max?” She narrowed her eyes. “Have we met before?” A slight smile turned up the corners of her mouth.
“We have now.” He wasn’t lying. Daily he reintroduced himself.
“Could I get you a glass of lemonade?” He asked politely. She nodded.
As they sipped their lemonades, Max noticed the object she’d been picking at when he joined her on the porch was a photograph. He asked her if he could see it. Flattening it out with his hand he saw it was a family snapshot taken when Peggy, their youngest child and only daughter, was about a year old. Max had Peggy in his arms. The boys circled them. They were posed outside a beach house they had rented for two whole weeks off the North Carolina Coast. The Atlantic Ocean loomed in the background. Sea grass framed them.
“It’s a lovely picture. I was trying to remember who the people are.” Lily said. It was the longest sentence, the most inquisitive, Max had heard from her in weeks. He smiled.
Max fingered the photo before deciding what he would do. Finally he held it out to her. One by one he identified each of their children beginning with Ryan, the oldest, then Barry, then Andrew and finally Peggy. She nodded slightly and touched each face as he named them. Then gently he took her finger guiding it to her own face in the picture.
“…And this lovely girl is you, Lily.” Then he pointed to his face and considered his words carefully. He longed to scream, ‘and this is me, Lily, your husband, me, Max. Please, remember, Lily; we drove all night to Ocean Isle Beach. You and I have been back several times. Don’t you remember, Lily?’
But, what he said was, “and this is Max.”
“Max,” She said softly.
For an instant he wondered if she had spoken to him. He wondered if she remembered he had just told her his name was Max. Perhaps she had connected the two, but watching her as she held the photo, he knew she hadn’t. She studied the photograph and then asked again who they were. Several more times he repeated the names. Finally, wearily, she leaned back in the chair with her eyes closed. Mercifully, the rocking and picking had stopped. She was so still Max thought she was asleep. He leaned over to take her glass before it fell. Suddenly, he realized her eyes were wide open watching him.
“I always loved the ocean, didn’t I?” Her voice contained more breath than sound, no more than a wistful whisper.
“Always,” he replied, just as softly.
The moon cast eerie shadows on the pitted ground. Max realized he should have brought the flashlight, but it was too late to backtrack now. The distance to the barn appeared to have doubled. Struggling for footing and breath, Max put out one hand, steadying his frame against the solid barn door, when he reached the structure. Moment by moment he waited until he regained stability, his pulse slowed and though still slightly winded his panting eased into deeper measured breaths. He glanced around almost expecting one of his children to pop out of the shadows. With a yank, he pulled the doors open and felt for the light switch. Ah, there it was; flipping the switch; he blinked repeatedly, adjusting to the light that bathed the barn. There she sat, his 1996 Buick. What a beauty!
Max slid into the driver’s seat, turned the key and backed her out of the garage. A glance at the gas gage confirmed his suspicion that he’d need to fill her up, but other than that at eight years of age and less than thirty thousand miles on the odometer, she was primed and ready. He pulled her around near the front steps, before climbing out. As an afterthought he reached in and snatched the keys from the ignition.
It was after midnight when Max mounted the steps for the second time that day. The Buick glistened in the moonlight, ready for the get-a-way. He couldn’t identify the source of the plan, but the old snapshot and Lily’s brief remembrance gave it wheels. His children were sure to pitch a fit, so he’d call them after several miles down the road. He could hear their voices. “Dad, what on earth are you thinking?” “What business did two elderly people have taking a 700-mile road trip?” He’d tell them what he knew. Going was the right thing to do and it had nothing to do with business.
Tomorrow Lily and he were heading east. He’d avoid the interstates; take the roads they’d taken back in 1960. He’d court his bride of sixty-five years every day of the trip. Who cared if he had to introduce himself again and again? He did that anyway.They’d travel the slow lane. They’d travel one mile at a time. Foolish! Hah! Sometimes the wisest choices of all look foolish.
Entering their bedroom, he settled next to Lily and whispered, “Lily, tomorrow you and I are going to the ocean.” She murmured in her sleep. He kissed her shoulder. Then following the pattern of a lifetime, Max prayed. As he breathed “Amen,” a weight lifted. He drifted to sleep knowing that tomorrow would a perfect day for travel.