I met Mr. & Mrs. A years ago when I worked as a housekeeper in an assisted living center. Both of them were in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, and that made for a lot of strange encounters with them. Some of these encounters were so funny I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep from hooting out loud. Others were just plain sad.
Once a week I cleaned their room while Mrs. A sat in her lazy-boy, knitting. She never finished anything, and I suspect it was because she could never remember what she was working on. Mr. A invariably perched on the very edge of the sofa, humming brisk little tunes under his breath in his perfect bass. Without warning he’d break out into song, startling his wife from her knitting daze, and nearly giving me a heart attack.
“The sun shines bright,” he’d bellow, followed by the rousing slap of both palms on his thighs, and then on his tummy, “DEEP in the HEART of TEXAS!” He had our full attention every time. While I clamped a hand to my mouth to smother laughter, poor Mrs. A glared at him with such intensity that he’d feel the heat of that stare and instantly, like a dog kicked too many times, obediently back down. His voice went down to the merest whisper as he sent her an imploring look, and sang, “The stars at night are big and bright,”(followed this time by the softest slapping of thighs and tummy), “deep in the heart . . . of Texas . . .”
I don’t know who I felt sorriest for. Something told me she’d worn the pants in the family for a long time—or was her dominance of him simply part of her mental illness?
“Oh dear,” she said with a heavy sigh one afternoon as I entered their apartment, “I just don’t know.”
“What’s that, dear?” her hubby said, turning his whole body toward her, as if his neck were incapable of moving on its own. “What was that?”
“I said I just don’t know.” She let out a quivery breath, and looked pointedly, with not a little fear in her eyes, at the large piece of paper taped to the phone. Its squiggly block letters read, Do NOT call Richard.
“I’m sure I haven’t called to wish Richard a Happy Birthday,” she said, looking up at me with woeful eyes. “I’m sure of it. And yet . . .” her voice trailed off as she turned her attention once more to the badly lettered sign . . . “and yet this sign clearly says not to call him.” She turned to frown in her hubby’s direction.
“Oh, well, dear,” he began, clearly clueless as to the source of her consternation, but sensing that some kind of response was expected of him, “I’m sure it will all work out. Say,” he added brightly, “who did you say this Richard was?”
“Our son!” The knuckles of the hand clenching her knitting needles turned white with irritated anger. “Our son Richard. Today is his birthday, but I don’t know if I’ve called him or not.”
“Would you like me to make the call for you?” I offered, not at all sure that this wasn’t against company policy. My supervisor had so many little rules that I suspected her of making them up as she went along. “I could call for you,” I repeated as she gave me a look of incomprehension.
“Oh dear, no,” Mrs. A cried with sudden vehemence, “that would never do. He would know I put you up to it, you see, and be furious with me, simply furious.” I nodded in sympathy, deciding to leave them to solve their own problem. I went over to the double bed, at the farthest end of the room and began stripping it.
“Oh I could just cry!” Mrs. A burst out just as Mr. A began to hum a little ditty.
“Why, if you feel like crying, dear, you just go right ahead,” he said, eyes straight ahead as he sat military erect. I felt a nearly uncontainable urge to bark, At ease, soldier!
“I didn’t say I felt like crying,” she said, her chin now trembling. “I said I could cry.”
“Say.” He turned his body toward me and in slow motion took one fisted hand from his pants pocket, unfurled the middle finger, and held the hand out for my viewing pleasure. “Know anyone with nail clippers? This little rascal in the middle is all raggedy.” He smiled at it as if it were a beloved child.
“Not now, Henry!” his wife snapped. She gave his extended finger a horrified glance before turning her gaze once more to the puzzling telephone sign.
“When you go to lunch,” I said, tucking in a bed corner, “ask one of the personal assistants to trim your nail. They have clippers.”
“Oh?” His face crumpled in disappointment. As painstakingly as he’d unfurled the finger, he bent it into his palm and slipped the hand back into his pocket. “Oh say, I don’t suppose you know how a fellow could find the lunch room?”
“For crying out loud!” Mrs. A cried, once more interrupted from her fretting. “It’s not lunch time.”
“Yes,” he said in a considering tone, head tilted to one side. “But dear, we do need to find the lunch room when the time comes. You know that asinine Mr. Burroughs hogs all the lime jello.”
“Well then,” she said, rising creakily from her chair. “We’d best get a head start.” She sent me a shy smile, her irritations and fretting all forgotten, while Mr. A whispered in a not so low voice, “Say, who is that over there making our bed? Have we seen her before?”
“Hush,” she told him, swatting her hand in the air, “that’s our cleaning woman. Why, she comes here all the time, Henry.”
“You don’t say?” Rising to his lanky height, he pulled up his shirt and played a colorful rendition of Deep in the Heart of Texas, grinning wolfishly. “Say,” he interrupted his song to ask, “Is it lunchtime?”
No it wasn’t, but I couldn’t bear to disappoint him yet again. Also, I feared that if Mrs. A sat back down in her lazy-boy, she’d get distracted all over again by the whole phone call drama.
“Sure, I’ll show you the way.”
“Oh hey.” Once more out came the middle finger. “Can I take this fellow with me?”
“I think you’ll have to.”
He beamed at me like a pleased child, cutting his eyes to his wife in silent triumph. Apparently, in his head at least, he’d just scored a victory.
As we left their apartment, Mr. A gave me a puzzled look and said, “Say, where are we going?”
“To the lunchroom,” I said quickly before Mrs. A had a chance to snap at him. “See that door on the right,” I said, pointing, “that’s the lunchroom. You just go ahead and make yourselves comfortable, and someone will come help you out.”
“Alright then,” Mr. A said, positively jaunty now. “See you later alligator.”
“After while, crocodile,” I said, having gone through this little routine many a time. And, as usual, Mr. A bent nearly double in silent laughter, pointing at me as if I were the funniest person on earth.
On days like this when several things have gone wrong, and discouragement sets in, I sometimes think of this dear couple, coping as best they could in a world which must have suddenly (or was it slowly?) become indecipherable. I know that it doesn’t always help to think of those who are more unfortunate than I. Sometimes that is no comfort at all. And like Mrs. A, I find myself easily irritated on days like this. I can’t always remember if I’m supposed to be grateful that my situation isn’t worse than it is—or just flat out admit that it’s this bad, and leave it at that. If nothing else, I can relate to their constant need to try to make the best of things in a world which had become so disorienting. And I can’t help smiling at the memory of my short acquaintance with them, thankful at least for a glimpse into another kind of reality.