Guest Post by Will Maguire
My boss, an old lady with butterfly glasses and a beehive hairdo, asked me to fill in one month on the morning shift.
This was a problem because I had a couple other jobs and I liked to finish late and drink beer until I couldn’t remember how poor and stupid and full of myself I was.
But she was insistent. So I found a way. I’d show up around 8 a.m. with my head aching and smelling, I’m quite sure, like I had spent the night face down in a puddle of stale beer.
Early each day I began to notice his old man in the visitors room. He was always the first one there. Always wore a white shirt and tie, combed and shaved and neat. He walked with a cane and when they opened the ward for visitors he would always check himself in the mirror. Like he was going on a date, like he wanted to look his best.
His wife of 60 years was in the ward.
She had started falling…and then started forgetting. Little things at first…misplaced keys, misplaced glasses.
And she would ask him, ‘What did I do with them? Would you remember that for me?’
Then one day she got lost coming home from the grocery store. And then a week later he found her lost and frightened in their own cellar.
He took her to a doctor finally and listened as the doctor explained that the past…every bit of it …would eventually disappear.
He tried and wrestled with the doubt and guilt but it became clear in a few months that he could not care for her.
So he found this place at the edge of the Hereafter, sold their house and took an apartment as near as he could.
He made all the arrangements, all the time fighting down the growing panic at the thought of being apart.
When he signed the papers and walked her in, he felt like a traitor to every secret vow a man’s heart can make to itself.
I was there that day mopping the floor. He was stricken…with loneliness I suppose and dread. I saw it in his face, though I’m sure I didn’t understand what I was seeing. How could I?
What did I know at 17 of having your heart cleaved in two, hollowed out at the prospect of what you know with certainty is crawling toward you?
She cried when he left that day. And without him near seemed to lose her bearings. It can happen like that…a heart can become unmoored.
And mopping the floors some nights I would hear her calling out that she didn’t know anyone or where this place was…. or even sometimes who she herself was anymore.
I would stand outside her door listening and trying to translate that kind of terror into something my 17-year-old pea brain could understand.
It was like listening to the foreign language…of loneliness.
But the old man would show up every morning…and would stand in that very spot outside her door …..steeling himself.
Day after day, he would paint a smile on his face and turn in to her room and in a loud voice brightly say good morning and how beautiful she looked again.
She would always brighten at the sight of him. Like a young girl in love for the very first time. And he would sit by her side and each morning say, “Do you know who I am?”
Somedays she would laugh and respond, “Of course…what a silly question…you think I could ever forget who I love….my husband of 60 years?”
And he would retell her things she had forgotten…a trip to the Cape each summer…the time he asked her to marry him…that first house before the kids.
Sometimes she would understand and ask, ‘We did all that?’ in real wonder. And sometimes she would not…could not understand. Like the glue of memory had gotten so old that it cracked and fell away.
“Never mind…never mind that darling,’ he would say.…’I’ll remember it for you.’
Near the end of the month, I watched him again…cane in hand, dressed like he was going on a first date, stand in that spot outside her room then, once again, turn inside. I went and stood in the spot, mop in hand and listened.
Once again he was gently asking, “Do you know who I am?”
There was no answer. And he put his face close to hers so she could see him clearly and he whispered again, “Do you know who I am?”
Her eyes searched his face trying in vain to summon some forgotten landmark in her heart she might recognize. Then she whispered to him, “ I don’t know where this place is…or who I am. I know I should…I know I should…” trying to recover what had already leaked away.
He was trying to quiet her. “Hush…hush now…it’s alright. I’m here.’
‘I know I should,’ she protested.
Then- ‘…… I don’t know your name…sir,’ all the time searching his eyes with her own. ‘..But I know …I can rely on you … I always will. I don’t know your name ….but I know who you are.’
If a heart has ears I felt mine begin to burn. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I never wanted to hear anything again. I stumbled away, back down the hallway of hereafter. I remember I threw the mop and I kicked over the bucket. What was the point. How could the world ever be clean again?
I quit that morning and I never went back.
The world is a beautiful place. It is a terrible place.
They grow together.
Scrape a sorrowful thing and you expose the beauty. Scrape a thing of real beauty and there’s always some sacrifice…some sadness at the heart of it. They require each other.
A husband and wife of 60 years facing certain loss… …makes their love not smaller but larger.
And it humbles me still to think of it…to realize how little I understand.
I was 17 …and a poor boy with only a glimmer of understanding. Standing there listening, I felt some part of me quiver…and since then that quivering, like a small earthquake only I can feel, has never stopped.
I feel it shaking some nights in my dreams. I feel it sitting wordlessly in the dark on my shoulders whispering its tremor into my sleeping heart. It tells me again and again there is something larger….something hidden at work.
And some nights it whispers to me about this life and the Hereafter. It tells me it is more beautiful and more terrible than my heart’s clay foundation can bear.
It is a pleasure to share his work on this blog.