originally posted on July 9, 2011. The husband in this piece is still alive but Alzheimers' has changed him quite a bit in the ensuing four years. I still occasionally play for services at the old age home. The population who attend those services has shrunk.
I don't know how to write about this.
I'm not sure why I want to. I don't normally write personal stuff here.
I play piano for a religious service at an old age home most Friday afternoons. I've been doing this for a few years; I go with my kid, who initiated our attendance as a project to maintain a prayer quorum.
There's a guy in his nineties who attends regularly, not because he lives at the home but because his wife does. Sometimes their son, who is a doctor, my guess in his early sixties, comes. Anyway, the service leader, who's become a friend over the years (both to me and to my kid, who has a disability) usually passes the wireless mic to the father at a couple of points in the service to sing a couple of prayers. I accompany him, as I do anyone who sings.
As you can imagine, this guy's been married a long time, I think since about WWII, of which he's a veteran. He's traveled to DC a time or two recently for those ceremonies at the WWII Memorial honoring the surviving vets. A thoroughly nice guy.
The service was going along normally. It's light and kind of fun as services go, usually including a Broadway tune (ask me about that sometime - you might wonder how a tradition like singing a Broadway tune at a religious service starts). Usually the service leader sings these but he feels lousy tonight, so a couple of congregants volunteer to, including the son.
Late in the service, I look up and notice that the mother and son are not in their seats. I assume she doesn't feel well; she was in the hospital last week. She's not always coherent these days; sometimes she has trouble blessing the candles, though a couple of weeks ago she did great. The service continues, the father says the blessing over wine, someone else says the blessing over bread, we sip wine from a tiny cup and eat a piece of challah, the service ends and my kid and I head out to the parking lot because we have a place to be - the professional pianist at my Temple is on vacation and the rabbi asked me to do some substitute playing for the somewhat sparsely attended summer Friday night services, which I'm happy to do, so we're off to our second consecutive service. We're in the parking lot, kid's loaded in the SUV, ramps are pulled and set up so I can position the heavy power wheelchair to drive up them into the back, when one of the women I know from the service comes outside and heads for us.
The wife, the woman whose husband and son come to visit her at the home, just died.
Another woman from the service comes out and over to us. Her explanation is more comprehensive:
The old woman was turning red and seemed to be having some difficulty. Her son, who is an MD, asks her if she's OK. The woman who was telling me this story sat in the back of the room near where they did, so she observes this and goes out to call a couple of aides to help. The doctor wheels his mother's chair out of the room. A few minutes later, he returns, not with his mother but with a pair of aides and an empty wheelchair. He walks up to his father and whispers something in his ear. The father shouts "No!" then the son tells the congregation what just happened. The wheelchair is for the father.
I'm trying to imagine what it's like to be this guy. A year or two ago, he lost his older brother, 97, who'd been down to visit him a time or two since I've been there. He recently lost his best friend. This afternoon, his wife and son leave the room for a few minutes, then his son comes back and he learns he's without his wife for the first time since the Roosevelt administration.
For her, in some ways this is almost a happy ending. She likes services; the service leader often flirts with her. (He's maybe her son's age if that.) She sits in familiar, friendly surroundings with her husband and son, her husband sings as usual, her son sings something fun; when something goes wrong her son is right there, she's never alone, and it's over very quickly. She lived a long life; she barely missed reaching ninety.
For him, it's different. He can't complain about how little time he had with her, nor would he. He's likely to be grateful for the time he had. But it's so sudden, and it's so permanent. One minute he's sitting next to his wife, glad that she came through her hospital experience OK; the next he learns that he'll never have a two-way conversation with her again. There isn't a goodbye, at least not a living one - he didn't know this was goodbye as opposed to "see you in a few minutes".
It could be worse. There are so many ways it could be worse. Some people lose children. Some people lose other loved ones who really are taken away too soon. He'll probably say all of these things to himself over the next few days; that or someone else will say them to him.
But his peers are all dying or dead, the people who share experiences from early in his lifetime are vanishing so fast. While the people around him are probably saying things like "She would have wanted to go like this", he'll nod and agree.
But it still has to hurt like Hell.