The daughter could not wait to say the words.
“Guess what? Mother has a boyfriend! Well, a man friend. Well, I’m not sure what to call him.” The daughter’s 81-year-old mother had love spilling out of her heart. “But his name is Paul.”
The daughter’s friend listened, tears glistening in her eyes, then quietly declared, “With all the pain your mother has had in her life, finding love at her age is proof there is a God.”
The mother lived with the daughter, adding years to their time together that might have been lost had they lived in different cities. As the mother’s mind faded slowly, her fondness for people never waned. She was a little old lady, hovering over her walker, not someone one would expect to find love at such an age, but caring hearts, like Elma’s, caused other hearts to respond.
This is what happened between Elma and Paul.
He lived across the street and two doors down. The mother could have tossed a softball to him, save the number of windows in the neighborhood. On days when his courage was strong enough to absorb all her attention, Paul came knocking on their door, always bringing his front-teeth-missing ear-to-ear smile. One day, he knocked harder than usual.
“Oh! You’re home! I wasn’t sure anyone was here. I was over earlier, but no one answered.” The daughter knew what Paul would be wearing. He favored constancy, regularity. He donned a white straw Panama hat to hide his scalp, which his fine, sparse hair refused to cover. His shirt was a standard white, a cotton blend, and he adorned it with his Naval pin on the left side directly above his pocket. His United States flag pin was always on the right. At his age, he did not have much interest in ties, but each day he sported his multi-colored inlaid gold bola. It would not have been fitting for Paul to miss these adornments in his daily attire; he was too much of a gentleman.
The daughter smiled each time she saw this man. “Oh, I was just out running some errands, Paul. Mom and the caregiver were probably asleep or on a walk. Come on in.”
He was more than a neighbor. He was a soul who saw past her mother’s angled body that could not stand straight, nor look up at the stars unless she accomplished a litany of activities like scrunching her knees down, setting her hands on her thighs to steady herself, tilting her rounded shoulders and neck back far enough to look up. Paul saw interminable sweetness. Elma was his friend. He could have been a rattlesnake, and the daughter would have kissed him for the kindness he showed her mother.
Elma met Paul some months earlier while her size six shoes were wearing down the sidewalk on one of her numerous daily walks up and down the tree-lined hill. Elma’s caregiver, Lila, a rotund woman with long, black hair, mentioned the burgeoning connection one day. Curious, the daughter joined Elma and Lila on a walk one day to witness this growing affection. When the three of them approached Paul’s residence, he opened his front door; and had it not been for his advanced age, the daughter would have sworn she witnessed a skip in his step as he came out to greet her mother.
“Well hello, Little Lady!” The mother never could resist a warm smile – with or without teeth, and left to her own will, Elma might have passed on putting her own teeth in daily, but Lila and her daughter always made sure Elma was color coordinated, hair combed, and color on her cheeks. Her teeth were the final complement.
The daughter watched Paul stand there on the sidewalk, right foot forward, left hip slightly cocked to the side, and listened to him as he began telling his life’s stories. “You know, I died during the war. A Korean found me and left me for dead. I think it was the Brits that got me to Hong Kong, but I was dead. They brought me back in the hospital where they do all that research. You know, the one where all those vets are. Oh well, I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m alive now.” His war stories battled against each other, mixing bits of confusion with facts. As a veteran of two wars, he had the right to forget.
Each day she saw him, Elma listened to Paul. Her memory tried to hold on to the first part of his words so she could connect them to the last, and not lose the meaning in between. The mother offered a nod here and there, a smile or two, as she peered into his face as though gently touching his cheek. It was the minimalist chat a dementia patient could offer, but delivered with care and concern. The mother had not lost all her social graces. It was just that her mind was slowly being erased. If anyone would ask her to explain what she had just heard, she would sputter, stall, and hunt for words with a creased brow and haunted look on her face. The daughter did not ask her to try to explain, nor did Paul.
It took two months for him to master the mother’s name. She was not as successful, so she called him “Sweetheart.” The very word caused a grimace as Paul inched his shoulders toward his ears, and exposed the vacancies in the front of his smile. In the daughter’s presence – he was actually a bit shy. The mother was not.
One day, as Elma walked by Paul’s house, he nimbly approached her as she pushed her walker along the sidewalk. His words danced as he saw the bright red lipstick painted across her small, thin lips.
“Well, look at you! You’ve got your lips on! You look kissable.” Paul meant it as a harmless compliment, but he gave it to a slightly reckless innocent betrayed by the playful wrinkles that cradled her brown eyes. Her curved, shrunken spine tried to straighten as she reached her face toward his. Elma seemed to want to look Paul in the eye.
“Well, what do you want me to do, kiss you?” She proceeded to pucker up as she patiently waited for a kiss. Paul’s cheeks flushed, but he bent down and complied.
It was that simple kiss, a small brushing of two sets of aging lips, while they stood under the arching limbs of a tree that allowed tender feelings to grow. Other days, if Elma could not stand tall enough to reach Paul’s face, she would kiss the back of his hand leaving enough of her red lipstick to create the illusion of paint tenderly applied to his weathered skin.
Once the kisses started, the gentleman with the Navy pin and the bola around his collar, began knocking at their door toting gifts of chocolate that, in his mind, brought the etiquette of his generation to their home. The house filled up with chocolate until it finally eroded the will power the daughter had worked so hard to build for so many years. Chocolate bars with almonds, or toffee, chocolate kisses, and when he ran out of chocolate, he honored Elma with a plant or a box of cold cereal. Paul never came without a gift for her. She never failed to listen to him. He did not seem to mind that, for the most part, all Elma could do well was listen.
As the visits increased, the neighbors noticed. All of them had met the mother on one of her walks, pushing that walker, stomping on fallen leaves with a kind of dementia-induced compulsion, smiling each step of the way. One day, as the daughter opened the door to greet Paul, the neighbors looked at her with grins that skipped across their faces as they silently mouthed words, and threw excited hand signals behind his back as if to query, “Elma has a boyfriend?”
“Come on in, Paul.” The daughter directed him with a wave of her arm toward the family room. As he walked past her, the daughter glanced back at the neighbors turning her thumbs-ups, yet managed to contain her growing impulse to dance with excitement, wave her arms in the air and yell, “Yes! Mother has a boyfriend!”
In her earlier years, the mother’s mind was so quick that her deep brown eyes lit up like twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. The daughter had wondered what would be left after the mother’s ability to think, to plan, to reflect dissipated as her mind slowly drowned in dementia. Then she watched her mother’s face as Paul walked in the room. The tiny shell of a woman glowed in a different way, and the daughter realized what remained: pure heart, pure soul. Elma’s warmth could have caused global warming on its own.
The daughter slipped up the stairs to her office where piles of paperwork awaited her, the adult she had become, but the curious girl inside of her wanted out. She wanted to sneak into the family room to get a glimpse of how people in their eighties court, one with advanced dementia, the other with memory challenges. The daughter knew conversation would be limited. Physical contact, too, she supposed. Then she considered the stories she had read about physical romance and dementia. The little girl inside the daughter transformed into a parent, so she slipped down the stairs, feet barely touching the fibers of the carpet. She entered the family room from behind the couch to find her mother and Paul sitting side-by-side, shoulders touching, his hand placed tenderly over hers as their eyes focused on the television. The daughter could feel the tenderness floating in the room like a warm mist.
“Hi, Mom. Hi, Paul.”
Paul jumped off the end of the couch. He unlatched his hand from Elma’s and stumbled for his words like a kid caught in some kind of mischief, but there was no mischief. None at all. The daughter had simply ruined their ambience.
“Oh, hi Jeanette.” The elderly gentleman shifted his weight from one foot to the other. It was hard for the daughter to ascertain whether the 86-year-old was trying to keep his balance or if he shuffled his feet from shyness. He stood there, his face taking on a reddish hue. “Your mother and I are just good friends.” He was embarrassed – for holding her hand.
“Oh, I know, Paul. It’s great that Mother has a friend. She has family and caregivers, but since she moved in with my husband, Bob, and me, you have been the only friend she’s had who is her age.”
“I don’t know how we became such good friends, but we really like to talk.”
“I know. Mother enjoys talking with you.”
He reached into his pocket to retrieve his wallet. Paul’s weathered hands sorted through his cards, selecting one with tattered edges and a dusty brown color. He handed it to the daughter. It was his military card.
“I’m a veteran of two wars. I believe in God and my country. I’m Catholic and I don’t believe in hurting people. I’d never hurt your mother.” Now, the daughter was in love with this spindly old man.
“Oh, I know you would never hurt Mom, Paul.” The daughter believed this man would protect her mother’s heart, but wondered if a well-intended hug would snap a rib in her badly osteoporotic frame. Parents of parents worry about all kinds of things.
“Well, you know, when your mother and Lila walked by my house one day, we just started talking. I guess that’s how we became such good friends.”
“That’s so nice, Paul. Why don’t you sit down and continue your visit?” He nodded, then clasped his hands behind his back and paused briefly.
“Does your mother ever go out to dinner?”
She glanced at the mother sitting on the couch with her eyes focused on the television. The daughter-turned-parent looked at her mother’s suitor, her mind bursting with jumbled thoughts as she realized she had not considered the consequences of hearts becoming entwined. Was he asking her mother on a date? What if her mother needed to use the bathroom? The daughter knew her mother could not have managed that alone. Did Paul ever become confused while driving? The daughter understood that all her questions led to a solitary answer of “No.”
“She doesn’t really go out to dinner, Paul.” The daughter hated being a parent to a parent when she had to answer with the word “no.”
“Oh, okay,” he replied. There was silence as she watched his shoulders fall, and the hope drain from his expression like a wave disappearing back into an ocean. “Well, I really need to be going now anyway. You’ll be having dinner soon.” He turned his face toward Elma. “I should go home now.”
Paul’s ears turned a mild crimson hearing this. “Oh, you shouldn’t call me that.”
“Why not? I’ll call you Sweetheart if I want to.” The mother did not stop there. She stood up to get kissed. The mother collected kisses, like she collected her stuffed toys, each one getting special attention. Paul stepped back, and his grey, fluid eyebrows curved up his forehead. He had been known to solicit a kiss or two from the mother, but not in front of the daughter, the same daughter he painstakingly tried to reassure seconds ago.
“Well, Paul, no one can leave without a kiss goodbye from Mom. She’s just that kind of person.” The mother was still standing, stretching up to Paul, and waiting for her kiss. She did not always remember a grandchild’s name, or a daughter-in-law’s name, but she did not forget that she was waiting for his kiss. The old gentleman saw there was no getting out of it, so he leaned over and gave Elma a quick kiss on the lips.
As the daughter walked him to the door, he whispered in her ear, “What is your mother’s name again?” Sometimes love requires no memory.
At times, Paul would admit that he became disoriented now and then, but he would shrug his lean shoulders, smile, and say, “Well, at 86 I’m not doing so bad.” It was true. His war stories were sometimes hard to follow until the daughter, with the persistence of a detective, dug deep with questions until she understood what, “I died, but came back again,” really meant. Paul was left for dead on a beach in Korea, picked up by the Brits and taken to Hong Kong. And while he showed us his purple heart, the exact circumstances of the brave act that won him this award continued to evolve. It was a story in the telling.
Although the mother could always focus on Paul’s face, she could not always concentrate on his stories. Sometimes it was due to dementia. Sometimes a fog would set in her eyes. It was from the haze of affection Elma felt for this man.
“Are you married?” she asked him one day when she and Lila were out methodically traipsing up and down the hills. When asked, Paul avoided answering Elma’s question, but he chose to share her inquiry with the daughter.
“You know, your mother asked me if I was married.”
“Did she?” the daughter replied.
“When my last wife died, there were several widows that asked me to dinner. Oh, I wasn’t interested in that. It hasn’t been a year yet since my wife died. I still miss her.” He made his point. Feet do get cool in the midst of a romance.
“Well, Paul,” the daughter calibrated her voice. She hoped the tone would sound soothing. “I wouldn’t worry about Mom’s question. She doesn’t mean anything by it. Sometimes, she thinks she is still married to my Dad.”
The mother remembered her husband, but did not remember him suddenly falling at her feet, hitting the floor of their bedroom. With his heart attack erased from her mind, Elma was left with brief memories of marriage. She had been married to a man dead for fifteen years by the time she met Paul. But her question made him skittish like a nervous cat, and he quit visiting. The mother noticed less than the daughter as the month passed by.
“Hey, Paul!” The daughter called from the window of her car as she stepped on her brakes, and slowed her sedan so she could speak to him. He was wearing the same clothes, the same hat, sporting the same smile. He rummaged through the back seat of his aging tan car that appeared as if it would fail to start even if someone released the brakes and chased it downhill. On the seat sat a dozen or more chocolate bars the manager at the local grocery store had given Paul. The daughter guessed much of it was past its expiration date and covered with cream-colored speckles. Sometimes the chocolate given to this spritely, old gentleman had turned color throughout and crumbled apart in grainy little pieces. Age does that to chocolate, and while the daughter learned she could discard his aging chocolate gifts, she knew she could not let go of this aged man. He owned a piece of her mother’s heart; a piece of her own as well.
“We miss seeing you, Paul! Why don’t you come over and visit?” This is not the first time he had heard this. The daughter had invited him several times in the last few days, but the old gentleman was knocked off-center by Elma’s inquiry into his marital status, so Paul gave the daughter a long list of things he must get done: visit the VA Center in Long Beach, take chocolate to the kids in school, maybe even see a dentist. He offered another wide grin, and pointed to his teeth, verification he still needed new dentures. But as the weeks passed, he seemed to forget Elma asked him if he was married. Or perhaps he responded to the daughter’s frequent urging. The reason will never be known, but one afternoon there came a tapping at the door. The daughter opened the door to find her mother’s personal Candy Man.
He chatted, laughed, and seemed to blend into the home like a worn piece of furniture that belonged in the room. The mother’s birthday was near, so the daughter invited Paul to a small celebration in honor of Elma’s day. But when the daughter invited him, he glanced at the floor. “Well, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing that day.” He delivered his words in quick stops and starts. “I’m going to have company for Mother’s Day, you know.”
“It’s so nice that you have company coming. How long are they staying?”
“Well, that’s great news. Mom’s birthday is after Mother’s Day.”
“Oh.” He shifted his lean body, and touched his arm to his forehead as though dabbing small beads of sweat off his skin. “Well, you never can tell what might happen between now and then.” The daughter was certain he had not had a home cooked meal in some time, her way to rationalize her own truth: she wanted Paul at the party for her mother. His hesitance did not dissuade the daughter. She handwrote an invitation with the date and time, and handed it to Paul.
“Here, if you can make it, we’d love to have you join us for Mother’s birthday dinner.” What she did not say is that she and Lila would remind him daily so he could not forget.
But the daughter had forgotten something. Something quite important. You see, some of the mother’s behaviors had become those of a young child, an age when eating with one’s hands was all that made sense. Dementia controls the calendar so the compromised brain travels back in time. The daughter began to pace and fret, posing question after question to herself. How would Paul respond if he saw the mother arrange the food on her plate into systematic shapes and patterns? What if she licked her spoon clean so she could see her reflection in it? Or her plate? Would he stop calling on her? The mother’s obsession was to over clean. The daughter’s was to over help.
Paul arrived with a two-pound box of candy, a bottle of wine, and three large chocolate bars bound together with a white lace wedding garter, another free gift, he explained, from the manager of the grocery store. His white shirt was adorned with his standard bola, a blue blazer, and his Panama hat. A military pin on his coat sparkled with small diamonds. The daughter thought Paul looked like a Navy man who had misplaced his dentures. Elma’s eyes danced at the sight of him. And when she saw her mother’s expression, the daughter knew she could not imagine a more handsome suitor for her mother.
“Well hello there, Elma!” He remembered her name.
When it was time to eat, the daughter seated Paul beside her mother, and directly across from her husband. She knew Paul’s eyes would focus on Bob, and not on her mother. The orchestrated seating arrangement made the daughter feel oddly disloyal to her mother, but it prevented the beads of sweat she expected on her own forehead. The mother’s whole focus was eating. Everyone else did all the talking.
While Elma ate her carefully arranged dinner, the daughter and her husband listened to Paul’s war tales. Because the daughter knew his memories would eventually evaporate, she built her own mental filing cabinet as she listened carefully to his words. He had served in World War II and Korea, had been commended for his intelligence work, kissed by Eleanor Roosevelt and presented with a purple heart. To the daughter, it seemed Paul had seen so much in life he was a treasure, but she knew he was a treasure waiting to be forgotten. Once lost, memories cannot be found again.
After the cake was eaten, the party moved into the family room. Paul sat with Elma’s hand in his, leaving his other hand free to punctuate his stories when the need to animate struck him. Most of his comments were directed to Bob and the daughter. The mother sat and smiled because Paul was holding her hand.
Lila noticed Elma’s eyes beginning to close, her head listing to one side. “Elma, you are getting sleepy.” Lila’s English had a faint accent of Spanish with the singsong rhythm of Tagalog. She spoke all three, but the Tagalog of the Philippines was her native tongue.
“Elma, my dear, you are getting sleepy. It’s our bedtime. We need to go to bed.”
“No!” Mother’s voice was normally peaceful, even playful. Not now. “I’m not tired, and I’m not going to bed.”
The mother looked up at Paul, her expression that of a 1950’s teenager being serenaded by Elvis. Paul smiled, looked down at her and said, “Elma, I’m sorry. You are tired, and I have stayed too long.”
The mother did not want him to leave, but Paul continued.
“I should go home. You’re tired, Elma. You need to go to bed.” He patted her arm gently. “I need to go home, because I need to go to bed, too.”
The pause was, oh, so short. Then in a tiny voice the tiny mother asked a very big question.
“You want to go to bed with me?”
The daughter avoided spraying her just-sipped tea into the air, but could not stop her rolling laughter. Her husband, one of the mother’s strongest advocates, began to slap his thighs as the tears brimmed in his dancing blue eyes. Lila bent over, her hands on her knees while she convulsed with rapid giggles. The three of them had simply lost all sense of decorum.
Paul’s blue eyes grew as round as two basketballs, and his bushy eyebrows arched to the sky with this surprise offer. The old gentleman shifted on the couch, stalling, contemplating how to best address the situation. The mother sat peacefully. She paid the others no mind, ignoring their laughter. She was happy holding his hand. Paul finally looked at Elma, smiled and said, “I guess things have changed a lot these days.” Elma and Paul owned the only dignity in the room.
In spite of the mother’s offer, or perhaps because of her offer, this kind, gentle man returned again and again, each time with some kind of treat in hand. Sometimes it was more chocolate. Sometimes it was grape juice. Sometimes it was cold cereal with bits of marshmallows in shapes and colors that would attract most any child’s attention, even the 81-year-old mother-turned-child who lived with her daughter. But the biggest treat of all was that warm, front-teeth-gone grin.
© 2014 Jeanette Reese