They first met on a church hayride on a crisp October night in 1966. He was 22 and she had just turned 16.
“C’mon, Henry! It’s time! They’re all asleep.”
I heard my wife’s excited voice as I groggily pulled myself awake from my usual pre-Christmas Eve nap.
“Ah, Gracie, you make the loveliest Mrs. Santa Clause,” I whispered good-naturedly as we both crept as silently as possible past the children’s bedrooms and down the creaky stairs.
“Come ON, Henry—you mustn’t go down here by yourself without help! Besides, it’s time for your therapy,” the aide tugged on my arm and pulled me back from the stairwell.
“But, the children’s toys! We have to put them together and place them under the tree,” he pleaded. Henry stared blankly at the white cement-block walls and the door with the blinking EXIT light starkly red above their heads.
“Gracie,” he continued, “the star’s shorting out again. Hand me that other bulb and I’ll fix it.”
Her hair glistened like an angle’s wing as she walked beside the tree’s silver icicles in her sock slippers, and he fell in love all over again with this, his terry-robed clad bride.
“Henry, Walt is waiting to play checkers with you! Let’s get a move on!”
He obediently shuffled a bit faster, past the visitor’s lobby and into the sun-drenched activity room where Walter was munching on fig bars.
“Walt, watch what you’re doing—all the crumbs are messing up the board,” Henry admonished crankily.
After calling a couple hours worth of their game a tie, the two men shook hands and left for their separate rooms for afternoon naptime. Henry’s medication was waiting for him and he quickly downed the pills with his Diet Coke, knowing that it would help him stay in the Reality Zone his Alzheimer's doctor kept harping on . . .
Muffled voices wafted in and out of Henry’s fickle consciousness as he awoke an hour later, like clouds floating behind one tree after another. He reached out to shut off his non-existent alarm clock, knocking the chrome bedpan to the floor, resulting in a tell-tale crash that announced its descent to the world. Fully awake now, he struggled to sit up, only to see that an old lady was sitting in the chair beside the bed.
“Do I know you?” Henry asked, querulously.
“Well, I should think so!” the stranger responded. “But never mind that. How are you feeling today, Henry? Is your arm any better? Here, let me help you with that,” she continued, as they both reached to pick up the runaway bedpan. Bumping heads in the process, they both yelled “OW!” in sync. They stood to their feet and Henry was arrested by a whiff of perfume that pulled him to a long ago familiar memory. Then, she giggled self-consciously as their hands accidentally touched.
“That laugh! I know that laugh!” And then, “Gracie? MY GRACIE! And he folded her into his embrace.
“Oh, Gracie, I found you! God has answered my prayers!” Henry held her face tenderly between his hands. “You’ve been lost for so long! Please, don’t ever run away again! I need you so!”
“Sh-hh, my darling. I’m right here,” (‘as always’, she added to herself). “Henry, would you like to go for a walk in the park? We could feed the ducks just like we used to.” Gracie laughed again. “Remember the time you threw the whole loaf in and it hit the poor little thing on the noggin’? How worried you were that you killed it and how relieved Danny was when it resurfaced!”
My smile grew wider as Gracie chattered on, and then, suddenly, I was exhausted. THE CURTAIN began to descend slowly over my faculties as I whispered, “Danny? Who’s Danny?”
“He’s our son, Henry, our SON!” she sobbed into his robe at the foot of his bed. But Henry wasn’t there anymore to respond, trapped in his alternate world that she could not be a part of. Gracie dried her eyes and lifted them to heaven.
“Oh, Father, thank you for those precious minutes Henry and I shared this afternoon! They were worth all the waiting, just to hear him remember me! Please grant me strength and courage to keep on keeping on. I live for the next time he comes back to me!”
Gracie held Henry’s hand, softly stroking it while he stared blankly in the white cement-blocked wall of his mind’s prison.
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