Better Late Than Never

When Tommy returned from his trip to Walgreens, he was  carrying a plastic bag that appeared to contain more than the Triple A batteries he had gone to purchase. From the square shape of the box within, I thought it to be golf balls.

“What did you get?” I asked. I was teasing, for no matter how many dozens he has stored on basement shelves, I don’t mind him adding to his collection.

My husband smiled and entered the house, leaving me on the porch where I had stationed myself to enjoy a beautiful Saturday afternoon. But after spilling coffee on a garden chair, I left my spot to get clean-up equipment.

I spotted the square box on the kitchen counter. Instead of a package of golf balls as I had guessed, the box was yellow trimmed in gold and decorated with the familiar red flowers, green border, and the words “Whitman's Milk Chocolates Sampler” in green script. A yellow envelope addressed to me was laid next to it. I opened the card that read, “Happy Birthday from the Group!”

“Thank you, Sweetheart!” I called out as I searched for Tommy. I found him installing the new batteries into his headphones, and acting as if there was no surprise waiting for me. 

“I love the card and the chocolates!” I said as I pulled him from his task.

My husband’s eyes moistened. He placed the Triple A’s and headphones on the counter and bent down to accept my kiss. Then, he picked up his equipment and returned, smiling, to finish his job.

Although my birthday was the previous week, and “from the Group” was a bit off base, I was thrilled to receive both the card and the gift. Tommy had remembered after all. I know he chose this particular card, rather than a more appropriate, “To My Wife,” because at Walgreens he didn’t have with him his reading glasses, and this card’s “Happy Birthday” was large, colorful, and easy-to-spot. He didn’t sign it, but no matter. I knew the identity of my my gift giver.

On August 10, the morning of my actual birthday, when the kitchen counter was vacant of card or chocolates, I wasn’t hurt or angry. I knew if my husband could have pulled it together, he would have. On past birthdays, I could count on a sentimental “To My Wife” card and bouquet of flowers greeting me in the morning. But since Tommy no longer drives, I realized that would have been difficult.

I’m certain he knew the actual date because phone calls wishing me "Happy Birthday" started early that morning and cards that arrived in the mail were displayed on our dining room table, along with a basket of treats my daughters had sent.

Because I thought his lapse on my special day was due to his inability to purchase something on his own, I had an idea. When his Friday driver, Stuart, came to pick up Tommy, I made this suggestion: “There’s a Hallmark’s next to the coffee shop where you get Tommy,” I said. “Tell him you saw on Facebook that it was my birthday and would he like to stop in and get a card.”

“No problem,” Stuart said. But when the two arrived home and my husband led the way inside with only his gym bag, I looked at Stuart for clues. “I asked him,” he whispered to me, “but he made it clear he wanted to go straight home.”

Since Walgreens is only a block from our house and Tommy’s language problems don’t prevent him from making an off the shelf purchase, he could have bought the card and chocolates on my actual birthday. And Stuart did give him the option to buy something that same day. My husband chose neither.

I have a theory as to why he picked today -- eight days after the fact. I believe he wanted to separate himself from the crowd -- make his gift and card more special than the rest. He wanted to let me know he cared more for me than anyone else, more than the first-thing-in-the-morning well wishers or card and gift senders. 

Anyway, that’s what I think. It doesn’t really matter. The greeting card “From the Group” is propped on its own on the dining room table, and every bite of candy feels like love.

The Kids Are All Right

Tommy and I have just expanded our family: a boy and a girl. They arrived not as bundles from heaven, but in a Jeep and on a bicycle. In truth, they are young adult companions for my husband -- miracles of referrals rather than biology or science -- who I’ve hired to give me respite from ‘round-the-clock caregiving.

I do have flesh-and-blood daughters. But since they live on either coast, they can’t be at our beck-and-call. As for Tommy, he entered this second marriage sans children; hence my designation of this new adopted duo as “our kids.”

Before our boy Stuart came for his first assignment, I prepped my husband. Unlike the cinematic moment: “Darling, I have wonderful news. You’re going to be a father,” my revelation went something like this: “Honey,” I said, “I’ve hired a young man who will take over driving you to the Y one day a week. He’s a CNA, that’s Certified Nursing Assistant, so he can also help out when I have my hip replacement surgery.”

Well, okay, I fudged a bit. Stuart’s medical credentials are important for Tommy’s condition, but I hesitate reminding my husband of his special needs. I can take the fall  -- metaphorically of course because of the hip thing -- as I really do see our boy being helpful when I’m shouting for my crutches.

After Tommy gave the plan two thumbs up, I gave Stuart this checklist: “Before you leave the house, be sure Tommy takes his reading glasses, cellphone, gym bag, and that he’s wearing his dental bridge, baseball cap, and gym shoes.” Stuart -- using an impressive two thumbs entry -- recorded it all on his iPhone, immediately winning me over with the product and the pace.

On the morning of their first drive, I left for the health club at 6 a.m. Stuart would use his own new key to gain entry at 8:30. “Don’t text me unless there’s a problem,” I had told him. But, that didn’t keep me from checking my own iPhone at 8:30, 8:45, 9:00. Nada. I was at peace.

Tommy and Stuart were due back between 11:45 and noon. After a sublime four hours to myself, I returned home to await their arrival. At 11:40 I stationed myself at our picture window and watched as each car turned the corner into our street. At exactly 11:45, a black Jeep entered my view.

“Everything was fine,” Stuart said as Tommy walked into the house with two thumbs raised. “He was all set when I arrived, everything on the checklist completed.” I felt as proud of them as if they had just aced their ACTs.

Our girl Kristen had been engaged to be my husband’s companion one afternoon a week. Her task is to follow him as he rides his bicycle to a park about a mile away, and then circles the grounds four times before heading back home. Ever since Tommy returned from a ride with an unexplained bruise on his leg, I’ve worried about his safety.

For her first shift, Kristen rolled up to our house outfitted in a gingham summer dress over bike shorts. She wore a helmet; and slung across her body, an enormous leather purse, which I later insisted she forgo in favor of one of my archived backpacks.

I had told Tommy about Kristen’s arrival, and again employed the hip excuse. “I won’t be able to drive for at least four weeks,” I said. “Kristen can keep you company on bike rides, or use our car to take you to the putting green, golf store, or wherever you want to go.”

But I needn’t have dissembled because the moment Kristen -- who is an actress -- removed her helmet, shook out her hair, and smiled, my husband rushed to the garage to get his bike. While this duo was on their ride, I once again peeked at my iPhone willing away any text messages. Gratefully, as with her faux sibling, none arrived. And in a little over an hour from the time they left, the two returned.

“It was fine,” she said. “I followed behind him [they use sidewalks] and alerted people as we approached. We stopped for water, then headed home.”

Tommy, his face moist and smiling, gave her two thumbs up as he headed for the couch. Before she left, Kristen went to where Tommy was prone to say goodbye. Instead of shaking his hand, she dotted his damp forehead with a kiss.

Perhaps our kids are heaven-sent after all.

The Turn Around Tango

It’s 5:00 p.m. and the dance my husband and I perform daily -- which I have dubbed “The Turn Around Tango” -- is about to begin. Music would be nice, but our duet is staged in silence.

I’m in the kitchen preparing dinner. A pot of spaghetti is nearing its boil on the stove. I remove a colander from its place in a cabinet and set it in the sink. When the timer rings, signaling al dente, I lift the pot by its two handles and turn around to dump pasta and water into said colander. Alas, the pockmarked utensil has vanished.

In his fancy step, while my back was turned, Tommy has removed the colander from the sink, placed it back in the cabinet, and exited. He has not done this to vex me; this I know. He just can’t help it.

I remain standing -- a tricky move because I am holding the caldron with padded gloves, steam is clouding my eyeglasses, and I have nowhere to toss its contents. I hold this pose for a beat, then swivel and return the steaming pot of spaghetti to the stove.

Early on, when I first encountered my husband’s stealth move, I would try this: “Honey,” I’d say, “Please come back into the kitchen and get the colander out of the cabinet where you put it. I need to drain the spaghetti.”

Tommy would return, a contrite grin on his face, and perform his well-practiced steps. But, I no longer make that request. I have memorized my moves: button lip, pot back to stove, retrieve colander, return to sink, lift pot, dump.

Our Turn Around Tango takes place in other areas of our house and at various hours. A pantry door opened to extract garlic and Italian spices, is closed before I get out the first dash. Same for refrigerator when soy milk is used for my Cheerios. Ditto the garbage can lid I keep open while doing kitchen prep.

The reporter notebooks I use for Trader Joe’s and Target shopping lists are invariably returned to a neat stack after I have separated and laid them side-by-side for easy entries. All it takes to cue my spouse is for me to turn my back.

“Don’t you get mad?” I was asked by a friend. “Don’t you want to scream at him? Tell him to leave your stuff alone?”

I answer, “I think it helps Tommy when I remain calm.” I believe this to be true. My husband shows no rage in dealing with his illness.

To this friend, who has had her own frustration with a stubborn, aging relative, I say, “I’m a patient person. This comes naturally to me.”

But, I fear I lie. I can recall many instances when I am anything buy patient. See me drumming the table of a restaurant until the waitstaff comes for our order. That’s me at the hot dog stand, stewing, while the proprietor chats it up with the customer in the front of the line. And yes, that’s me fuming in any and all medical offices while waiting for my name to be called.

So, how am I able to remain saintly with my husband? What good would it do to seethe or explode? His condition prevents him from veering from his compulsive, neat-making routine. The pattern of his dance steps is imprinted on his brain; he cannot do otherwise.

As for me -- petite and compact -- I’m quick on my feet. Over the years, I’ve been able to practice my moves. Sometimes, I stumble if the steps are too difficult. Often, I wish I could get one maneuver down perfectly before another is introduced into our lives.

Thus far, I’ve kept up with my creative dance partner. The trick is to let him lead.

When the Caregiver Needs Care

So I’m on the appliance store’s website and thinking the 5 cubic foot  Frigidaire White Chest Freezer at $197 might be a good idea. I could fill it with the pack of 4 Palermo pizzas I spotted at  Costco, and dozens of packages of frozen vegetarian dinners that my husband likes. That way, when I go to the hospital for two days, and when I’m thumping around on crutches, or with a cane, or pushing a walker, Tommy can possibly prepare meals.

My hip replacement surgery is scheduled for Sept. 20, eight months after two orthopedic specialists said, “You’re limping. It’s not your back, it’s your hip.” X-rays verified arthritis had eroded the cartilage in my right hip and the spooky, “bone on bone” was the culprit.

“Do it sooner rather than later,” my neighbor, the physical therapist, advised. Others chimed in with supportive quotes like, “wish I had done it 10 years earlier,” “I feel like a teenager again.”

But thoughts of any surgery, hospitalization, and rehab bumped up against my care-giving responsibilities. How would my husband fare if I had to be gone from him overnight? How would he continue his three-times-a-week exercise routine at the Y if I couldn’t drive for at least four weeks? Laundry,  grocery shopping, and this-and-that, kept me postponing a visit to a surgeon.

When I admitted I could no longer walk even once around our neighborhood park, I booked the appointment that led to the scheduled date. The surgeon concurred, “If medication and injections no longer work, surgery is the only option to relieve the pain and get you walking easily again.” He penciled me in his hospital schedule, gave me instructions for the interim (continue my cautious workout routine), and told me his nurse would be in touch. My planning began.

I alerted dozens of relatives, neighbors, and friends to my due date. Their responses: “I can help,” “Count on me,” “Whatever you need,” eased my mind. And when I told my husband the September date, and assured him his routines would continue unabated, he gave me two thumbs up.

I relaxed even more when I replayed a scene in my head. It was the first meal Tommy made for me after we met in 1996. He had been a bachelor for 15 years following a first marriage.  I was separated from my husband of 30 years and living in a new townhouse a few doors from Tommy’s apartment.

“This is lovely,” I remember saying as I toured his place. I thought he must have spent time tidying it up for my visit, but now, after having been married to him for 14 years, I realize he’s an orderly person and his apartment was likely untouched.

Tommy was smitten with me back then -- I have letters and notes to prove it. “Sit here,” he had said, pulling out a dining room chair slowly so it wouldn’t scrape or shriek. There was a place mat, I’m sure, and silverware on one side of a dinner plate. (I have since demonstrated how they are separated: fork to the left, knife and spoon on the right.)

Our meal was broiled chicken, cooked squash, and... What was the starch? I can’t recall. But I so remember the squash because I have replicated his recipe many times since then. (Brown sugar stirred into the defrosted and cooked block.)

The other thing that sticks in my memory of my bachelor Tommy was his Friday nights at the laundromat. As he described his weekly routine to me,  I could see my middle-aged swain sitting on a chair next to an empty shopping cart, a paperback mystery in his hands. One load of his laundry is soaking and spinning.

When he moved in with me, just a few months after the chicken and squash dinner, I took him by  hand to my washer and drier. “No more laundromats,” I said. I was happy to declare this. “Terrific,” he said as he put his arm around my waist and kissed my cheek.

So, why am I stressing? My husband can no longer speak, but he can certainly cook a frozen pizza and place an Amy’s fake meatloaf dinner in the microwave.  And, although Tommy hasn’t had to tumble a load for 14 years, I bet he could follow the instructions permanently imprinted on the inside cover of the Whirlpools.

If I purchase the extra freezer I could include several blocks of squash in the inventory. My husband’s memory is intact; I’m certain he’ll remember the recipe. Brown sugar is the key.

Crime Scene Investigation Chicago

It was like an episode of C.S.I. when the team prepares to search a dumpster for some vital clue. I was pulling on a pair of white vinyl exam gloves -- latex free, powder free -- and smoothing each finger so the glove would hug each digit. 

I used an empty plastic garbage bag to hold the contents of our tall kitchen trash can. Unlike the TV investigators who would be seeking elements of a crime, I was hunting for Tommy’s lost keys.

The receptacle was an inspiration and my last hope. My husband and I had already yanked inside-out all the pockets of his clothing. Had already peered under the bed, under the nightstand, under the couch cushions, under the couch. When all of these turned up empty, a dark thought entered my head: Tommy must have left them in the front door and some miscreant absconded with them.

So, I decided to change our morning’s plans. “We’ll go to Sunday breakfast,” I told my husband, “but instead of continuing on to do our banking and our grocery shopping, we’ll come home straight away. I’ll call a locksmith then to change our bolts.” He gave my plan two thumbs up.

As a devotee of all crime shows, I figured that whomever purloined the keys would be watching our house and burglarize it the minute we left. So after exiting the driveway, we drove around the block and crept back home. Since nothing was amiss, we proceeded to a nearby diner.

I raced through my egg white omelet with thoughts of my iMac and iPad being lifted from the house and piled into a white van with the misleading logo of a repair company. “Finish your coffee,” I said to my husband. I was already standing and packing up. “We’ve got to get home.”

No white van was parked in front of our house. Inside, my Apple products were safely tucked in their spots. Nothing had been disturbed. Still, I called a locksmith. While waiting for a callback, I decided on the dumpster-dive routine.

One by one I plucked. Gingerly. First, I lifted out a white cone-shaped coffee filter filled with the morning’s Trader Joe’s French roast. Next, crumpled paper towels that earlier held the ice pack used to soothe my aching back. Onward to dust and dirt swept up from the kitchen floor. Finally, I drew out several tiny foils that once wrapped around miniature chocolate candies.

And there they were: Tommy’s keys, staring up at me as if to say Ta-da! First, I cancelled the locksmith. Then, dangling the keys, I raced upstairs to our bedroom where my husband had not given up the search.  “Look,” I said. “I found them! They were in the garbage.” He grasped the keys, smiled, and plunged his fist deep inside his pocket.

This is what I figured happened: Tommy had left our neighborhood Block Party before me. He let himself into the house, removed his keys from the lock, but kept them in his hand. Then, he went straight to the freezer, plucked a candy from the door’s shelf, unwrapped it, and tossed foil and keys into the garbage.

I could ascribe Tommy’s lapse to his illness, but then a list of my follies -- and that of my two daughters -- popped into my brain. Once, I left my fully-loaded backpack on the floor of a local McDonalds -- overnight. Gratefully, the manager spotted the bag and held it for me until I came for it the next morning.

Another time, I left my wallet on the counter at Trader Joe’s. I didn’t discover my loss until I got home and was about to put away my receipt. An eagle-eyed employee had spotted it and kept it safe until I returned within the hour to retrieve it.

I remembered Faith’s story of leaving her MacBook on a seat at the boarding gate and not remembering it until she was belted in. A plea to the flight attendant miraculously won her an escape to pick it up exactly where she had left it.

And Jill left her MacAir still charging at her sister’s house after she had hugged goodbye and departed for Los Angeles. Federal Express brought it home to her within two days.

I relate these tales -- you are likely already contributing your own lost and misplaced examples -- to emphasize that sometimes, missing objects are not a result of some sort of theft, but instead are just a case of plain old absentmindedness. Nothing more.