By Deirdre Maher
It was his eyes Judith had noticed that first night. She had never seen such a mischievous, (not to say naughty) twinkle before. Bright blue, such a merry expression – and then he had winked at her. Across a crowded pub, through the haze of cigarette smoke (we’re talking the ‘80’s here), her heart flipped over and she was lost. You had me at hello? No, you had me well before hello.
Now, twenty five years later, as she straps the ventilator mask onto her husband’s face, his eyes look at her with a kind of pleading apology. She flicks the ‘on’ switch and waits for the rhythmic suck and hum to begin. He is settled in his riser/recliner chair now, iPad on his lap and drink with straw within neck-bending reach. The whole process, from bed, to toilet, to shower, to chair – has taken ages this morning and Judith feels the familiar rise of irritation. Is she ever going to get that story finished on time?
“Okay – anything else you need?” she asks, hoping not. He shakes his head, breathing tube bobbing.
“Thanks,” he manages.
She bustles away, feeling guilty, trying to mask her irritation. She knows she hasn’t been as patient with him as usual, as patient as he deserves. As she washes her hands her thoughts go back to the plot of her story. She is stuck and she needs time to think, to work it out.
“Sorry. I think I need the toilet again.” His voice is weak and croaky. She sighs.
“No worries. Just a minute.” She needs that minute to compose her features, to get over the disappointment of further delay.
Judith wheels the hoist out of the wet room, rolls it to a stand in front of his chair, puts on the brakes and clicks the battery into place. Removing the ventilator mask, she fixes the sling around his chest (taking special care around the area where the feeding peg protrudes from his stomach). One of his hands she has to lift onto the handle of the hoist, the other he manages by himself. He braces himself, legs stick thin atop old man’s ankles, bony and frail. She operates the hoist expertly, bringing him to a standing position. The walk into the wet room is slow and painful. At last she lowers him onto the toilet.
Already his bowels have begun to empty and she withdraws from the room, closing her nostrils just in time.
It isn’t fair. Andrew is only fifty two. But this disease is no respecter of age or relationships – it strips away every vestige of dignity with utter ruthlessness, whether its victim is twenty nine or ninety. She wonders if she uses her feelings of frustration at having no time for herself as a buffer against the horror of what is happening to him, a way of keeping her grief at bay.
Back in the sitting room, Judith sits on the old green sofa by the open back door. A fresh breeze from the garden makes the sheer white curtain billow and she lets the fragrant air cool her cheeks. She closes her tired eyelids and a memory comes to her.
In a white room, tall windows open, sheer white curtains billow in a Mediterranean breeze, bringing the scent of exotic flowers to the young couple embracing in the tangle of white sheets.
“Wait,” the woman says, kissing her new husband. “I’ll be back.” Just my luck, she thinks as she hurries to the toilet. Was it something I ate?
When she returns to the bedroom, he is standing by the window, naked. For a moment she is content simply to admire his beautiful young body. His legs are strong and muscular, tanned now from the Cretan sun. The hairs on his chest curl, they are fair like his shock of blonde hair. He sees her and the delight and love in his eyes make her breathless. She turns, leading him back to bed. One minute, he says – stay just where you are…
She hears him go into the bathroom and as she walks to the bed she catches a glimpse of herself sideways on in the long mirror, which is hanging on the back of the door. She is mortified by what she sees. In a split second she knows that he has seen this too. There is a single streak of poo on one buttock. Not much, but enough. How on earth is he going to want to make love to her now? A moment later and he’s back.
“Don’t move a muscle, my lovely.” He tells her. She feels a quick wipe on her behind. Then he is gone again, only to return with a single rose, taken, she knows, from the display in the hall of the villa. He bows, presenting it to her with a flourish. She accepts this gift of love as graciously as she accepts his gallantry in shielding her from embarrassment. She pretends she has noticed nothing. He makes it easy to return to their honeymoon lovemaking.
Now she stays awhile, looking out at their garden, remembering. When she returns to the wet room she makes him comfortable again, chatting, distracting him, making him laugh at some stupid joke.
“Let’s go out to the garden after,” she says.
Back in the sitting room and when he is settled once more, this time in his wheelchair, she bends to kiss him. She takes his thin face in her hands and looks into his blue eyes. She sees a familiar spark of mischief and can’t help smiling in return.
“What, Andrew?” she asks, amused. “What are you thinking?”
“Just that you’re my ‘wheelchair candy’,” he says. She has to laugh. Immediately her spirits lift.
Today, she decides, she will try to be more of a wife, and less of a Carer.