Swan Song

15 Aug

Part 4 in the Pilgrims Series

Everybody knows about Alzheimer’s, after all. It had happened to friends, great-aunts, geriatric celebrities. But I always saw it as a distant concept, as faraway as Saturn spinning in its orbit. Never us, I thought. Never Sam. But I should have expected it. It was the supremest of ironies, after all: I, who forgot nothing, watched while my husband’s mind fell into ruins.

The forgetting was swift. First where he had left the keys, then what days to take his rainbow array of pills, and then the month he was born. Next came the year, which was 2001. Last were the names: our children’s. Mine. His own. It seemed that as his memory decayed, mine grew finer, like steel sharpened on the whetstone. I had brief flashes of recall: the color of the shirt he wore the day we met (kelly green). The flowers he got me on our first date (lilies, not roses). The aftershave he used on our honeymoon (Kiehls).

I committed him to hospice care. And what else could I have done? The average teacher’s salary in Maine is $35,000. Sam had the whimsical mind of any poet – we had no 401(k) or hidden bank account filled with his book royalties stashed away. It was that or sell the house, the one Sam built, with its arching gables and hidden staircases and walls decked with obscure local art. But that was unthinkable. Even if he didn’t remember that it had been his hands who pieced floorboard to floorboard until a dwelling began to sprout, seedlike, from the ground.

I visited Sam every day. His case was acute, the nurses told me, and he had far more bad days than good. It made me tremble to to see him wearing an adult diaper and struggle to recall the words that used to give him so much joy.

Rose? he called me two months before he died.

I’m not Rose, Sam. That’s your sister. I’m Grace. Your wife.

His were unfocused and milky like cirrus clouds. Who?


Rosie, what did Mr. Roosevelt say on the radio last night? I can’t remember.

I’m Grace, Sam. And Roosevelt hasn’t been in office for sixty years. This is 2001.

Where is Rose?

I clenched my teeth. Rose is fucking dead.

He stared at me, his jaw quivering. A tear dribbled from the corner of one eye. No. Oh, no. Not Rosie.

Never mind, Sam, I’m Rose. I’m here. Forget what I said. I felt nauseous with guilt.

When I came back a week later, he was bent double over his desk, his pen dashing across the page like it had before he ever got sick.

He’s feeling better today? I asked the nurses, my heart light.

Yes, they told me. But, Mrs. Hensley…

What is it?

See for yourself.

Pages of notebook paper covered his bed like a second blanket and coated the Formica table under the window. All filled with one word.

Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie

Sophie was a tiny woman with wrists like a sparrow and hair as thick and white as fresh snowfall. She lived at the other end of the hospice, and her memory had been gone for years. The nurses said she never spoke anything but a steady patter of glossolalia. She was as enchanting as a child.

Why are you doing this, Sam? I asked, though I already knew the answer.

He stared at me, his face sunny. I’m in love, Rose.

Oh. I swallowed. What about me?

Don’t you worry, Rosie, I’ll never forget about you. His hands swept over my cheeks, the touch of a brother.

The nurses told me to bring in objects that might jog his memory of me: that azure blouse of mine he liked to run his hands over, shaky-handed candid shots of us, bottles of the perfume I had used for years. They did not tell me that he was beyond saving, but I did not need them to. You never know where you’ll find the things that make him remember, they said. Look for meaning everywhere.

So I searched for meaning in the fall of water from the tap, and the ceaseless shift of red numbers on the digital clock, and the graying of my hair. I searched for it in my students’ smooth faces. I even searched for it in the pages and pages he filled with Sophie’s name.

But I never found it there. I never found it anywhere.

When he died, I ordered lilies (not roses) for the funeral. I wore kelly green and dabbed on some Kiehl’s aftershave that I found buried in a bathroom drawer. The memories pricked at me, pin sharp, but I preferred it that way. Maybe somewhere it meant a remembrance, Sam recalling my name, a swan song of thought.

Check out the other stories in the series:

Letty Greene, Queen of Hearts

The Angry Feminist Manifesto

Babes in the Wood

© 2012 Elizabeth Ballou


6 Responses to “Swan Song”

  1. briandrush August 15, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    I linked this story on Facebook and Google+. I want people to see what you can do. You deserve it. Don’t stop!

    • elizabethballou August 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

      I don’t even know how to thank you. Your constant compliments really do press me to keep writing and creating.

      Thank you so, so much.

      • briandrush August 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

        You don’t need to thank me. You’ve earned any praise you receive. This is not flattery, believe me. You have amazing talent, and if it’s this visible when you’re only 19, imagining what your writing will be like when you’re 40 is stupefying.

      • elizabethballou August 16, 2012 at 12:04 am #

        Thank you again. I can only hope that I live up to those expectations!

  2. Jan Simson August 17, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    Your words paint better pictures than Bob Ross.

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