I have fallen in love with a willow tree. I first saw it a week ago, on a golden, dusty afternoon. You and I were out for our daily constitutional. You move with a walker these days, tennis balls affixed to the bottom. You hunch over the metal frame, a shuffling figure with a cap of white curls.
It was one of the last warm days of autumn. The trees were shedding their leaves in spirals of crimson. I strolled at your side, the two of us moving at a gentle, incremental pace. We were on our way to the hobby shop. Passersby darted around us in a steady stream. My arm rested on your back. Long ago, my skin had been darker than yours, clay to marble. But time has weathered us both, like wind on stone, eroding us to the undifferentiated pallor of old age.
Inside the hobby shop, you settled in a chair, catching your breath. I walked between the aisles. The air smelled of wood shavings and bleach. The fluorescent lights buzzed dully.
To this day, I am not sure how I stumbled into making stained glass. It is an odd pastime for a man like me, a little namby-pamby. But I like it. I have done it for decades. Tracing the outline on the panel. Applying pressure with the blade. Wrapping each shard tenderly in foil. The soldering iron. The smell of melting copper. It is a meticulous business, with no room for error. Over the years, I have filled our house with splendid lampshades and windowpanes.
On that autumn day, I had finished my most recent bit of glasswork and was looking for something new. I moved along the rows of tools, rubber bands, and hoops of wire. At the back, the shop owner was hollering about some impossible project. Seated at his desk, he pushed a sheet of paper at me.
A lampshade pattern. A willow tree. It had never been done. It was too complex, too fragile, ever to be assembled. Many had tried and failed. Three thousand pieces, some no larger than a dime. Staring down at the pattern, I could almost hear the branches creaking. Thresh and ply. Glints of sunny gold.
Ever since, the willow tree lampshade has taken hold of me. The past week has been strange. I have all but lived on the sun porch. On warm days, that room, with all its windows, is as steamy as an oven. No air conditioning. Just an ancient, rattling fan. I have bent over the table, cutting the glass, manipulating the foil, sweat beading on my back. I have worked until my hands start to tremble.
The pattern aches to be finished. It has followed me out of the sun porch, into my daily routine. As I count out your pills, as I prepare our meals, as I collect the mail, my brain is aglow. You have laughed at me for being inattentive, arranging the shards in my mind when I should have been listening to you. At night, lying beside your slumbering form, a part of me is still at the worktable, blade in hand.
At the age of ninety-one, you have come down with Alzheimer’s. The disease is a force of nature. Like a black hole, it has devoured you. It has erased your memory, your history. It has swallowed up the planets and stars of your mind.
You have forgotten little things, like people’s names. You have forgotten big things, like the nature of time—the movement of the clock, the changing of the seasons. You have lost things I did not know could be lost. Your sense of humor. Your understanding of our relationship, the fact I am and always will be your husband. Your ability to recognize yourself in the mirror.
In addition, you have a bad knee, a bad hip. Your knuckles are permanently swollen, changing the shape of your hands. The arthritis makes your movements awkward. Whenever you grab for something, there is a hint of squirrel about you. Wet weather makes you ache. You limp and totter. You are blind in one eye, and the other is no great shakes, either. Your skin is as fragile as tissue paper. A scrape, a brush, and you begin to bleed. You still have a bruise on your leg from a year ago, an inopportune collision with the table. Maybe it will never completely fade.
But none of this bothers you, because of the Alzheimer’s. You are unaware of your litany of incurable maladies. The black hole has eaten up your cares. You have forgotten your dementia, your rheumatoid arthritis, your congestive heart failure. You are not burdened by the memory of what you have suffered or the anticipation of what you will continue to suffer. No past, no future. You live moment by moment. A moment of pain. A moment of hunger. A moment of laughter. A moment of sunlight. A moment of pain. A moment of pain. A moment of pain.
This morning, I worked on the willow tree for hours. One whole hemisphere of the lampshade had come into being, a network of branches, weaving and dancing across a bowl of blue. Glasswork is always magical. I was building something out of nothing, shaping a puzzle out of thin air. Beyond the window, the sidewalks were streaked with cold rain, printed with the shapes of leaves. Autumn had begun to deepen and darken. The sky hung low, an oppressive gray.
When I emerged from the sun porch, I heard you laughing. I rounded the corner to find James in the living room. You sat on the couch, and he stood over you, engaged in some kind of playacting. When he saw me, his demeanor altered. His arms fell to his sides, his face sobering. At the age of sixty, James is a spear of a man—tall, slim, and angry. He wears his gray hair clipped close, his beard nattily trimmed. He still had his work clothes on. His tie was askew, a smear of ink on the cuff.
“I had an idea,” he said. “I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Oh?” I said.
He pointed, and I followed his gesture. There were squares of color on the wall, the dresser, the hutch. Squinting, I saw that James had gone around my house, putting up Post-it notes. Each bore a single word: CLOCK, LAMP, BOOK.
“It might help,” James said.
I nodded. “It might.”
You have misplaced your words. You often trail off in the middle of a sentence, unable to come up with a single, vital noun. You will open and close your mouth like a goldfish. Sometimes you will give up the struggle, folding up your thought and tossing it away. Other times, you will spit out an unexpected, nonsense term: milk instead of keys or girl instead of bird.
James circled the room, pointing. COUCH, WINDOW, LAMPSHADE. You clapped your hands like a spectator at a show.
“Well,” I said. “Thanks, I guess.”
He shrugged. “No trouble.”
“You got a minute?” I said.
He checked his watch.
“Come see the lampshade I’m working on,” I said. “It’s going to be a masterpiece.”
“No time. I’m running late.”
He leaned over you, cupping your chin in his palm.
“Bye, Ma,” he said. “I’ll see you in a couple days. You hear me, Ma?”
You looked at him blankly.
“I don’t have children,” you said. “I’m nobody’s mother.”
He straightened up and met my eyes. For once, I knew exactly what he was thinking.
I prefer to remember James as he once was. Lean and brown. He was light-boned. He would fit on my lap, brow against my throat. I remember coming home from work, my back stiff and shoulders bowed, the dust of the commute still in my mouth. You would be in the kitchen. You were always immaculately dressed; I didn’t notice it at the time, but I remember it now. You danced between the range and the table, tending the pasta, a wooden spoon in one hand, a romance novel in the other. James would be by your feet, engaged in one of his interminable wars, every surface littered with army men. God forbid anyone ever disturbed their regimental design.
I remember him splashing in the wading pool in the backyard. I remember him raking leaves into maroon piles. He crafted mud-and-snow forts each winter. Once, when he was ten years old, he and I spent a whole week assembling a model ship together. We hung the network of rigging, pinning it to the mast. I had to use a magnifying glass to manage the tiniest spars. James painted the hull and the deck. As he worked, I watched him grow still, no longer jiggling one leg or gnawing on his fingernails. In those moments, I could see the resemblance between him and me. That focus, that capacity for silence, was something we shared.
You have lost all those things, of course. Your memory is a knitted scarf that is perpetually unraveling. You have lost any recollection of your pregnancy. The taut bulb of your stomach. The butterfly brush of the fetus kicking. The nausea that kept you bent over the toilet all afternoon long. You have lost the birth—long, difficult, bloody. (I was not with you, of course. I hovered and paced in the waiting room. That was what fathers did back then.) You have lost James in diapers. James on the seesaw at the playground. James in the full regalia of his Boy Scout uniform. James in the dozy, dusty light of evening, bent over the piano, practicing his scales. You have lost your memories of a boy who was small enough to be held. You have lost your memories of yourself when you were strong and steady enough to hold him.
Sometimes I pity you. Sometimes I envy you.
One night, I awoke to a thump. I reached automatically for you, but your side of the bed was empty. There was a dent in your pillow, the blankets askew. For a moment, still bleary with sleep, I wondered if you had died. Ascending directly to heaven. Vanishing from this mortal realm. Popping like a soap bubble.
But no—you had fallen out of bed. You were lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, hands folded across your belly.
“You all right?” I asked anxiously. “Nothing broken?”
“I don’t think so,” you said.
I groped for the clock. Four in the morning.
“I’m on the ground,” you said.
From there, things only got worse. You could not muster the strength to sit up. You struggled like a bug on its back, your limbs waggling. You groaned in frustration. James has been telling me that you must work on your “core.” I don’t know where he picks up these things. I don’t know where your core might be.
I climbed out of bed and stood over you. You gripped my hands, and we engaged in a bizarre little dance, me leaning forward, you arching upward, your body swaying and pivoting at the hips, nothing changing. I was too weak to lift you.
You began to laugh. I sat on the edge of the mattress, and you lay helpless on the rug, and we laughed until the tears ran down our faces.
I did not call James. I did not call an ambulance, either, since you weren’t hurt, just stuck. At seven a.m.—a more reasonable hour—I went next door and got a neighbor to help me. A kind, portly man. I caught him on his front walk, dressed in his robe and slippers, out to pick up the newspaper. He trundled after me with a bemused expression. He got you on your feet with a minimum of fuss.
When James stopped by, later that afternoon, I told him everything was fine.
“That’s right,” you echoed. “We’re doing quite well.”
I was lying, of course. But I don’t know whether you were lying or not. Perhaps the panic of that dark hour had already drifted from your mind, caught in the current of your forgetting, wafting on the river, away and away.
There are a lot of things I have not told James.
I never told him how I found out about your heart condition. He knows about it now; he knows about the doctor visits and the pills you take. Congestive heart failure. Chronic, yet manageable. It leaves you weak, slow, and weary. But I never told James how it started. How your heart wasn’t up to snuff. How it couldn’t pump properly. How the leftover liquid began to settle elsewhere—your lungs, your belly, and finally your legs. Twenty pounds of excess fluid. I woke up to a damp bed. Moisture was soaking the sheets, oozing out of your calves.
I never told James that I have lost my sense of smell. Anosmia, my doctor calls it. A common occurrence in old age. It shouldn’t be an issue, my doctor says. Except that I’m responsible for changing your diapers. For knowing when it’s time to change your diapers. James is aware that you are incontinent. But sometimes you have to slosh around in a soup of your own fecal matter and urine for far too long.
I never told James that you sometimes try to cook, even now. A few weeks ago, I found you wandering around the kitchen, carrying a pot of tepid water, your arms shaking beneath the weight. All the flames on the range were ablaze. Your manner was bewildered, the liquid splashing down your front. You wanted to make pasta, but you did not remember what to do next. I got there just in time to snatch up a dishcloth that was sitting on the stovetop, inches from the fire. It had begun to blacken and smoke. Since then, I have removed the knobs from the range.
On a cold morning, James stopped by again. This time, we got into a quarrel. He came over to fix the gate. He usually turns up with a specific task to perform: restock the fridge, check the plumbing. He decided to stay for lunch. I took him out to the sun porch and showed him, at last, the willow tree lampshade—half-finished, the branches vanishing into empty air. He gave me his sweet, sideways smile.
At lunch, you and he were in a mischievous mood, laughing together over my little peccadillos. Even after all this time, you still find amusement in the way I put ketchup on my scrambled eggs, the way I organize the spare change in my pockets into piles on the countertop. For a while, everything was easy and calm.
Eventually, though, I was due for my scolding. I could just about set my watch to it. James has a few complaints. He doesn’t like me leaving you alone during the long afternoons. The doctor said I shouldn’t, not even for a brief spell. But if I put you in front of the television, I can grab a free hour here and there. You can’t manage the stairs to the front door on your own. (James doesn’t like that either—the stairs, though there are only four.) So you putter around the house, watching one of those reality shows where people dance, while I lounge in the backyard, just being. Smelling the frost on the air. Watching the leaves walk on the wind. Being alive.
James doesn’t like that we don’t have some busybody nurse coming by to check on us. They call themselves “angels,” those people, which is too self-congratulatory for my taste. James doesn’t like that I’m in charge of your medications. You have seven in all, each administered differently (after waking, at bedtime, with food, without food). He doesn’t like that I’m the one who does all the cleaning, either.
In short, James wants you in a nursing home. He wants it now. He wants it yesterday.
“It’s time,” he said. “You know it is, Dad.”
“Over my dead body,” I told him, and I meant it.
We were shouting by this time, both standing up, him on one side of the table, me on the other. You sat between us, your head bowed, as though praying.
“They’ll prepare all your meals,” James roared. “The medical services alone—”
“No,” I said.
“She needs supervision. You aren’t able—“
“No,” I said.
“You’d still be with her, for God’s sake. You’d have the freedom to do what you want, and she—“
James made an explosive gesture, his hands rising and falling, as though a tiny bomb had gone off somewhere inside his person.
“Why not?” he said. “Tell me. Give me one good reason.”
I drew in a breath.
“Our home is a place for living,” I said. “A nursing home is a place for dying.”
I don’t know if he understood. He banged out of the house soon after. I went to the window, watching him stride down the street.
In the old days, before Alzheimer’s was a disease—before it had its own name—I remember my mother talking on the phone. I was a boy of ten, underneath the table, hidden behind the fall of a linen tablecloth, reveling in the shadowy coolness. My mother sat at the counter, the phone crooked between her shoulder and chin. She was in her thirties then, with coal-black hair and fine, burnished skin. She was smoking a cigarette, exhaling clouds toward the ceiling. I always liked eavesdropping on her conversations. She was gossiping about an elderly relative.
“He’s in bad shape,” she said. “Something will have to be done soon.”
There was a pause as she dragged on her cigarette.
“The poor thing,” she went on. “He’s getting childish.”
At the time, I did not understand this phrase. But I do now.
You have been succumbing to Alzheimer’s for the past few years. I have watched it all. The process is something between a disease and a devolution. Like a child, you now wear a diaper. Like a child, you eat greedily, with abandon. You wrinkle up your nose at the greens on your plate, but you can devour an entire pizza singlehanded. (A trim woman always, you have begun to gain weight. I don’t have the heart to stop you. Less fat, less salt, your doctor has instructed me. But you do so enjoy them both.) Like a child, you are entranced by pretty things. Costume jewelry. A burst of music on the radio. A gleam of sunlight caught in a panel of stained glass.
Recently, over lunch, you kept rediscovering the rich, red fabric of the blouse you were wearing that day.
“Who gave me this shirt?” you said. “It’s lovely.”
I reminded you to eat your broccoli. I had sprinkled cheese over it to make it more appetizing. But you just sighed.
“My hands are sore,” you said. “Right here, at the joint. It’s hard to hold the fork.”
I reminded you that you had arthritis. I reminded you that your doctor had prescribed some pills, which had turned out to be useless.
“Oh?” you said, not much interested. Fingering the crimson fold of your collar, you exclaimed again, “Who gave me this shirt? It’s lovely.”
James and I drove to visit a nursing home on a wet day in November. Rain pattered against the windshield of his car. In the passenger’s seat, I sat silent. James drummed his hands on the steering wheel. He fiddled with the radio, changing the station every few minutes. He whistled energetically between his teeth.
You were not with us. We had left you at home, not wishing to discombobulate or unsettle you more than necessary. James had brought a friend of his to stay with you, to keep you company in my absence. A lady friend. (James has never married, but he doesn’t lack for female companionship, either.) This one was named Madeline. She was blond, with smeary makeup. Her voice was bright and ringing, like a struck gong, and she shouted everything, evidently assuming you were deaf.
“We’ll watch a little TV together,” she roared, smiling.
“The boys will be back before you know it,” Madeline cried.
You turned away.
In the car, I could not get comfortable. Rain streaked the window, obscuring the view. I kept picturing the expression on your face when you realized I was leaving you. Your eyebrows pooling together. Your mouth open.
The drive took over an hour. James kept telling me facts about the facility we would be visiting. He had found it online. He was enchanted with it. He was sure I would like it, too. He was glad I was listening to reason at last.
I gritted my teeth. I stayed silent. Eventually, I dozed.
James woke me in the parking lot. I opened my eyes to see a bush that had been sculpted and trimmed into the shape of a heart. There was a placard with the facility’s name: Garden Villas. There was a fountain playing somewhere, perfuming the air with its music. I blinked, gathering my wits. I saw a massive brick building wrapped in ivy. A woman with white hair was seated on a nearby bench, either reading or napping. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still clotted with clouds.
For the next hour, James and I toured the grounds, the lobby, and the cafeteria. We met a few members of the staff—secretary, nurse, nutritionist. James showed me the medical wing. He showed me the pool. There was a patio where a man in a wheelchair was feeding the sparrows, surrounded by evergreen trees. He scattered seeds across the paving stones, and the birds filled the air with raucous song.
James held my arm as he steered me down the long, carpeted halls. His face was alight with hope. There was a bounce in his stride. He had done his research. He explained that people of all ages and abilities were welcome at Garden Villas. Some residents lived fairly independent lives. Some could no longer drive. Some could no longer walk. Some could no longer feed or bathe themselves.
“You’d be happy here,” James said. “I really believe you would.”
I said nothing. I smiled. I nodded.
After a while, my son found an administrator and disappeared into a side office for a private chat. I let them go with relief. My body ached from the unaccustomed exertion of so much walking. My face hurt from fake grins.
Still, I was proud of myself. I was playing the long game.
My plan was simple: I would dupe my son into a false sense of superiority. It took two flints to make a fire. I would give James nothing more to spark against. I would be agreeable. I would praise Garden Villas to the skies. I would tuck a brochure for the facility into my pocket. I would give James the hope he so desperately needed. I would let him have this battle. But in the end, I would win the war.
That night, you were anxious. You did not remember that I’d been gone, but on some level you were still disturbed by it. You clung to me, leaning hard on my shoulder, causing a cascade of aches throughout my body. I did not complain. I patted your back and reassured you, over and over, that all was well.
I’d had my own reasons for wanting to see Garden Villas. But I knew I would never live there. I would keep you in our own familiar place, with our own habits and routines. I would keep you with me—together, independent, alive.
At home, you are able to navigate with ease. We have lived in our house for decades, long enough that you know instinctively how to get to the bathroom, the kitchen, the sun porch. You sometimes pivot without thought and reach into the silverware drawer. You cannot come up with the word spoon. You cannot articulate what the utensil is for. But your fingers know where to find it, nonetheless.
Our house remembers things for you. Your mind is chaos, but there is structure around you—physical, tangible, true. You have forgotten much of your identity, but your fashion sense is there in the contents of the closet. Your artistic streak is present in the knickknacks on the mantelpiece. Your love of nature can be found in the numerous seascapes on our walls. Each piece of furniture was once carefully chosen by you—the former you. Each is a kind of external memory. You are constantly confronted with some vital aspect of yourself.
I know I am right. James might not agree. The doctors might not agree. But they don’t know what I know. They don’t know about this kind of love. They don’t know what sixty years of marriage has done to me. What it has done to you. It has altered us. It has woven us together at a level deeper than bone.
These days, you no longer refer to me by name. You no longer think of me as your husband. Instead, you use a pronoun—he makes stained glass, he can’t abide rainy days—and you reach for me. You reach for me reflexively, automatically, expecting me to be there at the end of your fingertips. Like an extension of yourself. Like a shadow. You no longer remember our wedding day. You don’t recognize your old friends in photographs. You have forgotten the purpose of your house keys, your credit card, your phone. But you know me. You always know me. I am closer to you than words. I am closer to you than memory.
Lately I have awoken to find coils of ice on the windows. While at work on the sun porch, I have watched a fine mesh of snow falling. The branches are bare now, stark against the sky. I have labored day and night at the willow tree. I have stood at the worktable until my shoulders ache and my ankles swell. I have listened to you laughing in the kitchen. The TV flickers on and off. Sometimes I hear James’s voice in the house. Sometimes I hear nothing at all. Sometimes I lose track of what I have actually done to the lampshade and what I have merely planned to do. Even in my dreams, the pattern has appeared, looming up beneath my fingers.
Each morning, I arrange a few more gleaming shards. I wield the soldering iron with a certain amount of urgency. I know my time is limited. Sometimes it seems as though the process of making the willow tree is the process of getting ready to die. I am getting my affairs in order. I am finishing my last gift to you.
I will die first. Caregivers usually do. The stress and strain will have their way with me. It might be a heart attack; it might be a stroke. I am hoping for something sudden and painless. Here one moment, gone the next.
When I am in the ground, James will take over. You will be bundled into the nursing home. Garden Villas—a nice place. I am glad to have seen it. You will enjoy the craft room. The cafeteria. The patio, ringed by evergreen trees.
When I am gone, you will forget me. That is my hope, anyway. I can picture you, settled in. You will spend your days at the window, watching the clouds billow past, listening to the radio play. A few of our old things will be placed strategically around the room. This will liven up the impersonal space, adding a dash of color and comfort. The rug from our den. Your favorite painting of a seascape. Now and then, your gaze will stray to the willow tree lampshade, set in pride of place.
By this point, the disease will have finished its work. You will be childish. You will have lost the last vestiges of your adult mind, your adult perspective. You will think the way children do. A world in which everything is still wondrous, yet to be discovered. A world too new for the possibility of memory. A world too safe for the possibility of loss. Staring at the willow tree, you will say, “Who gave that to me?” And again, softly: “Who gave it to me? It’s lovely.”