Forty Years by Choo Mei Fang


I winced as a piercing pain shot through my right knee. Ah, it’s the rheumatism acting up again. I leaned heavily against the wall as my chest heaved. Just fewer than ten steps to go. Gritting my teeth, I shuffled slowly to the cheery yellow door. In my hands I held a single stalk of white tulip wrapped in butcher paper. I peered through the door and saw Helen in her wheelchair near the windows. The rays of the afternoon sun illuminated her face and she looked radiant. At once, the ache in my knees seemed to fade. Forty years with the love of my life but the sight of her still made me feel like I was fifteen again. With my eyes trained on her, I hobbled slowly across the room while smoothing out the creases on my haphazardly ironed shirt.


She noticed the flower almost immediately and her eyes lit up. My beautiful Helen. Her salt-and-pepper curls were in a neat bob, with a floral barrette pinning her fringe back. I lowered myself gingerly into the seat beside hers and grimaced as my knees creaked.

“A flower for the lady,” I offered it to her with a crooked smile. She peered at me quizzically. Her brows furrowed intently and her forehead creased into a map of wrinkles– the same expression that clouded her face when she tried to figure out the last word of the Sunday puzzles, or when she was attempting a new recipe in the kitchen. Before.

“Why? Who are you?”

The same routine ensued every week. Her condition had whittled her down to the point she no longer recognised me, and she insisted that she never had a husband. I had been bracing myself for this day ever since she entered the nursing home. When it first happened, I brought photos of our wedding and past travel souvenirs, desperately hoping that they would jog her memory. Yet, she always waved me away agitatedly and refused to even speak to me.


The nurses and I decided it was less distressing if I introduced myself as an acquaintance. I thought nothing could be more painful than watching her mind blur at the edges and seeing her memories disappear into a fog. But it felt like my heart broke every time she asked me this question during my weekly visits. 

“Richard. I’m just an old friend who’s visiting you today.” 

  

“Oh, hello,” she smiled. “How nice of you.”

The early signs were easy to miss. Helen would point to a cup of coffee, and ask for a cup of “that stuff”. Sometimes she would enter the room, look at me blankly and ask me why she came in. We would laugh it off, but somehow there was a sinking feeling in my stomach that grew day by day. I had seen her father crumbling under dementia, and heard stories about how her grandfather went through the same. I knew what was happening. On our 35th anniversary, she went out to buy potatoes for dinner and didn’t return after two hours. I found her two streets away from home, claiming that the houses must have undergone renovation as the streets looked different. But the houses had been the same for the past ten years. And my fears were confirmed.

I tenderly clasped her hands in mine and noticed new liver spots creeping over the back of her hands. I began kneading her wrist in the circular motion she always found comforting. Helen leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered into my ear, “Let me tell you a secret.” I chuckled and searched her face. On bad days, all she would do was to stare vacantly into space with a distant smile. Today, her eyes twinkled mischievously and I sensed a certain sort of energy around her. Today was a good day. 


“I’m in love. With Fred. He stays just next door. Oh, he makes my heart sing!”

My hands stilled. The sun rays suddenly felt too warm. I became aware of the shrill chirping of birds on the trees. My throat felt itchy and I cleared it with a raspy cough. The silence seemed to stretch out for miles as I tried to string together a coherent response. But my mind refused to cooperate, and all I could think about was how I should lower the blinds to block out the piercing sun rays.



“Uh. Wow. Fred, huh? Uh. Fred. Great.” I finally forced something out, and my voice sounded unnaturally nasal. I twitched my lips upwards in what I hoped was a semblance of a smile. My mind spun through mental pictures of all the male patients I had seen before in the nursing home, trying to place a face to the name.

“He’s very funny. And handsome, too! Nurse Jane wheels me to his room, then we hold hands and watch the telly together,” Helen gave a little girlish giggle. She was the most animated I had seen in months. The ache in my knees came back. The last time I tried to interlock my fingers with hers, she pulled her hands out, claiming that she didn’t like to touch strangers. I waited until she was asleep before I quietly tucked my hand under hers, noticing how her hand still fitted snugly in mine. That was all I could settle for. Oh, how I longed for her to reach out for my hands again. I felt a surge of bitterness and jealousy towards Fred. He didn’t know how lucky he was to hold Helen’s hands. Oblivious to my inner turmoil, Helen smiled serenely at me. She patted my arm and leaned in once more. “It’s a wonderful feeling, you know. Being in love. Have you ever fallen in love before?”

I swallowed the large lump in my throat. I didn’t just fall in love. Falling made it sound so accidental. I chose to love. A sense of desperation swept through me. I had to make her remember. I refuse to be replaced by Fred.

 “Uh, yes. My wife and I, uh, we were childhood sweethearts. I knew she was the one because… my heart skipped a beat every time she laughed.”

My voice faltered and broke. She nodded patiently, and waited for me to continue. I took a deep breath.

 “She’s not by my side any more. But we used to travel the world together. We saw the seven wonders, like the Great Wall of China and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Oh, Italy was one of our favourite countries. The pasta we had there was heavenly,” My voice grew steadier as I recounted our memories. I looked into her eyes, and willed for a light of recognition to reach them. None.

“How romantic. Where is she now?” She asked, a tone of polite inquiry. The same way someone would ask about the weather, or the traffic conditions. Despair within me welled up.

“She’s… away.” The tightness in my chest refused to ease. My mouth felt parched, and I reached over to pour myself a cup of water. The stiff joints in my fingers ached as I clenched the cup tightly. I gulped the water down in two large mouthfuls.

“Is she coming back soon?” She shifted about in her wheelchair and absentmindedly patted the crooked cushions behind her back.  Almost automatically, I straightened and adjusted them in the manner she liked—two on the left, one on the right.  

“I don’t think so. But—” I tapped my chest twice, the area where my heart was. “— she’s always in here.”

“That’s beautiful,” she sighed softly. She looked out of the window and closed her eyes, letting the afternoon sun warm her face. A few strands of grey hair had come loose from the barrette. I resisted the urge to reach over and tuck them behind her ear.  “Italy… pasta…,” she murmured, rolling the words off her tongue. My heart ricocheted around my chest at the mere possibility that she might remember something. I grasped the handle of her wheelchair tightly. Please. Please. Please. I fervently repeated the plea in my mind.

Her eyes opened. 

 “Can you wheel me to Fred? I haven’t seen him today,” She pouted. Helplessness engulfed me as the realisation sunk in. My shoulders slumped. Is this what it has come to? I wanted to shake her shoulders and beg her to remember. Remember something, anything. My heart felt like it was being wrung cruelly. Dementia has been relentlessly taking away her memory of us, bit by bit. But this time, it was as if I was truly erased. Forty years of memories gone just like that. A wave of fatigue crashed over me and I buried my face in my hands. When would it stop?

I hardly ever said no to what Helen wanted, but it was impossible for me to agree to this. My mouth formed the beginning of the refusal before the child-like innocence of her face stopped me. It somehow reminded me of our wedding day. We were 23, young and naïve, with the blind faith that love could conquer all. On that day, we made the vow to stay by each other’s side—for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Helen started humming a tune beneath her breath as she tugged the frayed ends of her blanket. She didn’t choose to leave me. Dementia slipped into her life and made that decision for her. So neither will I choose to leave her. Her happiness was my priority for the past forty years and it was all that truly mattered. Every week I visited her just to see a twinkle in her eyes, or see her smile. I would give everything I had just to hear her laughter– the same one that made my heart skip a beat. If Fred could do that, it was suddenly clear what I had to do next. But I would always stay by her side, till death do us part.

I stood up unsteadily, and my knees cracked in protest. I stretched out to smooth the blanket over her knees. I gripped the handles on her wheelchair and leaned down to whisper in her ear, “Let’s go meet the lucky man.”