Elder Series – Best Friends

M Dawn Thacker has compiled a series of short stories about elders, their experiences aging, and the challenges they face. Avid writer and contributor to ReadThisPlease.com, M Dawn begins with a tale of angst and joy in the first of the series, Best Friends…

Jack watched Emma die. He sat, leaning forward in his wheelchair, elbows on the bed, eyes on her face. The covers on her chest rose and fell slowly until they didn’t anymore.   He dropped his head and cried.

In their sixty-two years of marriage, Jack hadn’t made one important decision alone. He even let Emma tell him how to dress. He only had a second grade education. He left school to dig coal the year after his mother died. There were ten mouths to feed.  Years went on and he grew harder. He was lucky to find Emma. She worked at the local cafeteria, setting tables with a smile. He caught her eye and they got married.

Jack worked and Emma took care of the rest. She picked out his clothes, planned his day, and made him button the top of his shirt. Now she was gone, and little tasks overwhelmed Jack. Sometimes when he woke up, he’d forgotten that Emma was dead and asked the nursing home staff why he couldn’t find her.

Downstairs, in the same building, Frank took care of Dot. She was frail, but she ran her household and she gave meaning to the word independence. During the War, she drafted plans for the troop carriers that invaded the beaches of Normandy.  Frank was an All-American Football player for West Virginia University. After graduation, he went to work as an executive in his father’s mining business. Frank and Dot raised their children, summered at the beach, and toasted good health with martinis while smoking cigarettes in the evenings.  Frank developed dementia at sixty-five. It stole his short term memory. Dot developed lung cancer a few years later. It stole her breath and strength.  She did most the thinking for Frank. With Dot’s patient instructions, Frank was her caregiver.

Frank woke up one morning to Dot’s empty bed. She had died during the night.  He attended her wake, then the funeral, and enjoyed the slideshow of their life at the reception following the service. He promptly forgot that Dot was no longer alive.  He wandered the halls looking for her, asking for her.

Jack and Frank grieved alone in the rooms they had shared with the women they loved.  Frank slept in Dot’s bed at night. Jack held a picture of Emma to his chest, wiping his eyes with her lace edged handkerchiefs. Weeks went by before either man got a roommate. Frank threw his out.  Jack pulled the curtain around his bed and sat in the dark.

Staff moved the two men into a room together, hoping they’d adjust to their loss in new surroundings, maybe offer some comfort to each other. Frank unpacked his clothes from the suitcase, books from boxes, and unwrapped framed photographs of his parents, brother, Dot, and their children. He opened the curtains and looked out onto the courtyard where daffodils bloomed. He sat on the bed and stared at the door, waiting.

Jack moved in a few hours later. He was parked at the threshold of his new room, sitting overwhelmed among stacks of boxes. Frank met him at the door and held out his hand in greeting. They introduced themselves. Jack sat in his wheelchair, looking at his belongings, shaking his head, and sighed.

“You need some help with those?” Frank asked.

“I don’t know what to do with any of it” Jack said.

“Well,” Frank said, opening the first box, “we can hang your shirts in that closet over there. It’s empty.”

The two men sorted through the worldly possessions of Jack’s life and put his things away. Emma’s picture was set smiling at Jack from a bedside stand.

Frank settled in quicker than Jack. He talked a lot about football and studying. He opened his books for the first time in years and began reading again, stretched out on his bed. Staff would peek into the room and remind him of various activities, and Frank jumped up, ready to go.  He attended lectures in the Library, participated in the Short Story Club, exercised in the Therapy Gym and took his meals in the Dining Hall.  When he went to shower, he reminded Jack to lock the door if he left the room.

But Jack would sit in his pajamas, in the room, and wait for Frank to come back and help him pick out his clothes for the day.  Frank helped Jack button his shirts, and even convinced him to come to the dining hall to eat their meals together. Eventually, they settled into a daily routine.

Frank rarely mentioned Dot in terms of their marriage anymore.  He only spoke of their dating, going to movies and dances. He told Jack he was thinking of asking Dot to marry him.

Jack enjoyed Frank’s company and his help.  They had become friends. Jack began to notice that Frank told the same stories over and over again, and sometimes Frank forgot what time of day or evening it was. He also needed to be reminded of meals, showers, and taking his medicine, but all that didn’t matter. Frank’s kindness made up for the memory loss.

Jack worried about Frank’s obsession with marrying this Dot, and he talked of their romance more often. At least the memories brought Frank some comfort. Jack’s loneliness crept back.  He picked up his picture of Emma and the tears came.

Frank walked back into the room from a morning activity to find Jack holding the photograph and crying.

“What’s wrong?” Frank asked. “What happened?”

“Emma’s gone,” Jack said.  “She’s gone.”

Frank left the room and found a nurse in the hallway.  “Come quick,” he said.  “I think my roommate’s lost his mother.  I think she died.”

The nurse came into the room and sat on Jack’s bed. She reached out and touched his knee. Frank hovered over Jack’s shoulder, wringing his hands.  Jack opened his eyes and gave the nurse a weak smile.  “I didn’t want him to bother you,” Jack apologized, “it’s just that I miss her so much. I can’t help it sometimes.”

“I know you do, Jack,” the nurse said. “There are no words in this world to make the pain less, either. We’re here for you, if you need to talk.”

Jack patted her knee.  “I know, thank you. Now you get on back to work. I know you’re busy.”

The nurse left the room and Frank went over to the shelf and pulled down his memory book. The bound book of photographs from his childhood and life with Dot often brought Frank comfort. He pulled up a chair next to Jack.

Jack didn’t have the heart to refuse.  “Sure,” he said, “show me your book.”

Frank opened the book and paged through images of his mother and father, pictures of himself as a baby, his Spaniel dogs, and then to a page with his first and second grade class pictures.

Jack’s became surprised when he saw Frank’s second grade class photo.

“Where was that?”

Frank’s brow furrowed and he tried to remember the name of the school.

“Was it the Blackwell Primary?” Jack asked.

“Yes, I believe that was the name,” Frank answered.

“That’s you,” Jack said, pointing to a blond boy in the middle row.

“Yes, that’s me,” said Frank.

“Well, that boy standing right there—that’s me,” Jack said, pointing to the smaller, dark haired child standing next to Frank. “We were best friends. You went by Francis then didn’t you?”

“Yes, my mother insisted, but when I got older I changed it, too much ribbing from my buddies,” Frank said laughing.

“You were so kind to me after my mother died,” Jack said.  “You didn’t tease me when I cried.”

“I’m so sorry your mother died,” Frank said, remembering the gray haired portrait of Emma in Jack’s bedside photograph. “When is the wake? I’d like to make plans to be there if I can.”

“I’ll let you know,” Jack said, putting his arm around Frank’s shoulders. “I’d like you to be there.”

Best Friends © 2011 M Dawn Thacker. Read M Dawn’s latest on Now.readthisplease.com and check back for the next story in her Elder Series.


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