John and Mary lived in a large and tastefully decorated house in Phoenix, Arizona. He was a somewhat stiff man who wore dark blue trousers with a dead straight crease. His wife was five years his junior. She was a morning person who was out walking in her pink trainers at 7am. She’d read in a magazine at the dentist’s that it took ten thousand steps a day to keep a person’s bones strong. People tended to train their muscles, but not their bones. Mary walked fast, two hours a day, then did some stretching in the living room. Her husband was not interested in such matters.

John had been an accountant with a large accounting firm and had inspected an oil company’s books for years. His work had taken him all over the world – to Brazil, India, France. His wife had joined him on several of those trips, and they’d added a holiday at the end. As a result, they had a photo of the two of them on the beach in Tulum, Mexico. Mary was wearing a straw hat, while John was wearing the expensive sunglasses Mary had given him on his birthday.

That had been three years before his retirement. They’d spent the night in a cabana, the Caribbean at their feet. A dark red hammock had been tied between two trees, but both John and Mary had preferred lying in the deck chairs which had been put on the white beach for them every morning. While he’d read a book by Stephen King, she’d leafed through magazines and read about stars’ troubled love lives.

They’d been married for 35 years themselves, and their marriage had not been without its share of trouble, either. John had had an affair with a young woman who had worked at his department, not his secretary. She had long legs and gorgeous dark brown hair – chestnut-coloured, as the Italians say. That had been years ago, though. The wound had healed; she’d forgiven and forgotten. Yes, she did think they were happy, and she was looking forward to the years ahead, the years of plenty.

She’d decided to stop working once John retired. Mary didn’t care about her work as much as John did. She worked at an optometrist’s, where she performed eye measurements, but her work was not her priority. Their mutual friends were, and the many dinner parties they gave at their home or on the green lawn, which John still mowed every weekend.

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Image credit: Esther Dijkstra

They had no children. Somehow they’d remained childless, back when science wasn’t as advanced as it is now. These had been the darkest years of her life, and John hadn’t always been very understanding. He’d been too busy to understand her. He’d been occupied with reports and annual reports, even if he wasn’t actually holding the papers. His head had been filled with numbers, there was no room for anything else. ‘She’s in a weepy mood again,’ she’d once overheard him tell David, their neighbour.

That was the moment she’d decided never to cry in her husband’s presence again. She’d become a different woman in those years, a true iron lady. You could tell from her face, which had hardened. Her friends, who’d had kids and were inseparable from their offspring, had avoided her. They’d feared the witch with the angry eyes she’d become.

At age 40, Mary had looked in the mirror and decided that she couldn’t go on like this. She’d made an appointment with a psychologist, a man with long hair, who’d given her two pieces of advice: to stop suppressing her pain and to go travelling. That spring she’d left for China and gone on a retreat in the Yellow Mountains.

By the time she came back, the hardness had left her face, but her husband was seeing a woman who was in her early thirties and liked everything about him. She’d found out right the first evening. During dinner she’d picked a long, auburn hair from his jacket. ‘Whose is this?’ she’d asked, not suspecting a thing, only for John to start stammering and seemingly choke. A long and difficult year had ensued. Mary and John had climbed the rocky road of marriage, but they’d managed to stay together. He’d promised he’d never hurt her again.

Now they were both in their seventies; he was nearly eighty. The years of plenty, of infinite time, of one season visibly morphing into the next. The grand summer morphing into Arizona’s golden autumn.

However, one day John had been dropped off at home by the police. He’d taken his Toyota into the wrong lane and had driven a long way against the flow of traffic. He’d almost been home by the time two police officers had forced him to stop. John had pulled over on the side of the road and had politely asked the two men how he could help them.

Mary knew at once that this was serious. There had been other signs: John putting his keys in the fridge, John towelling himself off with his pyjamas. ‘What are you doing?’ Mary had asked as she’d watched him do it in the bathroom. ‘I’m towelling off,’ John had replied. She’d laughed and thrown him a towel. Over the weekend he’d walked into the back yard to mow the lawn, only to end up at the supermarket.

They’d seen a neurologist, who had subjected John to a few tests. ‘Apple, table, door,’ the man had said. ‘Can you repeat these three words for me?’ John had repeated the words, but just a few minutes later, he no longer remembered them. Not even when Mary prompted him. ‘Apple,’ she said. ‘Table…’ John had looked at her. He’d seen that she was desperate, but had been unable to do anything about it.

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Image credit: Esther Dijkstra

On the way home she muttered, ‘Oh, John, please don’t do this to us.’ The neurologist had told her that her husband’s short-term memory was impaired and that he was having difficulty doing familiar things. John had stayed in the corridor while she was talking to the doctor. He got up at once when she emerged from the doctor’s office. ‘So?’ he asked. ‘Did they have one in your size?’

In the car Mary took a deep breath and said, ‘We were seeing a doctor just now. A neurologist.’
‘Yes,’ was John’s only answer.
‘He thinks there’s something the matter with your memory.’
‘There’s nothing the matter with my memory. I graduated in 1959 and met you three years later. We married in 1965. On the second of June.’

He was right. It had been a warm day, an unforgettable day. More than a hundred people had attended the party. Mary had looked stunning. She’d worn a tight dress with a shiny bodice, as well as lace knickers. Her father had wept as he’d given her away. She was John’s now. John, who’d had a lovely straight back and a moustache, too, in those days. Oh, the details she remembered about their wedding day! The colour of the garlands, the sunflowers which had sat on the tables, how badly her feet had hurt. Even the sound of the alarm clock which had woken her. She remembered it all.

For a moment, she wanted to discuss it with John, but she was afraid he’d only remember the date, the number.
‘Do you remember you had a moustache?’ she asked, despite herself.
He turned his head to his wife, who was driving the car. ‘Of course I remember,’ he said. ‘And I also remember how beautiful you were, how desirable. I married the prettiest girl in the country.’

They embraced while waiting for a red light to turn green. No other cars were behind them. They allowed the light to turn green while continuing to hold each other.

Two weeks later, in a thorough examination at the hospital, the neurologist’s suspicions were confirmed. John turned out to have Alzheimer’s. He’d be able to remember numbers from days gone by for a while to come, along with the withdrawals, the revenue, the dividends, the number of employees in France. They’d all been in the reports he had signed off on. However, other types of information were mercilessly slipping through the gaps in his memory – names of people, places and the flavours he’d always picked at Papa Ed’s Ice Cream, lemon sorbet and black cherry vanilla.

Mary had notified all their friends of John’s condition. She’d cried during the first phone call, but once she’d rung everyone, she felt relieved. Her good friend Noreen, whose husband had passed away two years earlier after a long period of illness, came to visit her.

They drank white wine and reminisced about the time they’d been at school together. They hadn’t been classmates – Noreen was a year older – but that’s when they’d become friends.

‘What was the name of that handsome guy in Grade 12?’
‘The one with the red coat?’
‘Yeah. He was a dish.’
‘No, Brandon.’
‘Right. Brandon Bains.’
It was as if she was on her own already, as if they were both
widows. John was in bed, either watching TV or asleep already.
‘How are you?’ Noreen asked.

She said that she was having a hard time, but that they were still experiencing moments of beauty together. Just the day before, they’d sat in the back yard together, looking at the emerging stars. She’d held his hand and squeezed it.

Alzheimer’s develops at a different rate in every patient. Mary dreaded the day John would no longer know who she was. The doctors had told her that this moment might still be months off, but the very next day, John was terribly confused when Mary returned from her morning walk, the ten thousand steps she took every day to strengthen her bones. He’d forgotten where the loo was and had wet himself. She took him to their bathroom and fetched him some dry clothes. ‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘I’m your wife and I love you.’

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Image credit: Esther Dijkstra

It took weeks rather than months. Three weeks, to be exact. Once those weeks were over, John no longer recognised his wife. He was nice to her and didn’t mind her sitting next to him on the sofa, but he couldn’t remember her name. He had no idea who this woman was with whom he’d lived for over half a century. The disease devoured his memory and left nothing in its wake – a dirty, greedy monster.

Mary decided to go on on her own. Some of their friends thought this was heartless. It’s not what John would have wanted, they said, being put away in some home. They talked about her behind her back, but Mary found out through Noreen.

‘They don’t understand,’ she said in response to what Noreen had told her. ‘Nor can they.’

John was completely altered from the man he’d used to be. He’d become a different person. Life had treated him well, and he’d thoroughly enjoyed it. Now all of that was gone, vanished, forgotten. Their wedding day, their splendid home. The travels, the dinners, the white beach at Tulum, his wife and her straw hat. She’d spent the most beautiful days of her life with him, but now she would have to start afresh. She knew she could do it. She’d had to give her life new meaning when she and John had turned out to be unable to have children.

Mary visited her husband a few times at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. The visits seemed to last for ever. They no longer shared beautiful moments. An old woman named Jenny called John her best friend. The head of the ward told Mary that the woman visited John in his bedroom at night and dropped her clothes on the floor. Did Mary mind? She shook her head.

The next time she said goodbye to John, she knew she would not be back. She left the building through the sliding doors and walked to her car under the delightful sun of Arizona.