As Dave lowered his head, she swiped her hand across his face. Fingernails scored his skin, and he felt blood on his cheek. Her face showed no emotion. Her eyes, deep in the dark shadows of her sallow complexion, were expressionless. He saw evil staring out. But only because she had hurt him. Sometimes he saw pain or sadness. Sometimes laughter, or the loving glance they had shared for fifty years. But those eyes hadn’t conveyed feelings for the past four years.
Dave grabbed a tissue from the bedside table positioned within the three-foot arc of her world. He dabbed his cheek, and wiped away tears. Mary turned her head towards him. His sobbing had stirred her.
“It’s okay, my lovely,” he said. “Let’s put these naughty hands away.”
Mary gently lifted her bony hands for Dave to tuck them under the duvet. She seemed to know where they had to go when they were in trouble. Yet she understood no more than Old Shep did when Dave banished him to his basket.
He kissed Mary on her forehead.
“That’s better, princess. Time they had a little rest.”
In the past week those naughty hands had up-ended a plate of food, struck Dave twice, punched one of the carers in the breast, and pushed fingers down her throat bringing up pills he had spent an hour getting her to swallow.
He was exhausted, yet it was only ten o’clock. She had awoken him at 2:10, 3:40, and 5:15 a.m. Each time he gave her some water, re-positioned her pain-ridden body, and adjusted her pillows. It was all guesswork though. Her multiple sclerosis, dementia, and recent stroke ended all communication. But she could still regularly press her butler bell. The carers were due soon, giving him an hour to take Old Shep to the park.
Dave sat on a bench by the pond, remembering the energetic sportswoman Mary used to be. He smiled, recalling how he only once managed to beat her at tennis. She always laughed and maintained she had let him win.
They met at an Elvis dance night. Both loved the King’s music. On their last outing together had they rescued the old collie from the animal centre. There was only one name to call him.
Guiltily, he visualised what the love of his life was going through while he relaxed in the park. The agonising pain in her legs and back while being hoisted from the bed to her shower chair. Her confusion, and fear of the strangers who were subjecting her to the indignities of undressing, taking her to the toilet, and intimately washing her. The crying she would do when they creamed and re-dressed her ulcerated legs. Old Shep looked up at his master with eyes more alert than Mary’s. He stroked his head.
Dave rested his elbows on his knees, dropped his head into his hands, and wept again. A woman with a child hurried past. He was glad of that. He couldn’t handle sympathy from someone who would have no understanding of his suffering.
The last time Dave had cried so much was during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. His military training enabled him to react to a life-threatening situation. What it hadn’t prepared him for was the mental torment that followed when he realised that all he had been taught by his parents about the sanctity of life was destroyed in that moment when he had taken one. Once more he was facing the question of the sanctity of life. Mary’s had become a living hell. Emotionally, he knew he couldn’t watch her suffering for much longer. Witnessing daily her increased stress and confusion, and knowing the woman he loved was now gone, had become too much to bear.
When Mary began to deteriorate she had begged him, “Please don’t let me continue living in unbearable suffering when I reach that stage.”
Although their opinions differed on mercy killing, he painfully agreed that he would respect her views on suffering.
“It would be your last act of love for me,” she had fought to convince him.
But his agreement didn’t match the feeling in his heart.
His morning angels had a mug of tea waiting for him in the kitchen.
“You look shattered, Dave.” Ellie said.
“You should think seriously about a nursing home, where Mary can get constant care, before you become ill too.”
Dave forced a reassuring smile.
“Don’t worry about me. I have it under control.”
During one night the butler bell was silent. Unusual. So unusual that Dave couldn’t sleep. He lay waiting until 5.15 a.m. when he went into her room. She looked peaceful. He placed a drinking straw between her lips. She took a sip without waking. Dave returned to his bed; thoughts of the coming day preventing sleep.
The morning was strangely calm. He had no difficulty getting Mary to swallow her six different pills. Amazingly, he even managed to spoon-feed her cereal without the usual struggle. And all the while Mary kept her naughty hands tucked under the duvet.
By ten o’clock he was ready. The moment had come. Soon the morning angels would be arriving. Dave leaned over the bed, and cuddled Mary tenderly.
“I’m so sorry, darling,” he said. “I love you.”
As he moved away, her naughty hands appeared from beneath the duvet. Instinctively he flinched away. But instead of striking him, she held them cupped aloft. Slowly, Dave lowered his face into them, and felt the warmth of her fingers on his cheeks. It lasted only a few seconds until they exhaustedly dropped back onto the bed. Dave searched her eyes, looking for a sign of love, but they were vacant. He wept.
Drawing up a chair close to her bed, he took a pillow, and placed it by her face. Placing his head beside her, he kissed her on the cheek.
“I’ll come every day to see you at Haven Lodge, my lovely.”
Dan Keeble is a writer who has published a number of articles and short stories. Having retired, the aim was to write novels, but time is now limited by being his wife’s full-time carer.