Sorry 'bout the formatting. 45,755/50,000. Vincero, friends. Vincero.
Spring was approaching. There was still a chill in the air, but it was a chill that bore the promise of later warmth. The crocuses and snowdrops were pushing through the damp earth, and Emma, leaning on the windowsill, would sit in reverie and watch the flowers for an hour at a time. As I sat in the library, I could her gently soliloquizing on how she had planted those bulbs herself, in some past spring more immediate and vibrant to her than the present. Then she would wander through the house, examining and sorting and pondering, and I would get up to make sure that the sounds of her activity were all benign.
I followed a clattering one day and found her in the silverware drawer, removing every utensil. She would study it and mutter, and then lay it on the counter so she could seek answers from a different fork or butter knife. Sometimes she would shake the whole drawer.
“Emma, can I help you find something?” I asked her. “Is there something you’re looking for?”
“Broccoli,” she fussed. “That broccoli. It came out, and then I don’t know.”
“Emma, are you hungry? You want broccoli?”
“I don’t know,”she said plaintively. “I can’t find it. The thing, it doesn’t work, and now this broccoli.”
“Here, Emma,” I said soothingly. “Let’s sit down. I know you’re hungry.” She allowed herself to be guided to a chair, where she slumped as I heated a microwave dinner for her. It was becoming more of a struggle to get Emma to eat. She seemed to prefer the mushy texture of pre-prepared foods, and I didn’t want to spend my energy in fighting her over meals.
I put the warmed food onto a plate and carefully diced up the meat patty and carrots and cut the brownie into small pieces. She was apathetic as I placed the dish in front of her and laid a napkin and fork by her hand.
“Can you eat something, Emma?” I urged. “These are all things you like. See, carrots and meat, and I’ll get you a glass of milk.” She picked up the fork and pressed the tines experimentally against her palm. The milk seemed to intrigue her, however. She picked up the glass and swirled it around, then put it back on table and purposefully inserted the fork into the milk.
I sat beside her. “Okay, you don’t like the fork. That’s fine. Let’s eat some other way.” She sat inert, so I picked up a piece of meat and put it in her hand. “Would you eat this, Emma?” Still she regarded it. I guided her hand to her mouth. “And in it goes. Good girl, Emma. Let’s try it again.” With me moving her hand from from her plate to her mouth, we worked through most of her dinner, until, with a sigh, she refused to open up one more time. I cleared the plate away and wiped her down and helped her up from her seat. She stood uncertainly, looking around at the warm afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows.
“That thing is lost,” she moaned.
“We’ll find it, Emma. Do you want to take your nap?” I gave her my arm, and we made the journey to her bedroom. I tucked her in.
“Have a good rest,” I told her.
“Thank you, honey,” she sighed, turning her back to me.
I told the incident of the counterful of forks to Nurse Linda that week when she arrived for her regular visit.
“This behavior is part of the progression of Alzheimer's,” she said, with a rueful shake of her head. “She’ll forget words or substitute wrong words, and her ability to remember the use of simple tools such as forks will keep deteriorating. I know you’ve already moved the knives to a high shelf, but you’ll want to keep an eye out for anything that might be dangerous to her. It might not be a bad idea to remove the knobs from the stove so she can’t burn herself by accidentally turning on the gas, and to turn down the water heater so that she won’t be in danger of scalding herself.”
“What about her movement? She seems so unsteady lately. She doesn’t grip things as well as she used to, and her walking has really slowed down.”
“Unfortunately, that’s normal as well. Keep a good eye on her in the kitchen and the bathroom, which are where most falls happen. I’ll file for a walker for her, and that should give her the extra support she needs to get around.”
Emma was not as pleased as usual to see Linda. She was irritable and snappish, though passive. Linda took it in stride.
“Don’t be surprised if she’s more belligerent and moody,”she warned me, as we stood in the doorway of the kitchen watching Emma stare vacantly at the television. “I can tell she’s having an off day today, but will probably become more common for her.”
“What can I do to keep her happy?” I asked.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” she told me. “You’ve done an impressive job here, Emma, and she couldn’t be in better hands.”
Martin had been trying to transition to a new role in his company, and as a result his schedule had become much more demanding. He called me at least briefly most evenings, but between late meetings and picking up Grace from her grandparents on his end, and handling Emma’s increasingly erratic behavior in the evenings, we had not seen each other since the evening of the dinner at his house. On Ash Wednesday we met at Mass and sat between a hungry, fidgety Grace and an Emma sunk quietly in the wanderings of her own mind. We assured ourselves plenty of room by parking in the pew for the handicapped, with Emma’s walker standing guard by the entrance. The packed church (“Where are all these people the rest of the year?” Martin grumbled) rustled and muttered and emitted a constant sigh of sound that seemed to nettle Emma as the Mass progressed. She needed my help to settle her behind her walker in the line of people inching forward to receive the ashes.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the priest intoned as he drew his thumb across her forehead. The smudge of black ash stood out against the pallor of her forehead as she turned aside so I could receive my mark. I moved away in my turn to see Emma shuffling with a fixed aspect toward the door.
“No, Emma, not yet!” I whispered, catching her and steering back to the pew, where we held up the line of penitents as we maneuvered the walker back into position. I nudged her gently back into place by Martin and sat myself at the end to block any attempt at escape.
“No!” she protested, looking wildly around at the masses advancing past either side of our pew. “That’s not my walk. You let me have it.”
“Aunt Emma, please,” I begged, stroking her arm urgently. “There’s nothing wrong. We’re in church. Shh, let’s not distract everyone.”
But her breaths came ragged and faster, and to my horror tears started spilling down her cheeks.
“Shh, Emma, shh,” Martin whispered, putting his arm around her and holding her. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
I fished desperately in my pocket and pulled out the rosary with the clear green beads and let it slide down through my fingers to rest in a shimmering pool on the wooden seat. “Look, Emma,” I coaxed, moving it around with my finger in imitation of her string games. Her attention was caught, and she watched me slide the rosary around and arrange it into wavy patterns. I moved my hand aside as she put out her finger and began to nudge the chain here and there, widening it out to form a rough circle. Then she pressed a finger against each bead in turn, rolling the facets to and fro for a few beats before moving on to the next. She gently sank back into her torpor, holding her rosary and cycling the beads through her fingers rhythmically and repeatedly.
“Peace be with you, Emma,” Martin offered quietly before the Agnus Dei. I leaned my forehead against his cheek, and he laid his hand lightly against the back of my head and let my temple rest against his lips for an instant. Then Grace was clamoring to be held, and he turned to her before I could see his face.
In the parking lot, Martin and I could only have the briefest of conversations after I’d loaded Emma in the car.
“I want to come see you soon,” he said, ignoring Grace, who was tugging on his hand and moaning, “Daddy, let’s go.”
“I’m always free.”
“I’m leaving for my final trip on Sunday afternoon.” he said, “I’ll be gone for two weeks, so I was hoping I might come over on Saturday.”
“I’m leaving for my final trip on Sunday afternoon.” he said, “I’ll be gone for two weeks, so I was hoping I might come over on Saturday.”
I had to smile.
“What?” he asked, fending off Grace trying to rummage through his pocket for his phone.
“Nothing. It’s my birthday. You can get me a present in whatever exotic place you’re going. Where is it this time? Baden-Baden? Irkutsk?”
“Kansas City. I’m told they have some good barbecue.”
“Too bad it’s Lent.”
“Most days aren’t Friday.” He swung the protesting Grace up onto his shoulders. “Child, if you don’t shape up...” he threatened. She seized his head and tried to shake it around.
I started to step into the car.
“So will you let me come over?” he insisted.
“When have you ever asked my permission about coming in the house?” I asked, leaning my arms on the roof of the car.
“On Christmas. Now it’s Ash Wednesday. I’ll make it a holiday tradition.”
“Well, who am I to stand in the way of tradition? Come over, then.”
“I will, and you’d better put Emma to bed early.”
He stepped off across the parking lot, jouncing his giggling daughter, and I remained leaning on the car, watching them and unable to wipe a big silly grin off my own face.
On Saturday I tried to cajole Emma into helping me put together the right outfit. She followed me tractably enough to my closet, bearing the Jane Eyre with Howard’s inscription. She had taken to walking around the house with it, and though I feared for the book, I didn’t want to take it away from her. Now she laid it on the bed and patted the cover.
“I need your help, Emma!” I said cheerfully. “You’re so good at finding what’s pretty. Come and tell me what I should wear!” She pawed vaguely at the rack of clothes, but there was no light behind her eyes. “Well, that’s nice, honey,” she said, and wandered back out of the room. I bit my lip as I watched her brushing the wall for support as she wandered to her bedroom for her nap. She had taken against the walker and wouldn’t use it unless compelled.
Even Emma’s malaise couldn’t quench my anticipation for Martin’s arrival. He had noticed my dress last time; I would wear it again. He liked my hair up; I would do it up tonight. I hunted through the cabinets until I found some old candles to illuminate Emma’s silver candlesticks. Firewood was procured, though I didn’t lay the fire myself. The wine glasses were washed until they sparkled. Finally, all preparations complete, I threw myself down on the couch and closed my eyes, laying my cheek on the precise spot where Martin had held me by my shoulders the last time he was here.
My phone rang, and I groped lazily for it on the table beside the couch.
“Hello,” I purred.
“Hey, sweetie,” said my mom. “Happy birthday. Do you feel all right? You sound sick.”
I sat up abruptly and only nearly missed clocking my knee on the coffee table.
“Mom, hi,” I said guiltily. “I was just laying down.”
“Oh, you must be so tired, poor thing. Is Aunt Emma wearing you out?”
“Not really. I try to keep a good eye on her and head her off before she gets in any trouble. I caught her carrying around the toilet brush the other day.”
“It sounds just like taking care of a toddler,” Mom sighed. “What are you doing tonight? Any big plans?”
“Not really. I’m looking forward to a quiet evening at home.”
“Looking forward to a quiet evening?” Mom wasn’t fooled. “That sounds like most nights. What’s so special about this night?”
“I do have a friend coming over for a while.”
“Ah, a nice quiet friend you don’t want to tell your mother about.”
“No! Mom!” I protested. “It’s just a friend. He’s dropping by before he goes out of town.”
“That sounds serious.”
“He has a daughter, Mom.”
“That sounds like Peggy Harriman’s nephew.”
I nearly fell off the couch. “You know about Martin?”
“Not really, but I used to chat with Peggy over the holidays when we’d be at Aunt Emma’s. He was seeing a red-haired girl for a while; she was supposed to be just beautiful. Then she got pregnant, and he took care of the baby because she fell in with the drug scene.”
I waited. “Well, what else, since you’re such a fount of knowledge?”
“I don’t know any more about it, but you seem awfully interested to find out,” she teased.
“He’s very interesting,” I confessed, “and I do like him. But I don’t know. It’s hard to tell when he’s being serious and when he’s just flirting. It’s not like he hasn’t been around a bit in the past.”
“Everyone makes mistakes, sweetie.”
“Not everyone has a daughter to show for it.”
“Would you rather he didn’t have a daughter to show for it?”
I had no answer for that.
“Well, I hope you enjoy your evening with... Martin? Was that his name?”
“You’ll have to call and tell me all about it.”
“If there’s anything to tell,” I answered glumly. “You call me if you remember anything else.”
We rang off, and I sat back and tried to find the perfect spot I’d occupied before while I pondered the psychic powers bestowed by maternity. The phone buzzed again.
“Oh, I hope it hasn’t come to that,” said Martin.
This time I did hit my knee as I popped up.
“Are you on your way?” I asked as brightly as I could through gritted teeth.
“I still want to come over,” he said evasively. “I just got a call from Janice. She was supposed to be watching Grace tonight, but something urgent has come up, and Tom (that’s Grace’s grandfather) is working late, and the short version is that if I came, I would need to bring Grace with me. Is that...” He paused. “Would that be okay with you?”
I was silent.
“I’m sorry, Emma. I wanted so much to see you before I went, but I have to take care of Grace.”
“No, it’s not that. I’m just overwhelmed by the fact that this is the first time since I’ve met you that you’ve asked me a question without sounding like you expect the answer to be ‘yes’.”
“Is that a positive or a negative answer?”
“I think this new-found humility of yours should be cultivated. Were you seriously considering not coming?”
“Yes, if you had not wanted me to come. But you haven’t answered me. Do you want me to come over, with Grace?”
“I think you already know the answer. Yes, of course I want to you to come over.”
“We’re quite a pair,” he asserted with sudden lightness. “Between Aunt Emma and Grace, we’re never at full liberty. One day I’ll get you off in a dark corner by myself, and then you’ll be hard put to light a cigarette fast enough.”
“I’ll see if I can fit you into my busy dark corner schedule,” I promised.
Aunt Emma and I were waiting on the couch when there came a tentative knock on the door, followed by several loud thumps. I opened to see Martin and Grace on the doorstep, bearing food just as they had before.
“Knocking and all,” I marveled.
“Oh, that’s for the sake of the child,” he said as they entered. “But you’ll note she did the knocking, not me.”
Martin set the bags on the table. “I know you like Chinese takeout,” he remarked, “because I asked myself, ‘Does Emma like Chinese?’ and I was already sure the answer was ‘yes’.”
I restrained myself from brushing his hair out of his eyes.
Grace was clutching a tote bag embroidered with her name. “I brought my work,” she said importantly. “I’m making a scrapbook with Grandma.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Will you show it to me after dinner?”
“Yes,” she conceded, “but it’s not done yet.”
Martin served Grace, and I went over to Emma. Sitting beside her, I asked, “Aunt Emma, would you like to come have dinner with us?” She seemed amenable, so I led her to the table and sat her on the far end from Grace and made a bowl for her with rice and applesauce. Grace watched, fascinated, as I spooned the food into Emma’s unresisting mouth.
“Don’t stare, Grace,” Martin corrected her. “It’s not polite.”
She turned her eyes away and clambered up beside him to whisper loudly in his ear, “Why does she eat like a baby?”
“You can ask me about Aunt Emma, Grace,” I said pleasantly. “She’s old and sick and has a hard time remembering how to eat some days. She wasn’t always like this, though; I remember when I was your age and I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.”
“Are you going to get sick and eat like a baby?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Grace!” Martin scolded. I laughed.
“I hope not,” I told her, “but if I do, I hope someone who loves me will take care of me like I take care of Aunt Emma.”
After dinner I settled on the couch between Emma and Martin while Grace sat on the coffee table and opened her bag to pull out an elegantly embroidered photo album.
“Grandma loves to scrapbook,” she informed me seriously. “She made this for me, and she helps me put my pictures in with the special glue.”
“Grandma is very crafty,” I murmured to Martin. He snorted.
Grace flipped through the pages. Grandma may have been responsible for the fancy exterior of the book, but inside Grace’s taste predominated. Pictures were glued in at angles acceptable to the aesthetic of the four-year-old. She had scorned the need to put pictures in chronological or any other discernable order, or indeed on consecutive pages. Aunt Emma seemed to perk up at the sight of photographs, so Grace allowed her to hold the book in her lap while she herself leaned over the arm of the couch and busily educated us about the contents of her scrapbook.
“Grandma and Grandpa took me to Disneyworld last year,” she sang, poking at a snap of Mr. and Mrs. Landry and Grace wearing mouse ear hats.”
“Will you look at that!” said Emma blandly. “They’re sure flopping around.”
“And that’s me at preschool,” Grace continued, scrutinizing a shot of several children grinning messily over a plate of cupcakes. “That’s Mikey Timmons next to me. I hate him.”
“Grace,” admonished Martin.
“I’m not keen on him,”she amended. “You should see this one.” She closed the book in Emma’s lap, then opened it carefully to the second page. “This is my mom. You can tell because her hair is like mine.”
I leaned over Emma’s shoulder to see the photo. Baby Grace, banging a spoon on a highly-upholstered high chair, was attended by a stunning woman leaning over the back of the seat. The woman’s vivid curls, captured in a tightly-drawn ponytail, were echoed by the baby’s wispy fluff. Tiny Grace gazed up at her mother with a radiant glee, but her mother’s toothy smile in the direction of the camera was pasted like a mask on a visage that was already reflecting the ravages of addiction, and her eyes seemed focused on some inward need. I yearned to hold the photo and study it in depth, but Grace was already turning the page and chattering about a birthday party at Aunt Laurel’s house (“That’s my sister,” Martin enlightened me.) and the pretty dress Grandma had made for her.
“Would you like dessert?” I asked abruptly. “Aunt Emma likes ice cream, so we always keeps some in the house.”
Grace was amenable to ice cream, and we all repaired to the kitchen again. She wasn’t phased this time by the sight of me reminding Emma to put her hand containing her spoon to her mouth. She and Martin played a game in which he helped her eat her ice cream by lifting her hand to her mouth, and she giggled and grew antic.
“Now it’s your turn!” she said to me, bouncing around the kitchen. “Daddy, you help Miss Emma eat her ice cream.”
Martin’s hand closed over mine, and he leaned behind me. “Do you need any help?” he asked, close to my cheek.
“Absolutely not, in front of this audience.”
“Your instincts are sound,” he agreed, but his hand lingered on mine.
Martin and Grace selected a book from her bag to read on the couch while I got Emma ready for bed. Emma seemed very sleepy and it was difficult to navigate her through the steps of her evening routine. She sat obediently on the toilet, then stood up indecisively. I helped her run water over her dentures and put them into the glass with a tablet. Her docility was refreshing, but also rather unnerving.
I sat by her side after I’d tucked her in. She rolled to face me, but looked fixedly past my shoulder.
“What’s that man doing in my closet?” she asked clearly.
I swiveled to face the closet. One large sliding door was open, revealing a packed row of dresses and shirts hanging over an array of shoes, but there was nothing out of the ordinary on display.
“There’s no man, Aunt Emma,” I assured her. “There’s nothing in the closet.”
“There’s a man in my closet,” she proclaimed with confidence. “That man is in my closet.”
It was a ludicrous thing, on the face of it, but her utter certainty, combined with her matter-of-fact manner, began to wear on me. “Shall I close the closet door for you?” I asked uneasily.
“That man is in my closet,” she repeated.
I stepped to the door. “Martin, would you come here for a minute, please?” I called, in what I hoped was a tranquil voice.
He settled Grace on the couch with her book and came quickly down the hall, pausing in mild alarm at the sight of my pale face. “Is something wrong?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said, a trifle unsteadily. “Will you look at something for me?” He followed me into the room and amiably wished Aunt Emma a good night.
“The man is in my closet,”she stated.
He turned quickly around in surprise and confronted the lifeless closet. “Do you see anything that could look like a man?” I asked him.
“No,” he confessed, and we both looked back at Aunt Emma. She, in turn, looked at the closet so assuredly that even Martin was unnerved.
“Let me close that for you,” he said, and swiftly slid the door shut. Emma still gazed steadily in that direction.
“That man. Howard,” she said. “Where’s that thing of Howard’s?”
“Do you want your Jane Eyre, Aunt Emma? I’ll go get it,” I offered, too swiftly. We left the room and pulled the door to, and stood staring at each other in the hall.
“I think I’m as brave as the next man,” Martin finally said, “but that was the eeriest experience of my life.”
“Mine too,” I agreed shakily. “Come with me to get the book. I don’t dare go by myself right now.”
We crept down the hall and into my bedroom to find the book. Martin was, for once, disinclined to press his advantage on finding himself alone with me in what could pass for a dark corner. I snatched Jane Eyre off the bed and we both hesitated outside Emma’s door for a second longer than was suitable for mature adults.
“If we open that door and she’s still looking at the closet, I’m not going in,” I whispered. Cautiously we nudged the door open a crack and peeked in, but Emma, mercifully, had already fallen asleep. I slipped in and laid the book on her table, then fled.
In the living room Grace had fallen asleep under her book. There we stood, in the quiet house, and for a moment just breathed. I shuddered once or twice, and Martin ran his fingers through his hair to push it back out of his eyes.
“I brought some wine,” he said.
We trooped into the kitchen -- neither of us felt particularly like being alone. He found the corkscrew and I presented him with the wine glasses I’d washed so carefully that afternoon. We sat solemnly at the table and imbibed.
“So,” I asked. “Was that a picture of Kristy in Grace’s scrapbook?”
“Yes. It was taken around Grace’s first birthday. She went into rehab not long afterward.”
“When did you meet her?” I asked.
There was a long pause, and I thought that he might choose not answer.
“Before I went to business school,” he said at last. “We met through friends and went around to the same clubs. I was working at a fairly intense job and making good money, and I thought I deserved to live it up in my after-hours life.” He smiled faintly. “And Kristy didn’t share your strong moral standards.”
“Neither did you, apparently.”
“Oh, I’m not denying my share of the blame. I was infatuated and stupid.”
“That’s a bit callow.”
“Does it sound that way? And yet you won’t deny that I acted stupidly. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, as long as I worked hard and moved up. Then she told me she was pregnant, and it was as if the wind were knocked completely out of me. The idea of Kristy getting pregnant had never entered my mind, or hers either, and suddenly we were parents without meaning or wanting to be. I offered to marry her, but she didn’t want to tie herself down.”
I ran my finger around the rim of my glass. He leaned forward and grabbed my hand.
“I know you may not think much of me right now, Emma. You’re a person who always weighs the consequences, at least in the things that matter most. But I did persuade her to keep the baby, and if that’s the only responsible role I played in the whole situation, I think you’ll agree that at least I the right thing when it mattered most.”
I did not look at him.
“Do you see her much anymore?”
“No. She knows better than to come to me for money anymore.”
“What does she do now?”
He shrugged. “She stays with friends. She scrounges money for drugs. She steals, probably, or worse.”
“So what happens to her now?”
“If she won’t stay in treatment, she’ll probably die on the streets.”
His matter-of-factness infuriated me.“Martin, this woman is the mother of your child.”
He passed his hand over his eyes and rested his elbows on the table.
“I did what I could to help her, back when I had more influence over her. Her parents are still trying, in their way. They’ve paid for treatment and for her rehab, more than once. But she’s an adult, and has made her choices, and it’s not my job to force her into cleaning up her life.”
I stared blindly out the window.
“Emma,” he entreated, “you think of frailty and weakness, and you see your aunt, who allows you to treat her with dignity. But can would you do with someone who refuses every offer of help? How do you respond when a person has thrown every last shred of her dignity out the window and lashes out against every attempt you make to try and restore it? I gave Kristy all the help that it was within my power to give, when it was mine to give. Now I need that time and energy to provide for Grace.”
The image of the red-haired woman and child was still fresh in my mind. I pushed back my chair. “How will Grace feel about the way you’ve abandoned Kristy to her fate?”
“Abandoned?” And finally he was angry. “No one has abandoned Kristy, least of all me. I never went off and left her. You seem under the misapprehension that she is somehow my charge. But Kristy is not my wife, Emma. Is that distinction lost on you? I’m not vowed to love and cherish her in sickness and in health, as long we both shall live. My obligation is to Grace, to bring her up safely and protect her, as best I can, from the snares that caught her mother.” He was standing now, and the green flecks in his eyes were dangerous. “And now I think I’ll take my daughter home and put her to bed.”
He strode past me out of the kitchen. His fury had shocked me into numbness, but now a sick regret stabbed and twisted in my gut. I took a few steps into the living room and watched him sweeping Grace’s belongings into a pile. “Martin...” I pleaded.
“Are you satisfied now?” he asked coldly. “Have you learned what you needed to know?”
“I don’t even know what I wanted to know,” I cried, “but I didn’t mean to make you angry.”
He had thrown Grace’s books into her bag and was preparing to lift her up when there was a thump and a cry from the vicinity of Emma’s closet. We both froze facing each other, and then we were hurtling down the hall. There, on the floor of the bedroom, was Emma, with her adult diaper tossed nearby. A wet and sour smell was already pungent in the room.
“Emma!” I gasped, flying to her side. “Are you hurt? Can you stand? Martin, help me get her up.” We raised her to her feet, and she wobbled in a daze.
“Let’s see if she can walk to the bathroom,” he suggested, and put his arm under her shoulders for support.
“Emma,” I instructed, slowly and loudly, “Can you walk? Can you come to the bathroom with me?”
“I...” she mumbled. “I’m lost. I can’t find me. There’s something. That thing.”
We escorted her across the hall.
“What do you need me to do,” Martin asked, as I helped Emma through the door.
“Down in the laundry room is a basket with some of Emma’s nightgowns and underwear folded up. Will you bring that here, and I’ll change her?”
He departed immediately. “Oh, Emma, what happened?” I asked her as I stripped her soiled nightgown from her and started warming the water in the tub. I helped her climb in and sit down, then I lathered her with soap and used the sprayer to rinse her off. There was a knock on the door, and Martin called, “Here’s the basket.”
I stepped out and selected a new nightgown for Emma to wear. “Would you dump this basket in room and roll up the rug that she fell on and put it in here? I’ll clean it tomorrow.”
Emma was clean now, but the haste of the past moments had agitated her, and she was crying softly to herself. I put a fresh adult diaper on her and worked her nightgown over her arms. Then I guided her back to bed.
Martin was waiting in the room to help settle her in bed. “Do you need me to do the laundry?” he offered.
I considered. “Actually, would you sit and read to her? She’s upset, but she always likes to hear you.”
“Okay.” He sat in the chair and opened up Jane Eyre in the middle. “Aunt Emma, here’s a book I think you like.”
I picked up the basket and moved slowly from task to task, carefully gathering the laundry into a clean sheet and bundling it into a basket, adding bleach to the washing machine, and turning then to menial jobs of disinfecting and scrubbing and restoring. Throughout the process I found myself concentrating not on the disagreeable aspect of the work, but on the faint rising and falling of Martin, narrating the action of the story.
Finally I crept back into the hall and stood quietly in the doorway. Closing my burning eyes, I let myself drift away on the warm timbre of his voice.
“Sir,” I interrupted him (he read), “you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady; you speak of her with hate -- with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel -- she cannot help being mad.”
“Jane, my little darling (so I will call you, for so you are), you don’t know what you are talking about; you misjudge me again: it is not because she is mad I hate her. If you were mad, do you think I should hate you?”
“I do indeed, sir.”
“Then you are mistaken, and you know nothing about me, and nothing about the sort of love of which I am capable. Every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own: in pain and sickness it would still be dearer. Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat -- your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me: if you flew at me as wildly as that woman did this morning, I should receive you in an embrace, at least as fond as it would be restrictive. I should not shrink from you with disgust as I did from her: in your quiet moments you should have no watcher and no nurse but me; and I could hang over you with untiring tenderness, though you gave me no smile in return; and never weary of gazing into your eyes, though they had no longer a ray of recognition for me.”
Tears pricked and stung, and a sob rose and caught in my throat. I bit my lip and dashed angrily at the drops on my cheeks, but the battle would not be won, and my tumultuous emotions, would not be suppressed or denied any longer. I leaned my arms against the jamb of the door and sobbed out the disappointment and frustrations and stresses of the past months, the trials of life with Emma and the tension of being near Martin.
And then his arms were around me, and I was crying against his chest while he murmured my name into my hair. “Love, what’s wrong? What’s the matter.”
“I’m twenty-three today,” I wept. “It’s my birthday.”
He rocked and hushed me and wiped my tears away with his thumbs. “Happy birthday, love. Happy birthday.”
The awkward moment arrived when I had to stop crying and confront my dripping nose and Martin’s soggy shirt. He handed me several tissues, and I blew and hiccuped inelegantly, then fled to the bathroom to gape in distress at my red eyes and face. Short of splashing cool water on them, there was nothing I could do about my ravaged looks, so I took a deep breath and went to find Martin.
He was in the living room holding Grace.
“I can’t stay any later, Emma,” he apologized. “Grace is sleeping at the Landrys’ tonight and my flight leaves earlier than I like to contemplate.”
I snuffled. “Will you call me at six AM again?”
“If you like,” he laughed.
I held the door open for him, and he carried his red curly bundle out.
“I’ll come see you as soon as I get home, Emma,” he said. “Be expecting me.”