I walked out the door and caught a bus to visit Ralph, just as I did nearly every day. Winter was settling in, and fierce winds howled through the once-leafy branches. Snow was falling faster and faster, and snowdrifts were piling high. The city skyline was almost invisible.
My heart felt as cold and empty as the winter streets the bus drove through. As I rode, I reflected on the five months that Ralph had been in the care center in Ogden, Utah, since his strokes and subsequent complications. The heartbreak, strain, and anguish that had come at this crossroad in our lives had caused us both to suffer. The turmoil and uninvited adjustments were almost more than we could handle. At night, beside an empty space and a cold, unsought pillow, I felt a suffocating lump rise in my throat. We had not asked for this.
Oblivious now to the moving bus, the flying snow, and the gusty winds, I found a parade of memories crowding into my mind. No amount of tears could wash them away:
It was 1922, and I was home from school for the summer. I could hardly wait to finish dressing for the homecoming celebration at the recreational hall of the town chapel in Colonia Chuichupa, Chihuahua, Mexico. A mariachi band was going to be there.
A knock on the door and the sound of a voice broke the rhythm of my preparations. Ralph Brown! Who did he think he was? He had not bothered to ask me for a date. He knew that I had a steady and was interested in no one else. I would show him! Flustered, I finished dressing, hurried out the door, and was headed for the gate when the voice asked innocently, “Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“Darn you, Ralph Brown!” I fairly shouted. By that time he was beside me, asking if I minded that he walk with me since we were headed in the same direction. I felt befuddled. Silence! Dead silence. But I was still walking. Why didn’t I just turn around and go home?
“Are you mad at me? What did I do?” he asked.
I couldn’t answer.
We rounded the corner and could see the open door to the dance hall. The mariachi band had not arrived, but the organ, guitar, and fiddle players were playing “Mexicali Rose.” Ralph slipped his arm through mine and, without ceremony, we began to waltz.
Who do you think you are? my thoughts screamed. I noticed some of the girls pointing, whispering, and smiling. I could not help but wonder which girl he would choose next. It was then I caught myself enjoying the dance. Music has a way of dissolving whatever ails one. Was my heart changing colors a little? What if … ? No, never!
Suddenly the bus had stopped. The doors flew open, and a cold blast of air took my breath away. I stepped down into a crusty snowdrift before my feet reached the solid sidewalk.
I hurried through the care center’s large, plate glass doors, leaving behind the flying snow. I heard Ralph’s voice, “Well, well, here comes my wife! I’d begun to wonder if you had forgotten to come today.” Before I could speak, I saw other patients sitting around in wheelchairs, smiling as though they, too, were expecting me.
Soon, a caravan of wheelchairs moved down the hallway to the recreation area. An air of excitement filled the room. Bright, festive Halloween balloons and streamers hung from the ceiling. Millie, the recreation director, led us all to the piano, where a woman was playing old, familiar tunes. Millie announced that we would have a sing-along. She told those who could not sing to clap to the rhythm of the music.
Ralph sat still, unresponsive, just staring through and beyond the window, where thick icicles hung from the eaves. I started to clap when the music started, along with the rest of the group. At first, Ralph looked at me as if he thought everyone were crazy; then he watched my hands and tried to clap, but only if I clapped. As I sat there, wondering where Ralph’s thoughts were, an intruding voice brought us to attention.
“Come on, Mr. Brown!” Millie was inviting us to dance.
Ralph answered quickly and sharply, “No. I don’t know how.”
Millie turned to me, “He does know how to dance, doesn’t he?”
“Well,” I stammered, “he used to shake a wicked foot—but it has been years, and I am sure he couldn’t handle it now with his cane and all.” Millie turned and walked away. Ralph and I were both relieved.
The music ended. Millie cleared the floor. “How nice,” I thought, as I anticipated a special program. It was then that Millie announced, “Folks, Mr. and Mrs. Brown are going to dance for us.” Without further ceremony, she took Ralph by the hand and pulled him up out of his chair. I thought he was going to explode.
No way can we do this! I thought. But Millie, in a firm but pleasant way, led us to the center of the floor. Why were we standing there? There must be some way out! The lady at the piano began to play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” My heart melted. I could not begin to count the times we had sung that song together.
Ralph looked at me: I looked at him. He stood like a statue, wondering whether or not to flee. There was a tightening in my throat, and I could feel the threat of tears. But the applause from the group and the music from the piano kept us on our feet.
With uncertainty, I reached for Ralph’s hand and buried my face beneath his chin. Unsure of our place on the floor, I placed his arm around my waist, then placed my arm around his shoulder. I could feel the frame of his body moving beneath the scant flesh that covered it. Our feet searched for the downbeat—rather uncertain at first. Slowly, we began to move out of our tracks. Our steps were short, choppy. Oh, for the full swing of youth! How many times in days gone by had we lost ourselves in that never-to-be-forgotten melody? Then Ralph’s hand, much leaner and unsteady now, took command, as of old.
He smiled. How good it was to see a smile cross his face again! Closer now, I could almost feel his heart beat. I realized how frail he was and could feel him getting weary, but he did not complain.
The dance ended, then the party. Suddenly it was time for Ralph’s lunch and time for me to be on my way. Ralph took me by the arm and walked me to the big glass doors. The snow was swirling frantically outside.
“I get so lonesome. See if they will let you stay here,” Ralph said wistfully. It was all I could do to keep from breaking down.
As we stood there in the doorway, watching the snow fall, Ralph’s eyes twinkled in that roguish way I knew so well. “That was a darn good dance anyway, wasn’t it?” he said. “Would have been a lot better if we were fifty years younger.”
Not long after that, just before Christmas, Ralph fell and broke his hip. He had surgery and received an artificial one. The doctors tried to make him believe he would walk better than ever, that his leg would be as good as new. But Ralph and I both knew that he would never walk again.
I once prayed that I would be the first to die, because life without Ralph would be utterly unbearable. But now I prayed to be the one to remain. I couldn’t leave Ralph for someone else to care for. Time became precious.
Thereafter, each day became longer. Ralph asked again and again for his cane. Confining him to a wheelchair was like trying to keep a tiger caged. He was constantly trying to free himself. One day he worked his way so far under the restraining belt that his body slipped out, all except his arms; they were caught over the belt. When the nurses found him, he was in shock. He was so weak and frightened that he could barely talk.
Headaches, which he had seldom had, became part of his life now. “Lift up my head, please—it hurts. I need something to kill the pain.” Time after time, I would place my hands under his head and lift it to my face.
Sometimes Ralph was rational, sometimes not. There were times when he was coherent; other times, he seemed unconscious. He was in and out of both worlds—somehow, I felt, caught between the two.
One day when I was visiting Ralph, he took my hand in his. Out of the blue, he remarked, “I guess every man makes a fool of himself at one time or another in his life.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
He paused, then answered, “I’ve pulled some dumb ones.”
My hand still in his, I said, “A year from this coming June, we will have been married sixty years. No woman has ever loved a better man than I have, or more deeply.”
His response was in his face. After a short pause, he simply said, “Thank you, my dear. I love you.”
January moved slowly into the past; likewise February. As March moved in, so did the old man and his sickle. How could I ever handle letting Ralph go? My weeping heart, bound by life’s memories, poignant with both regrets and years of joy and fulfillment, stirred my senses. After all these years, I couldn’t find the power to deal with the loneliness.
In his last effort to find relief, Ralph whispered to me, “My head hurts. Please lift it up.” I smoothed his hair from his moist, feverish face and held his head until he said, “Thanks. That is enough now.” I sensed him struggle to lift his arm.
I leaned close and asked if I could help. No words came; he just feebly reached his arm to my neck and pulled me to his face. His eyes opened wide and turned a translucent blue. He uttered one last whisper: “I love you.” His struggle with mortality was over.
Words cannot describe the impact of that moment. I thought of all the times we had so joyfully loaded our small children in the car, laughing and excited, for the trip to Grandpa and Grandma Brown’s house in Pomerine, Arizona. After all the fun and feasts were over, then came the best part of all—singing all their favorite, long-cherished songs.
Coming to me now was the one we thought most beautiful of all—“One Fleeting Hour.” I could hear that song again as my tears fell against Ralph’s face.