Don and Charlotte are sleeping in an oversized hospital bed. The bed is in the middle of an incredibly still ocean with no waves and no land in sight. The sky is full of stars. Husband and wife are spooning peacefully. The stars start to go out in the sky, like the lights in your house being cut out one by one. A crack begins to form at the top of headboard. It isn’t violent or loud, but it weaves its way down the middle of the bed between the couple until it reaches the bottom of the bed. The two halves separate and drift away from each other. Charlotte wakes with a start and turns to see Don floating away from her. “No Don. Don’t do that. Come back here,” She calls. “It’s me Charlotte. It’s your wife, sweetheart.” Don wakes, blinking and confused like a child waking up an unfamiliar place. He doesn’t speak but just sits silently staring back at her. Charlotte continues to call to him as his side of the bed drifts away. She can barely see Don because almost all the stars have gone out, save one or two. She continues to call him back, nevertheless. It’s getting darker and darker and he’s getting farther and farther away.
Charlotte and Don Stanek have been married 53 years. A decade ago, Don was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Over the last year, the disease has left him incapable of caring for himself. Charlotte has remained her husband’s primary caregiver as she's watched her him slowly fade from her. Faced with the increased difficulty of caring for Don, Charlotte must consider moving him into an Assisted Living facility. This is a story about holding on.
“I really wish you could have known Don before. He was so nice,” said Charlotte. She was sitting in rehab room of her physical therapist’s office waiting for the PT to return. She has been going to physical therapy for three months to relieve the pain in her neck and shoulder. She’d ignored it for as long as she could, until she the pain was so bad she cried one day while driving Don to pick up medication. The doctor felt the knotted muscles in her neck and said it was from stress and sleep deprivation.
Don has taken some turns for the worst over the past month. He has stopped feeding himself, a sign that the Alzheimer’s has progressed. He’s become easily agitated and confused. He gets out of bed in the middle of the night and wanders the house. Charlotte awakes to the ruffling of covers or the rattling of door handles. She installed deadbolts on the front and back door to keep him from getting outside. Charlotte can’t remember the last time she’s gotten a full night’s rest. She is beginning to consider the advice she’s been hearing more and more lately, “It’s time to put Don in a home. You can’t take care of him anymore.”
Charlotte met Don in the early 1960’s working as a receptionist at Ansco, an Eastman Kodak competitor in Binghamton, New York. “My girlfriend Marge and I started at the same time out of high school. One day she said, ‘did you see that guy that works down in the lab? He’s really good looking” I went down and saw him and came back and told her, ‘he’s mine’”
Handsome, smart, a father to four children as they moved between three states over their five decade marriage, Don was a good man and a loving husband. Charlotte reiterates this constantly, especially after a difficult day. He was an outdoorsman at heart and had always wanted to be a forest ranger. His Alzheimer’s had left them more and more confined to the home and he’s become more and more stir crazy. He developed a light footedness as an avid hunter that makes it difficult for Charlotte to hear if he tries to wander outside while she’s making dinner.
It’s unquestionable that Don loves his wife. He brightens up when she enters the room. He reaches for Charlotte constantly, showering her with hugs and affection. “Oh, come here” he insists as he kisses her hand and then up her arm to her elbow. Charlotte blushes, embracing this new unexpected outpouring of affection that has emerged as a silver lining to her husband’s illness. They're acting like newlyweds again.
“He used to think I had Betty Grable legs. It’s nice when you have a husband with Alzheimer’s because he still thinks you have Betty Grable legs.”