The only thing I ever asked from my husband is that he never leave me.
Through 35 years of marriage he has honored my request. We have spent more of our lives together than apart.
On a peaceful October Sunday we sat in our family room. A football game blared on the television, and no nasty chores clamored for attention. Derrol and I sank into our chairs, feeling the first pleasure that comes from letting go and sinking into the overstuffed hug of pure comfort. It was our 35th wedding anniversary.
We have been a couple since Nixon was president. Ours is a companionship shared by two best friends, fired by a passion that compels us to reach for each other at every opportunity. We can’t be together without touching. We embarrassed our sons during their formative, parents-are-so-lame years because we always held hands in public. They grew out of it, we didn’t. Each time our fingers entwine, we feel like teenagers, in love for the first time.
Yet, I don’t want to celebrate this anniversary. I want to forget the passing of time. I want to cling to the moment. I want to stretch it forever, never thinking about the tomorrows. And I don’t want him to leave me.
We met in middle school, and our friendship grew through high school. After graduation we dated for five months and married. He’s been the anchor that kept our family centered and strong. When I would have spontaneously maxed out credit cards and worried about it “tomorrow,” he rationally placed responsibilities for family and commitments first.
Others may see our marriage as having carved out a rut. We prefer to think of our routine as familiar rituals. This Sunday, like most of our Sundays, it unfolded with the usual chores — feed cats, make coffee, click on the morning political television programs. Then we sat down to our traditional breakfast.
The call of the cat
Marcel, our well-fed 12-year-old dark tiger cat, rushed to the corner of a three-quarter wall that juts out into the middle of the great room. He stood on the pinnacle that overlooked the kitchen, family room, living room and dining room. There, like the king of the mountain, he raised his head and roared. Well, for quiet Marcel, named after that legendary mime Marcel Marceau, it seemed like a roar. He gave at least three hefty meows and then waited, listening.
Something in his tone made me think of Bernie, the newest feline addition to our family. A wide-eyed, just-weaned gift three years ago from one of our sons, Bernie has been pure joy for Derrol and me. Not so much for Marcel and his sister, Mal.
While they were ready to settle into a serene, sedentary existence, Bernie embraced kittenhood. He loved to jump on them and then rush away before they knew what hit them. Mal hissed, growled and swatted at him. She and I seem to face our torment with claws and teeth bared, hissing and spitting with fury. We seem to say, “Bring it on, I’ll show you tough.”
But, also like Mal, I’m not so tough.
Marcel usually endured the torment for awhile, much like Derrol and his easy-going ways. When tired of the “kid,” he would move out of his way. If Bernie persisted, Marcel showed who was alpha male. Derrol is the alpha male in our household, secure and capable, always in control.
My husband, surfacing from the television program at Marcel’s call, watched me head for the garage. “Bernie’s out there,” I said, answering his unasked question. We know each other so well that we no longer need to ask questions to get answers.
As soon as I opened the door Bernie swept past me, meowing loudly while launching himself atop the hanging cupboards. Marcel rushed toward him, and the two met above the sink like Titanic survivors. They washed each other’s faces and rubbed noses. This unexpected evidence of cat bonding and affection touched my husband and me. It brought tears to my eyes, but then, I cry easily these days.
Marcel reminded me of our marriage. For more than three and a half decades, where one went, there was the other. We have rarely been separated. We always know the other’s whereabouts. If not, like Marcel, we shout or go hunting for one another.
Now my strong, linebacker husband, who could lift a car, who tirelessly ran up and down the field of play, refereeing football and basketball games, is losing his muscle strength and coordination.
This man mentored children, was a 4-H leader, still loves the Three Stooges and has been known to cry over Tiny Tim’s crippled legs. Now he leans on his own cane, drags one foot forward and then the other, while precariously balanced atop legs that have become his enemies.
We, who finish each others’ sentences and are constantly amazed at how often we think the same thoughts, rarely talk about the shadows darkening around us. But the words, “Please don’t leave me,” like a constant loop, filter through my brain. They run unnoticed until suddenly they’ll jump out and shake me.
No, I don’t worry that he will find another woman or divorce me. I never doubted his love. We have always known we would never split over worldly choices. But in the back of my mind the thought festers: He will die and leave me.
His maternal grandfather died of a heart attack, leaving his wife when they entered their carefree 50s. His father, in his mid-50s, was killed by a drunk driver, and his father’s father was killed by a drunk driver while only in his 60s. There seems to be a pattern.
Of course the elephant in the room is my husband’s brother, dead at 18. Six months after we married, we grieved at his funeral. We believed the neurologist who looked across her desk at a couple of teenagers in love, stared us in the eyes and told us, “Don’t worry. . . . It’s a rare disease. . . . Just live your life.”
Now in our mid-50s, we learn that the disease is hereditary. It has an impressive name: familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Its nickname is Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is the inherited form of ALS. A dozen of his relatives, ranging in age from 18 to 80, have died from it. Dozens more wonder if they will be next.
While Derrol’s symptoms manifest, my fears grow.
He, who could fix anything with a screwdriver, has lost his grip. He can no longer hold his favorite tool, let alone use it. His rich baritone that rang out in harmony in the community choir is silenced. His breath support is gone. He is exhausted from the struggle to walk from our front door to the door of his car in the driveway.
He chokes and gasps for breath, and I remember his fear of not being able to breathe. I cough and breathe deeply. If we can share thoughts, why can’t we share breath?
Who knew, when we were making the rounds from doctor to doctor searching for a diagnosis, that no one could help him?
We cling to the time we have. He does what he can while he can. Each time we come together, whether it is after a day at work or a night of restless sleep, we greet each other with relief. We renew our marriage with each touch, and we both try hard not to see past the moment.
I swallow the anger and try to give up looking for someone to blame. I want to fight for him. I want to bare my claws, sink my teeth into someone and release my fury so that I can rid us of this despicable illness that is stealing my husband away.
He cautions me about making deals with God. No standing in his stead, no swaps, no “your life for mine.” Because, he says, “I can’t live without you.”
Just accept it, he says. We’ll do what we can and deal with it as we can.
I savored every bite of the cinnamon roll. That afternoon I sat beside him at the movie theater. Later we loved each other in the careful, slow, familiar way that long-time lovers do.
Tomorrow I will smile. I will remember. When he can’t talk, I’ll recount this day for him. And when he can no longer hug me, I will hug him.
Until then I will kiss his familiar face and hold his hand in public. And when I can’t find him, I will do like Marcel. I will climb to the highest point and call his name. Then I’ll listen and wait until he returns.
Dawn Goldsmith lives in Central Florida with her husband and three cats. She specializes in personal essays and profiles for a variety of publications, including Better Nutrition, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and ABC News. She can be contacted through her blog at www.wordsogold.blogspot.com/.