Coming home from our cabin in the late afternoon of Memorial Day, my husband and I stopped at a popular barbeque place on Highway 24. The restaurant is a large barn-like building, and the lines for ordering snake around metal crowd control stanchions. The line began just beyond the front door. We settled in for a wait.
All along the way to the front counters and cash registers there are opportunities to buy. Long ice-filled metal tubs between the stanchions hold soft drinks and beer. The stooped elderly man in the line just ahead of us kept pulling out bottles and tucking them beneath his arms. The woman with him kept putting them back, saying, "You don't like that. You like this." And she held up the bottle in her hand. A young boy, in his early teens, I guessed, stood as far from them as he could, while keeping his place in line. He looked embarrassed by the exchanges. The trio was dressed in matching red shirts, each wearing a ribbon pin, red, white and blue, next to a button on which was printed the face of a young man in army camouflage. Finally, the woman told the young boy, "Take him and find a seat. I'll bring the food."
The man walked off holding the boy's hand as he was led to a table. The woman turned to me and said, "That's my husband. He has Alzheimer's." As we inched along, she kept turning and straining to see the boy and the man. I tapped her on the shoulder, "If you need to go check on them, go ahead. We'll save your place in line."
She thanked me and began to talk, sometimes looking at me but mostly looking just over my shoulder as she scanned the room, alert, on duty. The boy is her grandson. She's raising him. She's raised all of his siblings, included the oldest. She points to the button on her shirt. That's him. He died in Afghanistan. It's been two years now. She and her husband and grandson have just come from a tour of the memory care unit where her husband will be living. She needs it to happen soon. She needs surgery on her knee and her elbow. She can't lift her husband anymore. Can't restrain him. And he needs to be restrained. Her youngest grandson is acting out, talking back. She tells him, "I need you to behave. I need you to be good. I can't handle this now."
She's talking about teenage moods and misbehavior, but she throws her arms out as if to encompass all the needs: this crowd, this day, the deaths she bears, the life she's living.
She's ashamed to put her husband in a home. I tell her about my mother's dementia, how I broke my promise to her that she would die at home. I tell this stranger how, when I got sick, too, and needed surgery and couldn't care for my mother any longer, I took her to the memory care unit where she died eight months later. She died in the place that she begged to leave. I hug this woman I do not know, this woman I know so well. She hugs me back. I tell her to try to be kind to herself, to offer herself some of the mercy she offers her husband and grandson.
She tells me the memory care unit is expensive. She'd signed him up for a less expensive room than the one they were shown, but it has big windows and a view of the mountains, a view of Gold Camp Road, where her husband had loved to hike. She says he was a railroad buff. He walked the abandoned tracks and could tell you all about the vanished trains. So, they're taking the room with the windows.
"He'll like that," she says, gesturing to the man sitting quietly in his seat staring down at the table.
I nod my head in agreement, as if to say, "I know the cost." But then she tells me that the room will take all their retirement, all their savings. She doesn't know what will happen to her when she gets old and helpless. She tells me they are 60, younger than my husband and I, much younger than I had assumed. Care and loss and illness have robbed them of middle age. Her son, the grandchildren's father, is in Florida. He's an alcoholic, but he's trying. He wants to get better. But he can't help her. Not yet.
I listen. I know some of the costs, but not the terrible cost she has paid, is paying. When my mother died, there was just enough left to pay for airline tickets and hotel rooms so that the whole family could attend her funeral. There was enough money for dinner for us all after the funeral. Her children then each received about 250 dollars, a final accounting and a final gift. More than that, my children and grandchildren are well.
But I know the pain of broken promises, the pain of being the one who broke them. At the end, my mother thought I was her mother. Her face would brighten when I walked in. "Oh, my mother's here," she'd say. She cried every time I left. So did I. I told people who asked why it was so hard to leave her in a place that was about as good as a memory unit can be: "Imagine leaving a 4-year-old alone in an airport, sobbing for her mother. That's what it's like."
Still, I left her, left her as I never would have left my child. Still, this woman will leave her husband. I offered her the forgiveness I can't offer myself. She received it, grateful as only those of us living with brokeness can be. In my experience, we aren't self-forgiving creatures. Maybe that's as it should be. Maybe we need to receive mercy from another also in need.
We can forgive one another. We should do that more.
[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's latest book, with co-author Anna Keating, is The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life.]