It’s a family reunion at Nuno’s home. I’m deep in conversation with one of his cousins, who was recently separated –we are sharing experiences– when the doorbell rings. The door opens and I see Auntie Cris and Uncle José coming in. It’s so good to see them. Now in their early eighties, when I met them ten years ago they were still in great shape; he, a tall, slim, straight dark haired man, and she a petite, pale skinned blonde and blue eyed lady, with a lively spirit and – some said – a sharp tongue. I would rather say she has a sharp sense of humour, so it’s always a pleasure to talk to her; many times, we sat during family events while she told me about their many travels, which they enjoyed with a group of friends. I remember once telling her I would love to go to Israel, and she immediately told me everything about their recent trip there, and what I should see, how I would absolutely love Jerusalem and all the Holy Places…as for Uncle José, he was a practical joker, and we could hear his happy laugh together with that of his nephews. After all, being their mother’s much younger brother, he was a very young uncle, always ready for some adventure.
A dance together
I remember what great dancers they were. Once – I think it was at Nuno’s parents 50thwedding anniversary – there was dancing music and we were all surprised at how well they danced. Their steps perfectly matched –a lifetime of dancing together; they looked so energetic that we all forgot they were in their seventies. Looking at them we could imagine them in their youth, a handsome couple, full of life and hope for the future.
And the promise of a future together was fulfilled. They married for better or for worse, and they had many happy times. But the ominous – and now famous sentence “winter is coming” always ends up by making a show of appearance, and it has come to their life too. As I recently read in a book, old age is crueler than most things in life.
A silent enemy
Auntie Cris greets me and there is a smile on her face, but it is a wan smile. I notice she has grown thinner. As for Uncle José, he walks slowly behind her, just a little bit too slowly, as if making sure he is doing all the right movements, as if he were afraid of falling with each step he takes. He has Parkinson’s disease. If you look at him and he is not moving, you won’t notice it. His eyes are a bit hollow, it’s true, with a sad look that never leaves his face, but he still has the mane of black hair that gives him a youthful look and he is still slim and straight. But then he moves, and you see how everything has changed. He sits down on a chair and just stays there, his hands on his lap so that we won’t see him shaking. Auntie Cris sits by him and never leaves his side, and we all take turns to sit nearby and try to cheer them up. His nephews come and tell him jokes and he laughs, but when they move on, he just sits there quietly, as if retreating into a private world of his own.
Auntie Cris is giving him his food. She tries to do it unobtrusively, and we stay away, respecting their privacy. When she is done, I go back to the sofa and sit by her side. Her husband is now engrossed in conversation with his son, and I ask her how he has been faring, saying I find him quite well. I can see she needs to open her heart. She tells me he may look well but he is decaying a little each day. She forces him to go out every day with her and they do, but only last week as he was walking, he lost his balance and would have fallen had it not been for her. She sustained his fall but hurt herself instead, and she showed me her bruises. She says he still drives – only around their quarter, not much more – but she is always directing him, “do this, now be careful, turn around now”, and she is terrified he will have a dizzy spell and bump the car. On the other side, she doesn’t have the courage to ask him to stop driving, she knows it will be a terrible blow to his self-esteem. So, she goes on, day after day, praying that they will survive yet another short tour of the neighbourhood.
Long gone are their trips, now a distant memory. He desperately needs his routine. Each day he is losing strength in his legs, his arms. Each day he fights it, doing physical therapy. Each day he hopes to delay this silent enemy invading him, but each day the enemy wins yet another battle and he decays a little more. Some days he is more withdrawn, on others he seems more alert, but then something goes terribly wrong and he is faced with the hard truth that he won’t get better, only worse. No matter how many treatments he tries, no matter how many pills he takes or physical therapy sessions he undergoes…she knows – and he knows too – that their life is a race against time, and they both know this insidious disease will win in the end. The question is not if, but when it will happen.
I listen, letting her pour her heart out. I can see she is tired, so tired. Every day she must put on a smile and help the man she loves face this terrible ordeal, for he knows exactly what’s wrong with him and what to expect. He puts on a brave face for her and she does the same for him, but they both know, and when they lie together in the dark, both feigning sleep but wide awake, they wonder how much longer it will take until she is alone – either because he has really gone or simply because his mind is elsewhere.
She talks to me and I can see her eyes are full of tears. My heart goes out to her, once so young, so beautiful, so full of life, so loved. Now she only sees sadness and despair, utter desolation ahead. Suddenly he is calling her, and she immediately stands up and goes to him, all tenderness. She holds his hands and speaks softly to him. I understand he wants to leave. He is tired of all this ebullient life around him, young people, others not so young but still healthy and active, young children running around and shouting…he needs his peace.
I kiss them goodbye and watch them leave. He leans on her taking his studied, careful steps, one by one. At a time, he vacillates and leans heavily on her – and she holds. It is then that marriage vows come to my mind – to have and to hold, for better or for worse, till death do us part – and I think they are being true to their own vows, spoken more than fifty years ago. They have had a happy, full life together. They enjoyed spring, summer and autumn. And now they will face winter together. They are already facing it. Afraid, yes. And desperately unhappy. But always together, for better or for worse.
If only we were taught, from our early days, that in life there is a time for dancing and rejoicing, and a time to let go and start saying goodbye; if only we could fade away silently and graciously, without pain and decay. If only we could accept that life has a beginning and an end; if only all of us could believe there is something waiting for us on the other side, that this is just a step of our journey. If only…
I shake my head. No use thinking “if only”. Life is what it is. Tomorrow is another day. Uncle José will wake up and resume his fight. Auntie Cris will give him his food and then they will get into the car and she will let him drive, praying that nothing bad will happen. Then he will do his exercises and make believe they are doing him good. And then the day will come when he will no longer be able to drive at all. And another, when doing physical therapy will seem pointless; yet another when his hands will shake so much, they will be practically useless. But that day won’t come today, or tomorrow. Tomorrow, carefully rehearsing his slow steps, Uncle José will still be fighting for his life, leaning on his love, his dancing partner of so many years.