Love That Lasts
by Barbara Seaman

 

It's six A.M., gray and still. Thelma Wright, a sparrow-sized woman of seventy-seven, sits on the back step watching the sunrise. Overhead two purple finches circle. Thelma is often up before the birds. Up at midnight to care for her husband, Wilbur, she seldom drops back to sleep. Instead she scrubs the bathtub or dusts a few shelves. In the ten years since Wilbur's stroke she's had little time for chores in daylight.

Indoors, there is a bit of sparrow in her movements, the plucky hip-hop of arthritic joints. On the kitchen counter, the coffee machine gurgles. Thelma peers at it through her thick-lensed glasses. By instinct more than sight, she navigates the familiar kitchen spaces, cupboard to refrigerator to drawer, mixing Wilbur's strawberry drink, carrying his bran flakes and white-scalloped bowl.

When Thelma enters the front bedroom, the clock on the mantle ticks toward seven. Her husband's breath puffs in - out, in - out, his eyes closed.

From an apparent sound sleep, Wilbur says, "I'm awake."

Thelma smiles. "I'll get your washcloth and eye drops."

One-handed, Wilbur rubs the wet warmth over his face. Since 1961, when his left arm was severed in an industrial accident, Wilbur has done everything one-handed. Then six months ago, poor circulation reduced his right foot to pain so incessant the leg was amputated.

"There really isn't much of me left, is there?" he said one day.

"Hey, buddy," replied Thelma, patting his chest, "the best part is right here."

Bathing done, Thelma says, "Ready to get up?"

Wilbur nods.

With a Hoyer lift, Thelma moves her husband from the bed.

"One of these days," says Wilbur, "I'm going to get up and give you a ride in this machine."

Wilbur's eyes follow Thelma the way iron filings follow a magnet. Thelma pumps the hydraulic lever on the hoist, her husband rises from the bed, then is lowered into the wheelchair.

Nowadays Wilbur and Thelma need each other. She is his movement. He is her reason for moving.

"You okay?"

"You haven't dumped me yet."

"No, sir, after thirty-three years I'm not about to dump you."

In the bathroom, Thelma shaves and grooms her husband. Together they arrive at the kitchen table in a swirl of scent - hot coffee and cool aftershave. Wilbur shoves the right wheel lock into place. Thelma locks the left.

Over bran flakes and milk, Thelma and Wilbur link fingers and pray in unison, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done..." Halfway through, tears track down Wilbur's cheeks.

Two quiet cups of coffee later, he says, "If you'd known all this - how bad it was going to be - maybe you wouldn't have said 'I do.'"

Thelma looks at him through double-ringed lenses. "You know something? Just to see your smile and those blue eyes looking at me, it's worth it all. I wouldn't change any of it - except maybe one thing. If I could take six months of the year - divide it up with you - I'd take your place and let you switch with me."