George Hoffman collects his thoughts while nurses check Lucille into her new home. George swore he would never put his wife in a nursing home, but that was before nighttime toilet runs and Lucilles falls exhausted him. Ten years into her disease, he is so tired hes falling asleep at stoplights.
PICTURE MR. Magoo if he stopped squinting through those bushy eyebrows, opened his eyes and sparkled with moon-faced confidence.
That's George Hoffman.
When he retired, he was set -- stocks and CDs squirreled away, golf clubs ready, cruise ships to board.
But something wasn't right with Lucille. She couldn't follow the bidding at the bridge table. Her bill paying got all jumbled.
George watched helplessly as she receded. Lucille lost the melodic soprano that once graced church choirs. She lost control of her bladder. She still squeezes out a few words here and there but mostly stares into nothingness and mutters "Heh, heh, heh," like a car idling in park.
Lucille's basic functions consume George's life: Sleep. Move. Eat. Eliminate. Forget gardening or even reading the newspaper. Publix qualifies as an outing; George pushes the shopping cart and Lucille trails behind, clutching the belt of his trousers.
A man of less resolve would have caved long ago, but George is blessed with an ego as big as Montana. Unburdened by bitterness or self-doubt, he rises early and logs marathon hours -- lifetime habits forged in the mining equipment plants he supervised.
Luckily for him, Lucille never underwent a nasty personality change. Sweet as ever, she communicates with facial expressions a mime would envy.
She smiles, she winks, she leers. When George irritates her, she shakes a clenched fist. She feigns surprise by widening her eyes and making a circle with her lips.
When she considers something truly primo, she forms a circular "okay" sign with her thumb and index finger, holds it to her lips and blows it open with a kiss, like a chef pronouncing the cacciatore magnifico.
George knew about support groups but figured he was too busy. Besides, he was afraid to leave Lucille alone. But when his daughter visited from Virginia and offered to watch her, he finally tried Whitaker's group. Getting away for a few hours of conversation brought George relief and kinship. He hired a sitter to watch Lucille every Tuesday afternoon.
Now he tries to follow the group's cardinal rule about staying pleasant. No interaction is too mundane for his enthusiastic patter.
"Okay, Lucille, time to get up," he booms, straining to pull her out of a chair. "That's my girl, give me a kiss. Oh, yeah. Do you want to dance?"
He pumps her arms back and forth until her face relaxes.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she says.
George feeds her, seasoning every morsel with encouragement. "You want some of this coleslaw? This is good."
"Nice, nice, nice."
Dementia often wipes out inhibitions, and George loves that sexual overtures still excite his 78-year-old wife.
"Do you know you are my love?" he asks.
"Bebe, bebe. I want one," she says, rubbing his pant leg.
He laughs, she laughs.
"I'm being a bad girl, I guess." It's her clearest sentence of the day.
Tricks George picked up at support group have helped. When Lucille stopped drinking water, he bought Popsicles by the dozens and she gobbled them up. To free her nightgown from toileting functions, he raises the hem to her shoulder and clips it with a clothespin he keeps on the vanity. He embraces the simplicity of finger food.
At the Fourth Street Shrimp Store, a waiter tries to take Lucille's order. She mouths some nonsense.
"I can barely hear you," the waiter says, leaning toward her.
"She has Alzheimer's," George says, "and she's trying to tell you she wants popcorn shrimp, a mug of beer and fries."
Lucille eats fries and shrimp with her fingers, then takes after one fry with her fork. She stabs it all right, but fry and fork stop halfway to her mouth. George places another fry in her free hand and gently removes the fork.
There's magic in this tenderness. Lucille is more than the broken-down reminder of better days. She's more than the willing sex partner who figures in the bawdy stories George tells at support group about their escapades in the shower.
In her own restricted way, she's charming. Her creamy white face radiates affection through the shroud of her affliction. George gives, but he also gets -- dozens of times a day.
What he can't overcome are the uncompromising limitations of his 79-year-old stooped-over body.
He discontinued his daily walks because he couldn't leave Lucille alone. Now he finds himself short of breath. Lucille's nighttime toilet runs interrupt his sleep every three hours; his eyelids droop through the day.
In their prime, George squired Lucille effortlessly through Latin dance routines. Now, even helping her sit down is a chore because she's unsure of where she'll land.
As George holds her hands, she hovers above a chair and quakes until, finally, she yields to gravity and collapses. Sometimes, the quaking routine begins before she's centered over the chair.
"No! No, 'Cille, not yet!" George yells, sucking in breath and straining backward for leverage.
A bathroom towel bar sets the stage for a maddening tug of war. On good days, it steadies Lucille on her way down. Other times, she clamps onto it and refuses to let go. The louder George yells, the tighter she squeezes.
He tried adult day care -- once. When he picked her up, Lucille gave him what-for with all the clenched-teeth, finger-wagging fury she could muster.
No milestone comes harder than placing a loved one in an institution, and George always swore he'd never do it to Lucille. But the clock is ticking. If he hangs on too long, one or both of them are headed for the hospital. Someday soon, he may have to move her out of this house.
"It breaks my heart. She was such a beauty," George says, turning somber. "She was such an intelligent person. When she'd be all dolled up and we were out on the dance floor, she was the belle of the ball."
Attuned to her husband's mood shift, Lucille frowns. George notices and reassembles Happy Face.
"Didn't we have a good time! Didn't we!" he says, grinning at Lucille like a fool. "A rumba! Let me see a rumba!"
She smiles, wiggles her shoulders and arches her eyebrows in a come-hither look.
JACK GRABLE has an hour to spend with his wife at ManorCare nursing home in Palm Harbor. If he could script the visit, he and June would chat about the kids, sing a few tunes and enjoy each other's touch.
Then he could walk away at peace.
But June has her own relentless agenda: She is determined that her husband spend the night. Memory and reasoning have deserted her, but tenacity has not. Try as he might to orchestrate the conversation, Jack is overmatched.
So he lies.
"Are you going to stay the night?" June greets him, without so much as a hello.
"Yes, but I have to go to work first," answers Jack, who retired from running a United Way in Texas nine years ago.
June points to her single bed. "Will you lay there with me?"
He obliges as well as his 6-foot-4 frame allows, his feet dangling almost to the floor. June nestles into his shoulder, which satisfies her for about 10 seconds. The litany begins anew.
"Are you going to spend the night?"
"Yes, but I'll have to come back. I have to go to work."
"I thought you were through for the day."
"I'll be back at 7. . . . Steve (their son) called. They got their house built on the lake."
"That's nice. Can we still sleep together tonight?"
"Yeah. We slept like this when we were first married."
He gets her to sing: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine . . ." June finishes and Jack shifts immediately into Jesus Loves Me. Again, June follows his lead to the end. He hesitates, casting about for a new song.
"Now are you going to stay with me tonight?"
"Even if we have to go to a motel?"
"I just have to work until 7. . . . You won't get sexy on me, will you?"
"Don't ask me questions about that," June says with a sly grin. "But you could try."
SUPPORT GROUP taught Jack Grable that lying can be a virtue. Lying to children is risky because they tend to ferret out the truth and lose trust. But lying to demented people can calm their anxieties and help beleaguered spouses get through the day.
A woman wrings her hands because she can't find her father. Reminding her that he died decades ago is useless, even cruel. She will grieve her loss, forget he's dead and pine for him again.
Better: "Your father will be home soon. Let's walk around the block while we wait for him."
A demented man pesters his wife for sex, but she lacks all energy and desire. Instead of a simple "no," she tells him they made love an hour ago. "I'm not ready yet. We'll do it again tomorrow."
Jack's moral roots are buried solidly in Midwestern rectitude. His grandfather always told him: Tell the truth and you'll never have to remember what you said.
But dementia changed all that.
June criticized Jack relentlessly, shunned friends and terrorized waiters, insisting they refill her iced tea after a few sips. Gone was the woman who once oversaw 900 senior volunteers with tact and grace.
The more her anxieties mounted, the more she clung to Jack. "I'd go to the bathroom and she'd be right in the doorway waiting. She'd say, "Can't you stop now? You can come back later."'
Cheri Whitaker persuaded Jack to put June into an assisted living home for five days so he could rest and recharge. The Alzheimer's Association even paid for it.
"After four days, I said, "I'm not bringing her home.' I didn't realize how emotionally drained I was.
"I go back to my wedding vows, For better or for worse, in sickness and in health. I signed a covenant and she's my wife. But I can't bring her home because she was killing me."
AT MANORCARE, an administrator asks June to help set the dining room table, a diversion so Jack can leave gracefully.
"No!" June shouts. "They can set their own table."
She turns back to Jack.
"Honey, will you please come back and will you say I'm the best person in your life?"
"You are the best person in my life. We were married for 55 years. I'll be back as soon as I get out of here and get my work done."
"You get to sleep with me tonight. Hallelujah!"