It’s early evening. The sun is setting over Birmingham. My wife and I are out for dinner at a nice restaurant, which is a rarity. I am wearing a sport coat.
Even bigger rarity.
It’s been a long time since we’ve gone out for dinner. Too long. This is because my wife has been my mother-in-law’s primary caregiver for the last few years. And in the months leading up to the end of her mother’s life, we didn’t get many opportunities to paint the town.
No, when you’re a caregiver you pretty much say goodbye to a personal life. You bid farewell to fancy restaurants and movie dates. Instead, you end up eating a lot of leftover meatloaf on the sofa while watching HGTV with your mother-in-law who often shouts, “This meatloaf needs salt!”
But tonight, here we are in the big city. And it’s nice. Actually, it’s better than nice. Tonight, I actually remember what it feels like to be human. Which is a sensation easily forgotten among caregivers.
We are sitting at an outside table, enjoying the autumn weather when a Chevy Suburban pulls to the curb. A middle-aged guy with salt-and-pepper hair hops out of the driver’s seat and trots around the vehicle to open the rear hatch.
He unloads two large wheelchairs, one walker, and an oxygen canister on wheels. He parks the chairs on the sidewalk, then positions the roller-walker beside the corral of equipment. It looks like he’s about to stage a geriatric chorus line.
“Hold on, Mama,” the man shouts back to the car. “I’m coming for ya.”
Next, the man places women’s purses into each wheelchair. A large knit bag sits on one chair, a Burberry plaid handbag sits in the other chair.
My wife and I exchange looks. We’re both thinking the same thing. My mother-in-law used to have a plaid handbag.
It’s the little things.
Next, the man throws open the rear passenger door and helps an elderly woman dismount from the vehicle. The lady is white-haired, bent, and not very mobile. The man practically lifts her in his arms like you would carry a small child. He places her into the seat of the wheelchair, then massages his lower back.
The man races to the Chevy again and retrieves another old woman who he calls “Aunt Leslie.” This woman is tiny, like a bird. Also, she is decked in sequins and a nice-looking wool skirt straight out of the late ‘60s. Red pumps. Pearls.
He half carries the woman across the sidewalk and places her into the second wheelchair. Then he holds a small mirror before Aunt Leslie’s face while she reapplies her lipstick. The lipstick shade is what my mother would refer to as hussy red.
When the old woman is finally situated, he leaves her for the final passenger who waits in the idling vehicle. An old man.
I can see that the old man is large. Not heavyset, but tall. He must be six-seven, maybe six-eight, although he can’t weigh more than a buck ten. He is gaunt, so lean I can practically see his blood pressure thumping beneath his thin skin.
The old man is wearing a full suit. Dark blue. Gold buttons. His hair is fixed the way all men from his generation used to fix their hair—with enough Brylcreem to lubricate an industrial pump axle.
The middle-aged man painstakingly helps the old man to the walker and then helps him shuffle forward, saying, “That’s it, Daddy. That’s it.”
My wife takes my hand and squeezes. We are both watching the scene before us, and it’s hitting us where we live.
After several minutes all four of the dinner guests finally enter the restaurant, moving slowly. There is a sweat patch on the middle-aged guy’s dress shirt. He approaches the hostess counter and says, “We have a reservation for four.”
He is slightly out of breath from exertion. All he’s done tonight is work. God love him.
The hostess leads the dinner party to the table near ours and I can see that they are practically glowing with enthusiasm. Because, hey, everyone loves going out to dinner.
Our own supper is delicious, and after we pay an exorbitant bill, which is roughly the same price as a three-bedroom house, we are on our way out to the car when my wife stops walking in the parking lot. She turns to face me but says nothing.
“Are you alright?” I ask her.
I can see strawberry-sized tears in her eyes, threatening to rain upon her chin. And I know what she’s thinking because I am thinking the same thing.
“God, I miss her,” she says, wiping her face. “I miss her so much.”
I draw her close and squeeze. “So do I, honey.”
So do I.