Join with me, if you will, and attend a birthday party already in progress. But this is no ordinary birthday party. Nor is it an ordinary man’s life.
The crowd has gathered to celebrate. We find all of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren crowded into a large room. They’re there to honor the man who has given them all so much and asked nothing in return.
Yes, Mr. Jones has been a true family man all his adult life, but that’s not what makes this birthday celebration so unique.
One person in the room knows it will be Mr. Jones’s last.
Today was a special day – his special day. Each year the entire family gathered to celebrate the event. It was his 86th birthday. The music swirled around, children ran and played, and in the middle of all the celebration was his beloved, Eleanor. Soon it would be time to dance with her once again – his wife of some 60 years.
With the births of three more grandchildren, 15 to date, and three great-grandchildren, the room rented for the occasion was much larger than in previous years. Midmorning light seemed to turn into gold as it streamed through the special glass in banks of windows that lined two of the four walls.
He’d met Eleanor at the USO towards the end of the last Great War. That’s when they had their first dance. They were soon married, and a year later, the first of six children blessed their home. It was the family they always wanted. She stayed home. He worked at the same job for over 60 years. Both found joy in their life’s work. And both relished raising children. They’d always considered it not a burden but an honor.
They taught their children the virtues of honesty, the value of a hard day’s work, and above all, the love and security family brings. The boys helped in the backyard garden and the girls helped in the kitchen. And every weekend, without fail, they all attended church. In times of trouble, strength of their family and faith would see them through.
When his eldest was hit by a drunk driver and landed in the hospital, Mr. Jones stayed by his side until he was released weeks later.
Fortunes were made, lost, and then made again. He gave of his time, love, and whenever requested, money to his children, all without reservation.
Watching the huge gathering now around him, Mr. Jones brushed away a solitary tear. Looking back, not being able to spend more time with family was the one regret he felt and the weight he still carried. Working to provide for family meant not spending time with family. It was a balance he thought he never truly achieved.
As his shoulders slumped, he felt Eleanor squeeze his hand – she knew of his pain. “It’s okay,” She whispered, “You did the best that you could. Look around. All these wonderful people; they’re a credit to your hard work. Now, it’s time for our dance. Your cake will be here soon.”
The ageless couple rose and glided across the room as all in attendance watched, took pictures and marveled at their wonderful love story. It was a love story that seemed to go on forever. Another tear fell down his face as they danced, and Mr. Jones felt young once more. But he knew it would be for the last time.
Just outside the large common room, two ladies paused for a moment next to the door leading inside. “He’ll be sitting in a wheelchair by the windows on the far wall,” the older one said.
“His family doesn’t come to visit?” the younger lady asked.
“Yes, of course they do,” she replied, “but for him, it’s still not often enough. After his wife Eleanor died, he asked to be brought here.”
The older lady punched the code into the keypad of the door, “Not really. It’s what he wants. Doesn’t want to be a burden. More than anything else, he wishes them to spend time with their families. And they all live hours away.”
“What an amazing man to give so much,” the younger lady replied as she followed, carrying with her a small birthday cake. Decorated with 86 candles, it was adorned with a single word, a word that meant more to Mr. Jones throughout his life than any other: Family.
Dressed in cheerful scrubs, the two nurses walked across the common room of the nursing home’s Alzheimer’s ward. The door slowly closed and locked behind them.
And for Mr. Jones, the door was also slowly closing and locking on his most recent memories. For him, memories of recent events are cloudy and hard, if not impossible, to recall. Other events from long ago are clear, full of life and enjoyment – like this scene above from his birthday party.
It was a gathering that actually occurred ten years earlier and was the last his dear Eleanor would spend with him. His rapid decline started after her funeral. Unable to care for him, his family placed him here, the best Alzheimer’s facility in the state. After all, what other facility would they choose for such a family man?
You see, the sign out front read, “We treat your family like our family.”
Alzheimer’s is the slow goodbye.
Note to readers: This Saturday in our downtown is the walk to help raise money, find a cure for Alzheimer’s, and to give support to families affected by this condition. The web address is http://act.alz.org. Please support them in any way you can.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, served as a firefighter for more than two decades and has been a weekly columnist since 2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His books are available at www.RickRyckeley.com.]