Sunday 29 August 2021

The Stories He Tells You


by Michelle Adams

tea, just how you like it 

You're reading this because you didn't recognise the man that gave it to you. That dear, sweet man that visits you every day, who brings you flowers, makes your cup of tea just how you like it and who looks at you with such sadness in his eyes is your husband, and you've been married for over forty years. His name is James, and you have three children together, Matthew, Katy and Lucy.

You don't remember him because you have an illness, a horrible, horrible illness that is stealing your memories. You wrote this letter shortly after the doctors told you what to expect - ready for this day that you prayed would never come.

You must be very confused and very scared. But NEVER be scared of James – that man would die before he ever hurt you.

It was hard to hear the news you had been dreading. When you first went to the GP, you'd hoped he say that it was just old age creeping up or that it was stress from James' retirement (as much as you love him, it was a little tricky getting used to him being home all day!). Dr Porter was coming up for retirement himself, and in the past, had been a little dismissive of what he called 'ladies' problems'. An old fashioned gentleman with old fashioned views, you'd expected that he'd wave away your concerns as he had in the past. But that wrinkled old face had frowned, and he'd pulled his chair closer and asked questions, ones that even now you can't quite remember, that linger on the edges of your memory, that evaporate into nothing whenever you try and focus on them.  Driving home that day was a blur; you couldn't remember leaving the surgery or even the journey. James found you sitting on the driveway, the engine of your little yellow mini still running, just staring at nothing. You hadn't told him how much it was bothering you, those minor innocuous symptoms he'd made light of, that on their own were nothing more than silly little idiosyncrasies,  funny little habits. Some had always been part of your personality, like mixing up words – always calling the dishwasher the washing machine or the oven the sink.  But before, those little foibles had been a product of a distracted mind, not a sick one. And in the end,  those little things, when put together, turned out to be quite a big thing. Alzheimer's. A funny-sounding word for something that isn't funny at all. 

They handed out leaflets, links to websites, contacts for charities that could help. You read everything several times because it was increasingly hard to take in information even then, particularly about unfamiliar things. James read them to you; you read them together. There were endless conversations with specialists, support workers,  and with the lovely lady from the charity. You wanted, no, you needed to understand what was coming, to be prepared for whatever was ahead. Though deep down, you knew it was inevitable.

You sat down on a sunny afternoon when you realised that soon when this illness had really taken hold, you would forget that you had grandchildren, forget even your children. You've spent a long time trying and failing to come to terms with the unhappy truth that the ones you love the most would eventually become strangers to you.  You sat down at the battered old writing desk (inherited from your mother) and wrote yourself a series of letters,  reminders of your most precious memories, and James promised that when the time came, he would return them.

When you wrote these words to yourself, you hoped that they wouldn't upset you too much, that they wouldn't scare the woman you would become. Don't cry. As your mother used to say, 'Crying takes away the energy you need to fight.' Keep reading. No one knows you as well as you know yourself, and as long as you are still there, still in a world where you have your family behind you, there will be a part of you that knows that you can do this, you can still be strong, still hold on. Hold on.  Hold on to James; he's got you.

 James has been the love of your life; your soul mate and your best friend. He has been your most loyal and committed companion, and you love him as much as he still loves you. You've spent many hours staring into those gentle green eyes of his, holding that labourer's hand that touches you so softly. You've raised your three beautiful children and welcomed seven gorgeous grandchildren into your family. Your family have been your strength, and you are more proud of them than words can say.

James was your first real love, and although it was a short courtship, it wasn't wholly love at first sight. You met each other at the wedding of your cousin Helen to an old school friend of his. You were sitting next to each other at the reception, and for the first hour, you barely exchanged words. That wasn't for want of trying on your behalf, but other than a polite 'Nice to meet you.', James sat silent, too shy to join in with the animated conversation amongst the guests on your table.   You quite liked the look of him, despite the way he fidgeted in his seat, obviously uncomfortable in his smart suit. You liked the way he wore his hair slightly longer than fashionable and how he seemed to be listening intently to the conversation around him, even as he remained mute. He's always been like that. Quiet, not shy, and observant, taking in the world around him, considering, gathering his thoughts and words, thinking about what he wants to say. He sometimes jokes that he's so quiet because you are always talking. He 'never gets a word in edgeways' to use an old cliché!  Your father used to say that you never had a thought cross your mind that didn't immediately fly out of your mouth, but he meant it affectionately, even if it did sting on occasion.

Back to James – you'd almost given up on engaging him in conversation when Helen wandered over to your table, as she circulated amongst her guests between courses. 'Wonderful!' she'd exclaimed. 'I knew you two would get along!' (she obviously hadn't noticed his silence). 'Sarah,' she continued, 'you and James have so much in common!' You were a bit bemused -  your table had been chattering about several interesting subjects, and he'd yet to comment on any of them.

'Really?' you'd replied, 'Like what?' You were genuinely curious, keen to get this handsome stranger chatting.

'Oh, all sorts,' she added. 'James likes old stuff too - don't you, James?'

His polite smile quirked into a grin at that. 'Old stuff?' he asked.

'Yes, those old-fashioned books and things,' she explained before turning to speak to another guest. His eyes crinkled, and his smile grew -  her words had sparked some interest. She'd given you an opening, and you took it. And she was right; you do have a lot in common. As well as a love of classic literature, you share a love of old movies and spent the afternoon discussing your favourites. By the time the waiters had cleared away the coffee cups and started moving the tables to make way for the dancing, you were already falling for him. He wasn't much of a dancer, though he's improved slightly over the years with your guidance. As he held you in his arms and awkwardly swirled you around the dance floor, you knew he was special.

At the end of the evening, you agreed to meet him the following week.  He bought tickets at the Empire to see a screening of The Wizard of Oz, one of your favourites. You shared popcorn and lost yourselves in the story, and he surprised you when he confidently held your hand, and you wondered how you ever thought he was shy. As Dorothy returned home from her adventures, you snuck a look at James, only to find him looking right back. You realised that you wanted to share an adventure of your own with him.  And what an adventure it has been!  After the film, he walked you home (the long way round), and you talked about everything and nothing. When it was time to say good night, he kissed you chastely on the cheek and thanked you for a lovely night. You laughed at his reserve and pulled him into your first real kiss. It was wonderful. As the butterflies in your tummy fluttered, your heart raced. The kiss didn't last as long as you'd have liked,  but when you opened your eyes, you met that look, which told you everything you needed to know without words. That look which told you that he felt the same way as you – that look -  that he gave you just a few moments ago when he held out this letter.

He will struggle once you start to forget him. It will break his heart, as it is breaking yours. Yours has been a happy marriage. You have always been there for each other.  In good times and bad, just as he is here for you now. You've called him many things over the years: your rock, your foundation, your reason for getting up every morning, and yes, you've even called him a ‘stubborn old fool’ at times.  You've had your arguments, just like any other couple, and there are lots of things you've disagreed on. But the one thing you've always agreed on, that you promised each other on your wedding day, and on the day you were diagnosed, was 'in sickness and in health'. He's not going anywhere.  When you wrote this, the idea that scared you most was that your symptoms would get so severe that you'd forget so much, it would all become too much for him. He's promised you, over and over, that no matter what, he will be there. You'll know, from the fact that he's with you now, having given you this to read, that he's keeping that promise.

It was Claire from the charity that gave you the idea to write this. Well, not this specifically. She was explaining the importance of planning ahead. She meant things like a will, organising a Power of Attorney, and other financial matters. She said it was best to write these things down. You've done all that and more. You've made your children promise that when they see that you and James aren't coping very well at home, they will make sure you both get the proper help you need. Together, you've picked out a nursing home. You were drawn to the one with the beautiful garden, full of flowers and bird tables. It might even be the garden that you can see outside the window of the room you are in now. James was insistent that he would care for you himself, in the home you've shared since before Matthew was born, but Claire helped persuade him that at some point, you might need more than even his huge heart can give.

Then, although you had taken care of all the formal things, you found that you weren't quite finished.  You want to remind yourself of everything you can - all of what you and James have shared. You've written a few more of these letters, describing important events: your wedding day, the births of each of your children, your grandchildren. You may have already read some of them. There is so much more you don't want to forget,  more than you could ever put down on paper. So, although he's never been a man of many words, you've agreed that James will tell you stories, like the ones you both love to read. The stories he tells you, the ones he already has, and the ones he'll tell you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that – they are YOUR stories. They are the stories of your lives together, of the adventures you've had, of the places you've been. They will be the tales of the people you have known; of those you have loved. They will be about your family, your friends, your dramas, and your ordinary days. There will be happy ones, and maybe some will be sad. Listen to them. Hold them in your heart and be strong.

Don't be scared, not of him, or of forgetting. He will remember everything for you both.  

About the author 

Michelle Adams lives on Anglesey, North Wales. Since turning 40 a few years ago, she has returned to study and is currently a student with The Open University, studying towards a BA in Arts & Humanities (English Language & Creative Writing).


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