Christmas in April
(A fictional tale inspired by a true story)
Arguably, it was the worst day of my life. And although I may have survived it once, I am certain I never could again. I know this because every time I hear the foreboding gong of wedding bells, my spine recoils like a window shade. I recognize the sound as no different than the clanking of an approaching train, the squeal of a five-alarm fire.
The course of our marriage has led to this moment where a dozen serrated knives are stabbing me between each rib. I wasn’t prepared for this. From beneath this crumpled heap on the lobby floor of this nursing home, I can hear our wedding bells mocking me with thunderous admonition. Of course, it’s too late now. He’s 42 years old… and he’s gone. With not so much as a furtive glance over his muscular shoulder, he strolled between the buzzing doors of the Alzheimer’s unit arm in arm with soft-spoken strangers. As the doors snapped shut behind him, my heart plunged to the floor and shattered to dust, while the bells in my head clanged in deafening timbres. It’s all I could do to cover my ears and scream.
You hedge your bets when you marry. Even if it’s someone you’ve known your whole life, someone who makes your dullest days sparkle, your vows just aren’t enough to save you when you are circling the drain. Of course, you can’t possibly look at a man like my husband and not think him capable of juggling the entire solar system, much less tying his own shoe. He was the very definition of capable. And dependable. And stalwart.
And he and I together? Like peas and carrots, man. Best friends, soul mates, bosom buddies, yin and yang, a barrel of monkeys, yadda, yadda…
It’s hard to believe that I actually wish he were the lowdown, cheating bastard I accused him of being five years ago. At least I could still be angry at him- at an actual person. But when he started ignoring me, forgetting the details of our relationship, abandoning our rituals with the aloof air of an arrogant frat boy, I had no idea that he was the victim in all of this. His lack of interest in me, his faraway stares that I was certain held images of the perky blond spin instructor who sipped vanilla lattes during class, his vehement denials from the foot of our bed… disfiguring his handsome face such that the purple veins at his temples swelled like earthworms on a rainy day… well, I wish she had been real. I wish his mistress had been anyone not named “Plaque” or “Tangle”. This damn disease even stole my one opportunity to avenge my broken heart. There is simply no one left to blame.
In spite of hindsight’s clever vision, a clarity that wafted through my fingertips at every twist and turn, all hell broke loose on one spring day. Looking back, he was having problems at work and behaving oddly before this particular occasion. But he was also staring at 40 and having a characteristic midlife pity party not unlike the one his boss had had years earlier. It was impossible to tell if his depression was the result of a chemical imbalance or simply the waning hopes for a decent Redskin’s football season. I mean he was down in the dumps a little, and grouchy, but I thought he’d shake it off when duty called him to rise to the knee-high challenges of life’s daily tedium. Increasingly, he couldn’t muster the energy to pay attention or give a flip. And so we fought, a lot.
When I think about that day, I imagine handling it differently. Mostly I envision taking our eight-year-old son by the shoulders and pushing him into the house. I keep seeing the terror on his little face, the way his mouth twisted sideways as he chewed on his own cheek. It was a moment that altered his destiny and shifted the sands beneath his feet. Never again would he feel part of something stable and predictable. I should have done something more.
My husband had not been sleeping well. He had been getting up at three or four o’clock in the morning and moving around the house, room by room, rearranging things. I would find him in our home office, going through papers, carefully stacking documents into piles according to a system he would not share with me. I found him in the kitchen, rearranging the Tupperware and swearing to himself when he couldn’t get the bowls and lids to fit neatly back into the cabinet. It seemed to upset him when I asked why he couldn’t sleep, or when I asked if I could help him find whatever it was he was looking for.
The night I found him in the living room, I silently watched him from the hallway. He moved books from the bookcase to the coffee table, and put a copy of Sports Illustrated under the couch cushion. He moved a throw pillow from the couch to the chair, and then moved the chair to the other side of the coffee table. He picked up our wedding photo from the shelf, the one in the ivory Lenox frame given to us by his grandmother, and stared at it for a full minute. He ran his finger along the edge of the frame, touching each of the ceramic, sculpted petals gently and thoughtfully. He cocked his head to the side as he stared at our happy smiles. A slight frown darkened his eyes as he touched my face in the photo, as if he were smoothing my veil back tenderly with his thumb. Moved by his apparent sentiment, I was just about to alert him to my presence when he promptly opened the drawer of the side table and tossed the picture inside. He casually bumped the drawer shut with his hip, picked up a coaster, and tucked it into his pocket. Tears blurred my vision as I turned away, unable to exhale the stale air I’d been holding. I understood this incident to have monumental significance, like an era-ending ice age or a tectonic, continental shift.
My husband was no longer in love with me.
I believed this to be true until the day he lit the deck on fire. He just stood there, frozen, watching flames roll over the hood of the grill and engulf the nearby banister.
Or maybe it was the day he drove our son to the wrong school… or the countless days he missed soccer games because he couldn’t find the right field or remember the right time.
There wasn’t an exact moment that I realized he watched nothing on TV but infomercials, and that he had a habit of hiding the remote in the oddest locations.
Come to think of it, I somehow just got used to his self-centeredness and lack of interest in family matters. He forgot my birthday and our anniversary, and couldn’t be bothered with the simplest of chores. I learned to depend on him less and less, and to smile apologetically to our friends who, after several suspicious no-shows, eventually stopped inviting us to cookouts and ball games. I grew accustomed to his constant indifference and carried the weight of our marriage vows loyally, and alone.
But so it happened one day in late April when he pulled down our Christmas decorations from the attic and lined up the ornaments across the floor of the garage. There was no obvious pattern or organization to the random lines of ornaments covering the entire surface of concrete flooring. Yet he was deeply engrossed in the project, down on all fours carefully aligning the silver star just left of the green ball, as if he were building a giant mock-up a of high-tech computer mother board.
Sadly, our son wasn’t aware of the critical importance of my husband’s labor. He wandered into the garage from the yard and, being excited to see Christmas in April, picked up one of the ornaments that had been carefully placed in some very precise location.
There was a roar so loud the windows shook, followed by the clink of breaking glass. I burst into the garage through the kitchen door and saw my husband standing menacingly over our cowering little boy, a glittery red poinsettia in tiny pieces between his feet. My husband cocked his right arm, fist clenched, and spewed vulgar and hateful words at the top of his lungs. He told our son he was going to call the police, and threatened to punch him in the face if he tried to escape.
I screamed. My son cried. My husband bellowed profanities. When he finally heard my desperate pleas and I had managed to scoop our son up in my arms, he stopped yelling as abruptly as he had started.
He relaxed his shoulders and darted his eyes nervously around the room. He rubbed the back of his neck and stroked the stubble across his jaw as I hugged our sobbing boy to my chest.
And there it was… The Moment. The Epiphany. The Revelation. I actually heard the dam break. Years of denial finally yielded to the rising floodwaters, and I surrendered to the truth. A sudden surge of blood pooled in my chest, stopping my heart in midbeat. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I realized I was now staring at the dichotomous face of a stranger I once loved.
We faced each other, breathing hard and trembling in endoergic jolts. Rivulets of sweat ran down both sides of his neck, joining together at the notch between his collarbones and shading the neckline of his tee shirt a dark and murky grey. I watched the rapid rise and fall of his muscular chest beneath the thin veil of fabric. When his eyes finally found mine, he arched his eyebrows and nodded knowingly; giving me the insider’s wink I’d seen a million times before. He glanced nervously down at our frightened little boy and, stepping carefully over the shattered ornament, whispered conspiratorially in my ear, “Hey, you know this kid?”