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To Hold A Hand
written by: Jim Bates
"See you later," I waved, "Hope it goes well."
My brother waved back and made his way to where the eye technician was waiting. His look belied his true feelings. I knew how nervous he was. His eyes were pretty bad, scarred years ago from a rare form of glaucoma. There'd be a lot of tests over the next two hours and the end result was to be this: Would he be able to continue to drive or not?
A moment later he had disappeared into the inner catacombs of the Minnesota Eye Care Clinic. Now it was just Beth and I.
"Where's Tim?" Beth asked a minute after he'd left us, "Where'd Tim go?"
"It's all right, Beth. He just went for his eye exam. Remember. We talked about this."
Shit. I shouldn't have said, "Remember." I felt like an idiot. Beth is in her seventh year of dealing with Alzheimer's. She's still able to live at home and Tim does an admirable job of caring for her, but still... I brought the two of them here last year for the same tests and the entire time Tim was away from us Beth asked every five minutes, "Where's Tim? Where's Tim? Where's Tim?" I reassured her each and every time that "He's just getting some tests done. He'll be back soon." But, that's how it is with memory loss. You forget.
I was ready for the same scenario this year. After Tim left us, I made sure Beth was settled. "Do you want something to drink? Some water?" A blank look and then a shake of the head. No. "Are you comfortable?" A blank look, then a shake of the head. No. "You're okay then?" A nod yes. Okay, good.
Beth is wearing all black today. Black slacks and a black turtleneck. Our Minnesota winter was winding down, but it was still cold out, so she had her black winter coat. Black was and probably always will be her favorite color. Around her neck, she wore a black polished piece of basalt in the shape of a heart on a black cord, a gift years ago to her from my brother, worn today too, as Tim told me earlier, "To make her look pretty."
I opened my magazine, a publication put out by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The lead article was about an artist who did Plein air painting of northern Minnesota scenes, specifically of the boundary waters and lake superior. They were well done, in my estimation, and I showed them to Beth. She, at one time, was known regionally for her elegantly exact paintings of flowers. She called her work photorealism and it was not only beautiful but highly sought after. Over the course of her life, she'd won many awards and her work is still featured in galleries in the upper Midwest. She hasn't painted in over ten years, though, not since the onset of her disease.
"Beth," I said to get her attention. She turned to me and I pointed to a scene of waves crashing against a rocky shoreline on Lake Superior, "What do you think about this painting? Do you like it?"
She looked at the colorful watercolor: the shades of blue for sky and water, the tones of browns for the rocks and the white of a nearby birch clump with dots of green for its leaves. I gave her time, wondering what her reaction would be. Finally, she looked at me and silently shook her shoulder, indicating, I guess, she had no opinion.
"Do you remember that you used to paint?" I asked, "Both you and Tim did."
She gave me a long look. Would she remember? It would be so great if she did. She and my brother had produced nearly seven-hundred and fifty paintings each over their lifetimes. More than enough, to my way of thinking, to remember.
"I don't remember," she said and sat back.
"Too bad," I said sympathetically. I thought for a moment, not wanting to give up on helping her to retrieve a portion of her memory, tiny and fleeting though it may have been. I leaned over and said, "They were really good." I'm not sure if she heard me. Probably not. She'd closed her eyes and it looked like she'd dozed off.
I spent that next hour reading, checking my phone and making sure Beth was doing all right. She was. She dozed a bit and was awake a lot. I was happy that she was comfortable and not freaked out that Tim was not with us. Once, when I asked how she was doing, she said, "I'm fine. I like watching the people." I didn't blame her. This was a big outing for her. Usually, she and my brother stayed home, spent their day together and their only break an occasional walk in their neighborhood. Outings were becoming fewer and farther between, what with his failing eyesight and her increasing memory loss. Getting out like this was good for her. She hadn't even once asked where Tim was.
Into the second hour, I was reading and kind of dozing off a little myself, to be honest, when I felt a stir to my right. It was Beth. She was awake. I looked at her and smiled and she smiled back. I went back to reading. Suddenly, softly, I felt her move again and in a moment her hand slipped over the arms of each of our chairs and into mine. Her left hand into my right hand. She gently interwove her fingers into mine, and, with her right hand, she leaned over and covered them both. Then she patted them. She and my brother had been together for over forty years and in all that time, I doubt she and I had ever even touched, and certainly never held hands. Even to shake, "Hello," in a greeting. We are not what you call a physically demonstrative family.
I was shocked, yet touched. What would cause her to do something like that? I turned to her and smiled, "Are you doing okay?"
She smiled back. "Yes, I am." She was silent for a moment and then added, "Thank you for being here."
I was shocked at her unexpected comment. What can you say to something like that? Well, obviously, "You're welcome," so that's what I said. She didn't say anything in return, only smiled back. We were both quiet. Then I had a thought. I went ahead and seized the moment and asked her something I'd been wondering about for the last few years. "Beth, I have a question for you. Do you know who I am?"
She gave me a long look, still holding my hand and said, "I don't remember."
"Do you know who Tim is?"
"Oh, yes," she smiled, happily, "I know Tim."
"I'm Tim's brother," I told her. She stared at me. Another blank look. "Like Dennis," I said, "You know, your brother."
"Never mind," I decided not to push and make her uncomfortable with not being able to remember who her brother was. I shifted gears and asked, "Are you doing okay? Should we just sit here?"
So we sat together. I went back to my magazine and read. Beth continued to hold my hand. It was a good feeling.
Fifteen minutes later, when Tim came back and saw us he smiled, "I guess you guys are doing okay. He pointed to our hands, still interlocked. "Beth likes to do that sometimes. It gives her a sense of security. I'm glad you were there for her."
He sat down on the other side of Beth and she released my hand and took his. We talked for a while before leaving. We went out to lunch and then I dropped them at their home and I went on my way.
I don't know if I'll ever forget that morning with Beth and being with her in the waiting room, being there when she needed someone to give her comfort and a sense of security. Being there to help fill in for my brother. Being there as a friend. I was glad to do it, glad I was there.
Oh, Tim passed his tests. He can still drive but has to go back again next year to be checked out. He wants to know if I can drive him and Beth. I told him I'd be happy to.