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Breath & Shadow

Summer 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 3

"Ida and Richard Forever"

written by

Renee Cronley

Not that long ago, I could reflect on good memories to reset my mood.  I could flip through them, like pages of a beloved story, to remind myself of the wonderful life I have and how I got here.  But it’s hard to focus on the good when I know Richard is finding missing words and blank pages.  Time seems to be pulling him forward with one hand and erasing his past with the other.  So I live in a state of grief that acts as a vice on my heart that squeezes with just enough pressure to be constant pain.


My eyes snap up to Richard and I watch surprise register on his face.  I follow his eyes to the mess on the living room floor where I’m sitting.  I’m surrounded by broken glass and holding one of the larger pieces in my hand… there’s writing etched in it.  I take a couple minutes to absorb the situation.

Richard had another outburst.

Today’s crescendo of frustrations destroyed our 45th wedding anniversary gift from our sons, John and Ben—a crystal vase shaped like a coffee pot engraved with the words ‘To the Veteran Coffee Snobs, Richard & Ida Forever.’

I must have zoned-out when I started cleaning up the mess.  This has been happening to me a lot lately, especially after he has an outburst.  My mind disconnects from my body and leaves—to where I do not know.  But when my mind finds its way back to the real world, it feels like it has to run through water to get here.

"Did you fall?"

“No.” I answer curtly.

I can’t help but feel angry with him.  I follow all the recommendations that the doctor and my support team have given me, but I feel like these outbursts are just a roll of the dice.  They tell me not to take the outbursts personally, but they aren’t there for the moments when the disease wears my husband as a mask.  Each outburst wears me down a little more.


A trail of crimson forms along the edges of the broken crystal in my hand.  I put it down and apply pressure to the minor cut.

He stares at my hand, then scans the mess again.  A wide range of emotions cross his timeworn face, and the vulnerability of a scared little boy lingers in his eyes.  "I'll get you a cold cloth."

My anger melts into a familiar puddle of guilt—for being angry with him and knowing that I will be angry with him again.

The past year has been especially difficult.  He gets agitated much more often.  The list of triggers keeps growing, and sometimes I don’t identify them in time.  But all those moments in between he is still my same old Richard, and it’s those moments that remind me of what I’m losing.

I first met Richard at a community picnic in our hometown when he was on leave from the military.  I was sipping hot chocolate with my sisters when he approached me and introduced himself.  He had his arms folded tightly across his chest and shifted on his feet a lot.  There were a couple of awkward silences until he looked down at my cup and asked me if he could get me a refill.  He misinterpreted my hesitation and quickly said that he was just about to get himself a refill so it was no trouble.  He didn’t have a cup in his hand.  Also, he assumed that I had been drinking coffee—I hated coffee.  But I was just as nervous as he was, and instead of correcting him, I politely accepted.  But walking beside him for the rest of that afternoon made it easier to choke back every bitter drop.

Every day for two weeks, he took me to a different diner where I chose the music and he ordered us coffee.  We would sit there, filled with nervous anticipation, trying to hold a conversation while listening to my latest Elvis Presley pick and hiding our grimaces after each sip.

By the following week, we lapsed into conversation easily and even the silences were comfortable.  Our body language grew more relaxed, and I caught him wincing when he took a sip of his coffee.

I eyed him suspiciously.  “Do you actually like coffee?”

“What’s not to like? It’s bitter, addictive, and has no nutritional value whatsoever.”

I laughed loudly.  “What about Elvis Presley?”

He shrugged and fought to suppress a smile.  “Yeah, he’s not bad… you?”

“Well… I like Elvis Presley.”

He broke into a big grin and chuckled. “Okay.  Tomorrow, I’ll choose the music and you choose the beverage.”

The next day, he spent a fair bit of time at the jukebox searching for the right song.  I ordered us a coffee (of course) and flashed him a playful smile as I held the cup up for him to see while he watched me from the jukebox.  He laughed and shook his head as he inserted his change, made his selection and walked back to our table.

     Wise men say

     Only fools rush in

     But I can't help falling in love with you...

He took a long sip of his coffee and winked at me.  We decided from that day forward that we would spend our lives together sightseeing and taste-testing all the terrible kinds of coffee the world had to offer.  Needless to say, eventually we grew to love coffee.

Our plans altered somewhat after we got married and pregnant shortly thereafter.  But we had many opportunities on family trips to sightsee and complain about the coffee.  To be honest, I think we were both disappointed when we encountered a good cup of coffee because then we couldn't complain about forcing it down.

Our boys gave us the much-deserved title 'Veteran coffee snobs'—the joke was something they laughed about as they got older, but greatly annoyed them when they were younger.  I remember one time in particular, when we were at a restaurant in Brandon that was well known for its lemon iced tea and we let the boys believe that we'd order some. So when the server asked for our drink orders and we both replied, "coffee", John shook his head, and Ben gave an exasperated sigh of annoyance.

Richard wore an exaggerated smile when he got his coffee and made a big show of inhaling it.

"Smells sour."

I was wearing a matching smile and tried not to laugh out loud as the boys deliberately tried to ignore us and not give us the reaction they knew we wanted.  Richard took a sip and immediately scrunched up his face.

"Oh, is that ever strong!  I think I'll still be tasting this coffee when you graduate, John!"

John rolled his eyes and our youngest son, Ben, whispered to his brother, "I don't know why they bother ordering the stuff, they never like it!"

Of course, I had to chime in, "Mine tastes a little salty."

John scolded me. "They don't put salt in coffee, Mom!"

So many great years together, so many great memories... and he was losing them.

The signs were subtle at first and easy to pass off as regular forgetfulness, like forgetting where he kept his wallet or his keys or where he parked the car.  He came home unsettled one afternoon after leaving to get some supplies for a shed he was building.

He told me he was driving down the road and suddenly had no clue where he was or what town he was in—he couldn't even remember his name.  He panicked and pulled over.  He said he sat there reflecting on the last thing he did, and it was twenty minutes before he recovered who he was.  It was that incident that prompted him to see the doctor.

It took a while for our boys to come to terms with the diagnosis.  They passed it off as the kind of absentmindedness that can happen with old age until one evening when Ben was over and Richard was upset because he couldn't find his wallet.  It shocked Ben to see his father become so agitated, tearing through the house, cussing and accusing me of moving his stuff around.  Richard had never treated me that way before, and so his behavior stunned Ben.  He was speechless as he pointed to his father's hand, where Richard had been holding his wallet the entire time.

A few weeks ago, we went out to the café for coffee with the boys.  John made a joke about the strength of the coffee and how he’d be tasting it until his youngest son’s graduation.  Richard’s smile shattered my own.  It was the smile he wears when he knows something was said that he should remember but doesn’t.

Richard’s memory lapses happen more frequently, and he gets angry if anyone points them out—even if they are in the form of gentle reminders.  Sometimes he stutters in conversations when he’s trying to find the word he wants to use.  He fixates on it and becomes agitated, and I have to do the best I can to redirect his attention.  And that doesn’t always work.  Those moments are hard to watch—it’s like he’s looking for something close… but hidden, and his mind follows a trail of bread crumbs that doesn’t go anywhere.  Sometimes I catch him staring at family photos, and I can tell that he's trying to remember who's in them.  Soon I'll be left with a stranger who I'm not even sure will tolerate my presence.

The slamming of cupboard doors steals me from my reverie, and I can sense that he's starting to get flustered.

"The cloths are in the vanity drawers." I call out to him softly.

I read that it's important to talk in gentle, reassuring tones.  Sometimes my gentle voice is enough to cradle his mind at ease… but not always.

"Dammit, Ida," he says, exasperated as he returns to the living room with a cold cloth.

"I don't know why you keep moving the bathroom cloths around."

I don’t.  They've been in those same drawers for the past seven years.

He hands me the cold cloth and helps me to my feet.  I don’t know why I haven’t bothered to get up yet.  Maybe it’s because each movement costs me more energy than it should.

His eyes shift from my hand to the living room floor and the frustration melts off his face.  He leaves and returns with the vacuum.

"How about I clean up the mess while you bandage your hand?  Then we'll go downtown to the cafe and drink some of their liquid heartburn in a mug."

The corners of my mouth attempt to tug into a smile and I hope that I can make it to the bathroom before I breakdown.  The resounding noise of the vacuum follows me to the bathroom—concealing the breakaway sobs that escape my lips.  I shut the door behind me and sit on the edge of the bathtub, crying into my hands—grieving the loss of my husband while he's still in his body.

After a few moments of silence, a distinctive, imposing noise startles me out of my despair and it takes me a couple minutes to register what I'm hearing—the coffee grinder.

     Wise men say

     Only fools rush in

     But I can't help falling in love with you...

The music filling the house drifts into the bathroom and invites me to come out.

The air is thick with the scent of freshly brewed coffee, but a hint of an unpleasant and distinctive smell underlies it.

Richard is standing in the kitchen holding two mugs of fresh coffee.  He hands me one and the unpleasant smell grows more distinct, but it’s not the coffee—it’s the mug.  I examine it--‘The Veteran Coffee Snobs, Ida and Richard Forever’ is written in permanent marker.

He gives me a small smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and I watch him take a sip of his coffee.

Another moment for me to remember—another one for him to forget.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go out for some liquid heartburn?” I ask tenderly.

He shakes his head slowly, then looks from out the kitchen to the living room floor with a faraway look in his eyes.

“I don’t want to go.” Sorrow laces each word.

He meets my eyes, and I can see the memories of us dancing behind them.

But we both know that we’re being forced on separate journeys that will steal us from each other—even while we’re still together.  He will enter a foreign world and I will become a stranger in it.

I slide my hand into his and give it a gentle squeeze.

Stranger or not—I’ll still be here.

Renee Cronley is a writer and nurse from Brandon, Manitoba. She studied Psychology and English at Brandon University, and Nursing at Assiniboine Community College. Her work has appeared in, Love Letters to Poe, Black Hare Press, Discretionary Love, SmashBear Publishing, The Stripes Magazine, Dark Dispatch and is forthcoming with Off Topic.

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