Sayoko Chadd is fascinated with the Velcro straps on her shoes. She opens and closes them over and over with the dogged determination of a four-year-old. Bert, her husband of 41 years, rises and takes her hand. Briefly, he holds Sayoko's manicured fingers up to the light for inspection.
"Time to paint your nails again," he says absently, then leads the tiny Japanese woman to the bedroom on the promise of a nap.
When Bert sits down again he sighs. "She can do that for hours," he says, speaking of the exercise in Velcro. Sayoko's other favorite past time -- endless moments trying to pull the flowers from the printed sheets in their bedroom -- is just as futile. This is not the woman he married.
Sayoko, 71, has Alzheimer's disease. Once she was an accomplished cook, famous for her cakes. She was also skilled at knitting, turning skeins of wool into art.
"That was one of the first signs of her illness," Bert says. "She stopped baking. She stopped knitting."
The Chadds' lives changed forever in 1998. Bert was working with H&R Block, having retired from the Marine Corps and a second career with the Jacksonville Police Department. He was on the road a lot, his mind on his job. He didn't really notice the gradual changes in Sayoko.
"I asked her to make something special one day and she couldn't remember how to do it," he says. Knowing something was wrong; he took her to a local physician, but was unhappy with her treatment and lack of progress. He made an appointment with Duke University's Alzheimer's unit. The diagnosis stunned him.
"I thought we'd be traveling at this point in our lives, doing the things we like together. I never expected this," Bert said.
He's wistful - and angry. Bert's also exhausted, isolated and at the end of his rope. Life holds little joy for him: He is held at gunpoint by her illness.
"What do I do for pleasure? Nothing, absolutely nothing," he says. All his time is spent caring for Sayoko. The woman who once baked mile-high cakes from scratch now sits stubborn and unyielding as her husband urges her to drink. He says it takes hours. Sayoko won't cooperate, refuses to open her mouth.
But it wasn't so bad in the beginning. Back then bits and pieces of the old Sayoko occasionally floated to the top. It was tough, but Bert could handle it. Then in March Sayoko suffered a back problem and began a sharp down-hill slide that swept Bert along with it.
Now he bathes her. He also dresses her, shreds her food so she can eat, washes and combs her hair, changes her diapers and carries her, like a toddler, wherever he goes. He can't leave her home alone.
For a while Sayoko was enrolled in an adult daycare program. He would drop her off and attend to the business of their household, paying bills, running errands, sometimes visiting with people he knows. Now she screams and cries when he leaves her and the staff can't understand her. She still goes there on occasion, but she has to be tranquilized.
"She lost her ability to speak English," he says, adding that a second language is one of the first things an Alzheimer's patient loses. "And I don't speak very much Japanese. I never really needed it."
Bert had heart surgery back in 1991. He retired from his position with the police department and started working out. It was good therapy for his damaged heart, but he had to give it up. He couldn't take Sayoko to the gym with him.
"I'm on medication, you know. I go to a counselor, too. That helps -- to open up and tell them everything. Yes, it helps sometimes," Bert said. He glances around the small house. It's picked up, but not really neat. The furniture needs dusting and there are cat food bowls in the living room.
"I clean the house, but not very often," he says with a shrug. It doesn't really matter. Most of their friends are gone now. No one comes to visit anymore.
The Chadds' have two daughters. One lives in France, the other in the mountains of North Carolina where she works and cares for her ranch. Her name's Christine and she's getting married soon. Bert says she doesn't come home too often: there's no one to take care of her ranch. He looks at the dozens of cat figures he and Sayoko have collected over the years. They used to bring him pleasure, but now he only sees dust collectors. He plans to give them to Christine if she wants them. He waves in the direction of the glass cats. "I can't keep them up any more."
There are lots of things Bert can't do anymore. Even a trip to the store is complicated. He takes Sayoko with him, puts her in a special transport chair and lets her hold the small shopping basket on her lap. He can't buy too much in one trip, but he says she's entertained by the outings.
And those outings are growing increasingly rare. Most of the time, they just stay home. He fixes her some scrambled Egg Beaters for breakfast and a nutritional supplement for lunch. Dinner is a simple affair. He grinds Sayoko's food so she can eat it. It's difficult, but then everything's difficult these days.
Bert confesses to being sad and depressed as well as perpetually tired. He's 74 and her condition is deteriorating. He even goes to the bathroom with his wife now. He says she's not eating or drinking very much these days and worries about it.
A door creaks and Sayoko, bent with a bad back, walks out. Nap time lasted only a few minutes. Bert gazes at the woman he married in 1960. Her lank white hair hangs down over her face. She shuffles over and places a plastic spoon and fork on the table, then leans down and opens and closes the Velcro straps on her shoes.
"We liked the same things," Bert says. His eyes betray his thoughts. He's off in another time, another day, when Sayoko was baking cakes and raising their daughters. His speech is underscored by the sound of the Velcro straps, opening and closing, opening and closing.
"Sometimes I wish the doctor would put her into the hospital and just put her on a slow morphine drip and let her go, you know? This is so hard," he says.
He tells about the times she reaches into her diapers and pulls out feces. About the day when she wandered away, and he almost called the police. About how he had to put extra locks on the doors so she couldn't get out. About going to bed bone-tired and waking the same way. About how long and lonely his days are. Meanwhile, as he talks, the straps open and close, open and close, a monotonous tattoo.
He talks about the promise he made to take care of her as long as his health holds and about the anger he feels. "I hate it, you know? It's not her fault," he says.
Sayoko moves across the room, head bobbing like a pigeon's, her shoes forgotten for the moment. Her fingers, tipped in dusky rose polish, reach for the fork and spoon she earlier placed on the table.
"I even do her nails now. She likes that," he says. "You know, we really enjoyed being together. We had a good life."
It's quiet. The only sound is Sayoko's voice, crooning nonsense she alone understands. She sing-songs as Bert fights for his composure. He holds on, but his eyes shine and it takes a moment for him to continue.
"Yeah, it was a good life," he says. His eyes follow Sayoko in her aimless travels around the room. And when he speaks again, it's almost a whisper. "I promised, you know what I mean?"
He takes a deep breath and this time when he speaks his voice is strong, clear, reconstituted. "I promised her," Bert says with finality. "But I didn't know how hard it would be."
* * * * * * * * * *
As a postscript, Bert Chadd couldn't get his wife into a nursing home because he would have had to bankrupt himself to qualify for government help -- and he would have starved if he did it on his own.
Sayoko had severe osteoporosis, and her spine began cracking. It was unimaginably painful. She was hospitalized and ordered into a very high level of care home where she further disintegrated. Bert told me that one morning he was so upset at her condition that he went over to see her with the idea of checking her out of the home, going back home, parking in the garage, sealing it off and killing both of them to get it over with.
Someone at the nursing home detected something about him and they spoke to him, took him to the therapist's office. He went home without her and a few hours later received a call that she had died.
Bio: Carole Moore is a newspaper columnist who also writes
nonfiction, fiction, essays, humor and for children. Moore edits and
publishes the eZine "The Humor Writer." She lives on the coast of North
Carolina with her husband, two children and lots of kitties. Visit Carole
on-line at www.thehumorwriter.com