That’s my father-in-law’s name. Alfred. No nicknames. Everyone calls him by his Christian name, Alfred. Before I met him, the only Alfred I had ever known was the butler at Stately Wayne Manor.
At this moment, he’s in a skilled nursing facility in Texas. It’s almost dinnertime there. The other residents get trays delivered to their rooms. But not Alfred.
Since the massive stroke, he can’t swallow.
He’s never been talkative. In fact, I’ve teased him over the years about his brevity. Alfred doesn’t like talking on the phone, so every month, I send him a letter with all of the goings-on in our family. He opens the envelope with the precision of a surgeon, reads the contents, and places the letter back into the envelope.
He keeps these opened letters in a stack organized by date next to the DVDs that I send to him. Alfred loves movies. The trick is for me to find one that he has forgotten about or one that he has never seen.
Lately, because of his stroke, I’ve gotten pretty good at that task. That part of his illness makes me the saddest. Alfred never used to forget a thing. And now he doesn’t remember. And he knows that he doesn’t remember.
This frustrates him. Alfred is an accountant. To Alfred, precision is everything.
I sat at Alfred’s bedside in the ER on Sunday night. His breathing had become erratic. His oxygen sat was dropping.
My daughter and I had just cleaned out the refrigerator at his house. I threw away a lot. There was a lot of mold in there that had contaminated other less old things. I threw away three half-flat two liters of cokes that weren’t diet. Alfred is diabetic. I suppose when the love of his life passed away nearly five years ago, he decided he should live a little.
I told him that I had found the cokes. His eyebrows raised – a signature move that all of his sons have, including my husband. It is a silent way to let you know that they know they are amused and/or ornery.
“You shouldn’t be drinking that stuff,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“But I really wish you could swallow some now.”
His eyes moistened. “Yeah.”
His eyes aren’t tracking as well as they were prior to the stroke. There is some brain damage. He’ll be right with you, and then he just goes flat and his breathing gets shallow. Then a deep inhale. It’s like he’s vacillating between two worlds, and I can’t see one of them.
After I covered him with blankets from the warmer, I told him story after story. “Do you remember when we first met, Alfred?”
“Of course.” He gave my hand a squeeze.
His son had asked me to marry him. Well, truth be told, I told his son that if he asked me to marry him, I’d say yes.
Love makes you do crazy things. Like fall head over heels for someone and not consider that if he’s going to grow to be just like his dad, you might want to actually meet his dad to see what the next fifty years might hold.
When we finally travelled to San Antonio to make all of the appropriate acquaintances and introductions, Alfred was retiring from his firm. We went to his retirement party. Alfred gave a speech. I remember clearly that Alfred gave a speech because my then-fiance’s mouth was wide open during it.
Later, my then-fiance told me that it was the most words he had ever heard his dad string together at one time. Heidi did all of Alfred’s talking for him; they were virtually the same person. This was the reason for his shock and awe.
“Do you remember your speech?”
“Your retirement speech at The Plaza Club.”
“You gave a speech.”
“No…” Alfred was genuinely shocked.
Don’t you remember?”
“No…” Now he was as on the edge of his seat as much as any person enduring the effects of a stroke can be.
“I remember it. Do you want me to tell you about it?”
“Well, you talked about the importance of ethics. How doing the right thing is always the right thing even if it costs you.”
“Right. And then you talked about the importance of family. How your only regret was that you spent too much time at work. And how the younger people should learn from you. Family is everything.”
Alfred began to cry. I cried with him.
“Do you know what I have learned from you?”
“I have learned that making the right decision can be really hard, but that you never regret doing it.”
“All of that hard work to build that company. You not only sent your own sons to college, but you are also sending grandchildren. And those people who worked for you? You provided jobs for them so that they could send their kids to college.”
I dabbed his eyes gently. He mouthed some words, but no sound came out.
“I know you want to talk. How about if I pretend to be Heidi and do all of the talking for both of us?”
The eyebrow raise.
“You have a legacy, Alfred. You have four fantastic sons who are falling all over themselves to make the right decisions for you. You have ten beautiful grandchildren who are all so smart. You have people who adore you. Everyone who has ever known you is better off because they did.”
I leaned in so that our eyes were inches apart.
“I know you have some regrets. But there is nothing you could have done that would have made God love you more – and there’s nothing you left undone that would make God love you less.”
I stroked his hair. I kissed the forehead that felt just like my husband’s. He relaxed. He is still wearing his wedding ring.
“Thank you, Alfred. For everything.”
He was released from the hospital. We saw Alfred the next day at the facility. He was unhappy about being there. He told the kids a story about throwing a tennis ball against the church once. Alfred threw it too hard and it hit the pastor, but he acted like he wasn’t the one who had thrown the ball.
This is quite possibly the only sin this man ever committed. Take that back. Once he stole 35 cents from his father and bought ice cream cones for his brothers. I know this because a few years ago, his wife and I found the apology letter that his mother made him write. He was eight years old.
Alfred saves important letters.
He was talking up a storm on Monday. It was as if the night before in the ER hadn’t happened.
For the sake of my kids, I am grateful for that precious time.
The trays are coming around about now. He’s trying hard to relearn to swallow. My heart is in San Antonio. I want to rub lotion into his hands and cover him with blankets and watch Now, Voyager. Because I don’t think he remembers seeing it.