This is my short story, inspired by the many elderly people I have met and by the beautiful relationships that I have seen grow between people and their befrienders.
The first time I met you, my wife Emma was about four months pregnant. Despite everyone’s assurances that she’d feel better once she got past the three month mark, she still felt sick constantly. So, on a recommendation from a secretary at work, I was visiting the little florist next to your cafe to buy her some flowers. The florist was closed for lunch and an April shower was coming, so I ducked into your cafe while I waited.
I was lost in my thoughts and fears of becoming a Dad. Wishing it didn’t scare me as much as it did; even more scared to tell Emma how I really felt. My coffee went cold before I could finish it. A great hoot of laughter from an elderly couple in the corner jolted me from my thoughts; I don’t know what the man had said or done but the woman was in stitches. It was an unashamed laugh, the kind you normally only hear from children, especially in such a quiet public place. I found myself watching them after that, wondering what Emma and I would be like at that age.
Despite his white candyfloss hair and crinkled face, it was his youthful exuberance – the twinkle in his bright eyes, that first hit me. He didn’t take his eyes off his wife, they were both completely absorbed in each other. Their hands looked permanently clasped together, and her nails were painted purple, their brightness alerted me to the fact I was biting my own nails. Later I found out that she had religiously painted them every week.
Though the florist had now reopened, I stayed sitting quietly and watching the couple for a little while longer before going to buy Emma’s flowers. Their peaceful happiness was beautiful, something really special. I think that’s what made me come back the following day. And the day after that.
Soon I found that I was coming to your cafe in my lunchbreak most days. That same elderly couple were there most of the time too and we were on smiling and nodding terms now. Their pure happiness and devotion to each other continued to hold my attention, they were wrapped in their own inpenetrable bubble of joy.
Now one of your regulars, you knew my order and would have it ready to go as soon as I arrived. We chatted a little more each time. By this time I knew that you had studied English at university and then come back home for a summer, but never quite made it out of your hometown again. Though you claimed to regret this, I guessed that you liked the way your life had turned out, living a simple life by the sea, building up your business.
You knew that I had met Emma back in Birmingham, where we had both grown up. Her parents had retired down to Devon and, planning on starting a family, we had decided to follow them and start a new life by the sea. You knew that we were both bored of our jobs – mine for a small insurance broker in the town, hers in the office at the local High School. Neither of us had the drive that I saw in you building up your own business from scratch, getting to know your customers, introducing new treats to your menu.
One sweltering day in July I escaped from a disastrous meeting at work and came to the cafe in search of respite in the form of an iced latte. There was a young Mum in there with her toddler and baby. At seven months pregnant, Emma was getting bigger by the day. We were both getting more excited about the baby, but my nerves were still prominent. Seeing this young family didn’t do much to settle my fears!
Looking absolutely shattered and focussed on breastfeeding her baby, the Mum had just about given up on trying to control her older boy. With his face was painted like a tiger, he was crawling around the floor and under all the tables roaring. The remains of a chocolate ice cream had left an impressive mess around his mouth which, combined with the orange face paint, created a wonderful explosion of face art.
The elderly couple were there again that day, and when the boy climbed under their table, the poor Mum looked concerned that he was going to disrupt their peace, but she needn’t have worried. Out of nowhere, the man created a wonderful bunch of origami flowers out of his napkin and presented it to the boy to give to his Mum. Not wanting to leave the boy out, he also pulled a 50 pence piece from behind his ear. The boy was awestruck, it was wonderful!! This was the kind of Grandad every child dreams of having!
It was only later on that I noticed the man seemed to have hurt his leg; he was using a stick. I guessed that was why his wife went up to the counter to pay – unusual for them, they were an old-fashioned couple and he took care of the money, always got her coat, and pulled out her chair for her. It seemed to take her a very long time. She was looking blankly at the coins in her hand as though she didn’t know what they were. You came out to help her find the right money so that she could pay without embarrassment.
Over the next few months there were a few incidents like this, just little things that would have gone unnoticed by most people, but by now I was in the habit of watching this couple and I noticed it all. I’m sure you did too.
The rest of Emma’s pregnancy was tough. Unable to get comfortable at night to sleep, she was waking me up too, so that we were both tired and snapping at each other more than usual. I found myself coming to the cafe more often. Your friendly smile was enough to cheer me up on even the roughest of days. The strong cups of coffee didn’t hurt either!
Finally, after a long and traumatic three day labour, baby Poppy was born at the beginning of September. Poppy was just gorgeous, a perfect baby, and Emma and I were never more in love. That first moment when I saw Emma holding our baby (our baby!) was pure magic. But Emma was breastfeeding and we were both still up a lot at night. Our new parental bliss was punctuated by arguments about stupid things, simply due to our mutual exhaustion. I’d just gone back to work after three weeks’ paternity leave, so it was the first time I’d been in to the cafe for a little while.
I was so sleepy, I don’t think I even drank any of my coffee, just stared into it. Unusually, the couple hadn’t caught my attention until I heard her shouting.
“Who are you? Leave me alone! I don’t know you! Help!”
With a rush of adrenaline, I immediately shot up, thinking someone was trying to steal her handbag, but no, it was just her husband helping her put her coat on. He looked even more exhausted than me, and sad too. You rushed over to help calm the lady down and ordered them a taxi to take them both home.
After they left the busy cafe was silent. We were all in shock.
I didn’t come in for a couple of months after that. I was working through my lunchbreaks so that I could go home early to help Emma with Poppy. But just before Christmas I popped in to get some of your mince pies to take home.
Sitting at their usual table, that day the elderly man was there on his own. He looked like he’d lost weight, and all his wonderful sparkle seemed to have disappeared. I hadn’t planned on stopping that day, but seeing him like this I couldn’t leave.
Nervously, I went to his table and asked if I could join him.
“Feel free,” he said, tonelessly, with none of the charm and joy I had seen in him so often before.
My chair scraped across the floor as I pulled it out, punctuating the quiet of the cafe. We sat in silence for a while. It was the first time I had been so close to him. He looked older now, the creases in his face deeper, and I couldn’t work out if it was just because I was seeing him close up or if he had aged so much so quickly.
“I just couldn’t cope with her anymore,” he said suddenly, a tear forming in his bright blue eye.
Not knowing what to say or do, I thought about holding his hand, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I wished that you would come and help, you would have known the right thing to say or do far better than I ever could. In leiu of a better plan, I smiled uselessly at him.
Fortunately this seemed to work and he continued with his story.
“It all got too much. She’s gone into a care home. She doesn’t know me.”
Without either of us properly introducing ourselves, he went on to tell me all about his beloved wife’s dementia. How it started off with little things like forgetting the word for something, or which coin was which. She was, understandably, frustrated and would occasionally lash out at him. Their friends had found it difficult to understand. They gradually drifted away.
Then the nightmares started. She saw things at night; woke up screaming. Eventually they had to sleep in separate rooms. That was the worst thing for him. They had slept side by side for over fifty years. How could they stop now? He was lost without her.
Searching her brain for answers to simple questions didn’t work, so she started physically searching for them. Pacing around the house endlessly; or disappearing for long walks, out for hours; leaving her husband at home worrying about her.
Later on, even within the home they had spent their lives building, she couldn’t find her way to her bedroom or the toilet by herself. She followed him around like a lost sheep. Time moved on and she started to forget the people in her life: she didn’t recognise their grandchildren, and they soon stopped visiting. Then she couldn’t remember her own childrens’ names and they had to introduce themselves every time. In the end, as I’d seen that day in your cafe, she didn’t even recognise her own husband. Worse: she was scared of him.
Hearing him talk about his wife’s decline into dementia was heartbreaking. No couple I’d ever seen were so devoted to each other, so happy in each other’s company. How was it possible for them to have come to this point? Since becoming a father I had felt like the world made sense and was simple in a way it hadn’t been since I was a child myself. But this I couldn’t understand. It was so cruel, so inexplicable.
He visited her every day. If he ever missed a day he felt guilty, selfish. Though she wasn’t always sure who he was, she did always seem pleased to see him. Occasionally she would have a wonderful, perfect, fantastic lightbulb moment where she knew who he was, or remembered something from their past. Infrequent and unpredictable as they were, he found himself living for these moments. Sometimes they came from nowhere, sometimes something triggered them off – a certain smell or a piece of music. He compared these moments of clarity to those first wonderful laughs and smiles of Poppy’s, the utter joy they brought us every time. The laughter they had shared throughout their lives together was gone now. She just sat in a chair all day, didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t go out in the garden, couldn’t understand books or even programmes on the television. She just sat.
After Christmas I started sitting with him most lunchtimes. I know that you liked it; seeing him sitting alone must have felt as wrong to you as it did to me. I’m sure you’d have sat with him if you could have, but the cafe had become so popular that you rarely had a moment to stop and take a breath. I missed chatting with you (did you miss our chats too?) but I was pleased that more people had discovered your charms – you deserve every bit of your success.
As time went on we got to know each other better. As well as talking about his wife – their happiness, his premature grief; he told me how they had first come to this small town by the sea. Happy childhood holidays by the sea had left his wife determined to leave her busy, dusty, grey city life as soon as she was old enough to make decisions for herself. After a beautiful, low key wedding they took their honeymoon here by the sea and never returned.
Most of his conversation was about her, or about them; he seemed to have lost himself. I wanted to help him find himself again, but I didn’t know how. It was like he’d never be able to find happiness without her.
Often we just sat in silence, but a happy (or at least comfortable) silence rather than an awkward one. As time went on, I did grow the confidence to do what I had only considered at first – I held his hand. It felt a little strange at first, but the physical contact seemed to help him. Such a simple thing, I just wish it came more naturally to me.
Gradually I moved past that irrational fear when I saw a tear forming in his eye too, something that happened often, and that still embarrassed both of us, however much I wished it didn’t. Spending time with him seemed to help me understand Emma’s emotions too. Before, if I sensed tears coming, I would go into a blind panic and do whatever I could to try and stop her from crying, rather than actually listen and try to understand. I suppose that’s why I’m telling you all this now, it helps me to understand my own emotions: my grief, my guilt, my happiness.
If only I had got to know his wife when I could have; it sounded like she had been such an interesting person, so full of life. So much joy had filled their lives together. Looking back, I wished I had gone over and introduced myself that first time – when she had laughed with such abandon; when she was free. But back then they were so happy in their little bubble, it would have felt wrong to break it.
I went to visit her once. Of course she had no idea who I was, but, like her husband, she was content to have me sit with her quietly and share a little conversation when she felt up to it. By now I knew that the physical contact of holding someone’s hand could mean so much, so I reached out and held her hand. I think it helped.
That visit was hard. What do you talk about with someone who you’ve never met before, who remembers so little, who knows nothing of what is going on in the world today, who has given up any hope of understanding?
Then Poppy got ill. She was in hospital for 17 days with meningitus. Emma and I were in pieces. We lived between home and the hospital, just barely coping. I was trying to work inbetween but couldn’t focus. Our little baby, only six months old, just sitting up and starting to experiment with food, smiling and laughing, splashing in the bath, was suddenly stuck in a hospital bed, pipes coming out of her and doctors constantly doing test after test. We were helpless. Gradually she made a full recovery and things got back to normal. The relief was immense.
But the next time I made it to the cafe you told me that the man had stopped coming. The coincidence in timing had made you wonder if perhaps we had found a new place to meet; somewhere quieter like when I first started coming in, almost a year ago. The care home his wife was in informed me that he had had a massive stroke and died two weeks ago. The funeral had been and gone.
I was distraught. Emotional anyway with all the worry about Poppy, I just couldn’t take it. Staring silently out of the window, I just sat there in the cafe day in day out. I didn’t realise just how close we had become.
You helped me to move on; a friendly face with a hot cup of coffee when I needed it. You understood about my relationship with him in a way Emma never could. You’d seen it grow. I can’t thank you enough for being here with your cafe; allowing me to build this relationship with someone I would likely never have met, never have spoken to in normal circumstances. If the florist had been open that first day, I would never have experienced this joy and this sadness. Emma loved that first bunch of flowers, by the way.