“I’m sorry, what?” Helen said, burying her face in the menu. It’s just like my Joe to embarrass me in an elegant restaurant like Tony’s. I’d have thought after 49 years I’d be used to it.
“Hemorrhoids!” Joe said, this time loud enough for the surrounding tables to hear.
Helen lifted her face slightly and eyed him over the top of her glasses. He wasn’t smiling. “Where do you see that on the menu?” she asked.
“It’s not on the menu,” Joe said, looking frustrated.
“Well, thank God for small favors. Maybe they can special order them for you.” The young blonde at the table behind Joe snorted, trying to stifle her laugh.
“I don’t want hemorrhoids!” Joe said, and this time several heads turned. He lowered his voice. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I’m certain I don’t want them either, dear. What are you talking about?”
He turned his attention back to the menu and said, “Virginia’s son, Ethan, is having hemorrhoid surgery. She needs us to watch Buster so she can take him to the hospital.”
Helen lowered her menu and looked at Joe. His grey hair was still thick and wavy, and he kept it meticulously trimmed. The same with his eyebrows which were full but manicured. His black framed glasses gave him the look of a well read, intelligent man, Helen thought, matched by the confident way in which he held himself. The blue herringbone jacket he had chosen for this evening, with his red and blue striped tie made him quite handsome for his eighty-one years. After half a century of marriage, Helen could not imagine ever loving someone as much as Joe. Which is why his last statement struck her so hard.
“Joe dear,” she said gently. “Virginia’s been dead for fifteen years. You know that, don’t you?”
He looked at her for a moment, confused, then glanced around the room. Without a word, he turned back to the menu. He scanned it, and a moment later said “I’m thinking of having the salmon. I’ve always liked the salmon here.”
You’ve never liked the salmon here.
Helen reflected on the first time her mother showed signs. It was just a word at first. She called me Lillian. Granted, it’s not unusual that someone would misspeak a name, but Aunt Lillian had been gone for some time. I let it go by. It wasn’t long before she told me she’d been working at the factory. Not in your condition, I thought. And not since you retired 20 years ago.
Helen’s thoughts were interrupted by Joe’s complaints.
“Is he ever going to come back and take our order? It’s been at least twenty minutes. You would think in a place like this they would be more attentive.”
“I know you’re hungry dear,” Helen said with a wrinkled brow. “But I don’t think it’s been nearly twenty minutes. Why don’t you have a roll to hold you? You know the rolls here are always fresh.”
“Mmm, I guess I could have a roll,” he said in a whiny tone. “But they need to speed up their service, or we’re not coming back. I have to watch my sugar, you know. I’m not feeling too good right now.”
My beloved curmudgeon, Helen thought. Behind all that grumbling and crusty exterior is just a tender soul wanting to be loved.
Joe opened a roll and was buttering it. The aroma was exquisite and the butter began to melt almost immediately.
“My, that smells good, doesn’t it?” Helen said. “I think I’m going to have one too.”
I’m going to miss my Joe, Helen thought, when the days of confusion come, and the man I knew is no longer the man in front of me. Her stomach tightened.
But I will always love you. I just hope I can be who you need me to be. I’m not as young as I used to be. And truth be told Joe, I’m a little scared.
She took a roll from the basket and allowed the heat to warm her hands before breaking it open.
The waiter approached and stood at the table, leaning forward with his hands clasped. “Are we ready to order?” he asked. He would be taking their requests by memory.
“About time,” Joe said, barely audible.
“Yes, we are,” Helen said. “I’ll have the Lobster Newburg, with a Caesar salad and baked potato.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
“And my husband Joe will have the hemorrhoids. But no salt. He’s on a restricted diet.”
Joe shot her a glance.
The blonde snorted again, then choked on her glass of water.
“I’m sorry ma’am?”
“I’m having the salmon,” Joe said, then looking at Helen, “and I can have salt, so don’t leave it out.”
Helen smiled back.
No, you can’t, but I’m not fighting you here, not tonight. Enjoy it while you can, Joe.
“And what would you like for your sides?”
Joe didn’t answer. He was staring down at the table, his face blank. The waiter gave him a moment, to be polite.
“Sir, what would you like for your side orders?”
“He’ll have the baked potato with sour---“
“Helen,” Joe said with a scowl, “I can order that myself.”
“I’m sorry dear. Please, go ahead.”
The blonde’s eyes went wide. After they finished with their order, she stepped over to Helen.
Helen looked up at the young lady, possibly in her mid-thirties, tastefully attired in a red wrap-around dress and matching diamond earrings and necklace. She searched her face, looking for something familiar.
“I’m sorry dear. Please forgive me, but I don’t recall your name.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I would be very surprised if you did. I’m Angelina Stoker. My family lived next door to you about twenty-five years ago. When my mom was hospitalized with cancer, my sister Debbie and I spent about two weeks with you and your husband, until she came home.”
Helen looked down and searched her memories, her eyes moving back and forth as though reading entries. Her eyes got wide and she looked back at the blonde.
“Little Angie!” she said. “Oh my goodness, I recognize you now. How are you dear?”
“I’m great! How are you and Mr. Joe doing?”
“We’re doing good. It’s our anniversary and this is our favorite place to celebrate.”
“How sweet. Happy Anniversary! I’m here on business and I always make it a point to eat at Tony’s when I’m in town. Your voice was so familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it until Mr. Joe said your name.”
“You know dear, that was a very special time back then. I hadn’t thought about it for years. But we did have fun didn’t we?”
“Oh my goodness! Miniature golf, swimming at the beach, learning to make canolies. But our favorite part was you reading stories to us at night. I’ve never heard anyone who could make a story come alive like you.”
“Why, thank you Angie! It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
Joe looked off in the distance, lost in thought.
“You know, I hadn’t thought about those days in years,” Angie said. “But when I realized who you were, they came back like a flood. And I just wanted you to know, those were probably the best two weeks of my life back then. Even with my mom being sick. You made us feel so loved. And I just had to thank you.”
Helen’s eyes moistened. “Thank you so much, dear. It was truly our pleasure. We thoroughly enjoyed it ourselves.”
“Mrs. Helen, I hope you’ll forgive me for eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation earlier. I work with the elderly, and I just wanted to encourage you with something that has greatly encouraged me. And that is, at some point it’s no longer the memories you create. It’s simply the moments you share. Just like the moments you shared with us back then.”
Helen thanked her and they chatted briefly before Angie had to leave. Their food arrived, and the lobster was delightful. Joe complained about the salmon. She let him rant and just smiled.
I know I can do this. God knows, I don’t want to do this. But I can do this. I did it with Mother. Even when she couldn’t remember barely fifteen minutes before. Angie was right. It was no longer about the memories we created. That would never be again. It was the beauty of the moment, the priceless treasure of an experience well lived. Deeply enjoyed. Lovingly shared. And yes, too soon forgotten. But with your help God, I can do this.