Staying The Course

On an ocean cruise, the Oliver family encounters the rocky shoals of Alzheimer's disease - and Ben holds tight to Florence.

February 16, 2004|By Story by Ellen Gamerman

"Can you take me back?"

Florence Oliver is belted tight in the back seat of the car, studying her husband's head, wondering why he can't drive facing her. The cocoon of Leisure World, the senior-citizens community where the couple lives, disappears in the rearview mirror.

Florence squirms. She hates these rides. She fiddles with her seatbelt.

Weeks ago, Ben Oliver predicted the hardest part of this trip would be the hour's drive from Leisure World in Silver Spring to the port in Baltimore, where they'll board a cruise ship for an 11-day voyage. His spirited 81-year-old wife, firmly in the grip of Alzheimer's disease, panics when she's inside a car, even for a minute.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asks.

Her husband explains again. They're on their way to the port. For the cruise.

"You've forgotten," he says. "You've forgotten."

Once they see the flags fluttering from the Galaxy, Ben thinks, everything will be fine. All he has to do is get there. He steers the car toward I-95.

Florence looks for an escape.

He has tricked her - that's what he has done. She's sure of it.

At home, where everything is familiar, Florence talks about the future with a cloudy optimism. But inside the car, the world zooming by, she lives only in a terrifying present.

Ben hears the seatbelt click open. Florence sits unbuckled in the back, her hand on the door.

"Get ready," she says. "I'll jump out."

Ben has been through this before. He drives slow and steady, eyes ahead, the doors of the Cadillac locked.

"Why don't you take a little nap, Scooter?"

He uses her nickname; sometimes it calms her.

Florence closes her eyes, moves a hand to her brow.

"Why don't you hit me on the head," she says, "and tell me when it's time to get up?"

A couple of weeks ago, when his wife couldn't hear, Ben called this Florence's last cruise. It was a strong statement from a man whose very nature is to hang on, a husband who has taken his wife on 21 cruises already. But Ben sees trouble ahead: By next year, his wife may be unable to get even as far as the ship's gangway without that dark pit of dementia swallowing her up.

So the time to cruise is now. The trips used to be filled with dancing - the ballroom enthusiasts waltzed halfway around the world - but this time it's about family. Ben is treating the whole gang to the trip while Florence can still enjoy it.

Outside the car window, the Baltimore skyline emerges on the horizon.

"God knows where we are," says the voice behind Ben.

Florence hunches down in her seat, sick with confusion.

"Oh, can we go home? B'Angel, when can we go home?"

She's trying everything, even her nickname for him, but Ben stays on course. The port sits just off the highway.

He takes the exit, then navigates the bleak industrial streets.

A left, the click of the turn signal, a right.

A stretch of blacktop. It's better on the empty roads; Ben knows that.

Florence looks into the afternoon haze. The car is quieter now. Everything slows. She relaxes.

Something has gone wrong. Was she the cause?

She pleads gently.

"Can I get you a cup of coffee? Buy you a sandwich or something?"

The fear has passed, but it leaves a mark. Maybe she can explain.

"I don't like to be scared on these beltways and meltways and anything-ways."

There's the sign: Cruise Ship Terminal Straight Ahead.

"Then you forgive me?" she asks Ben. "Do you forgive me? I disturbed you, gloomy bird."

Cruise Ship: Right Lanes Only. The massive white ocean liner emerges through the Cadillac windows.

Finally.

"That must be her: The Galaxy!" Ben says. "Can you see the ship, Scooter?"

The ship's deck is dappled in sunlight.

Florence leans forward. She searches for the words to make it right.

"I love you."

Ben keeps his composed look; she shouldn't know the agony of watching her become so afraid.

"You want to go home now?" he teases. "Before the cruise?"

It's his sign. All is forgiven. She smiles.

That ship is huge. Hulking over the dock. Filling the car windows.

Florence looks down.

"Oh. I don't have my rosary."

Ben knows what comes next.

"Saint Anthony?" Florence asks. "Where are you, Saint Anthony?"

This is the saint she has always confided in, the one she first listened for as a girl, when her Italian Catholic mother sent her to church for hour after hour - the saint who helped her find the humanity amid all that doctrine.

The patron saint of lost things.

Ben reassures her.

"He's looking out for you."

Florence studies her husband - her driver, her lookout, her protector.

And she asks him, "Are you my Saint Anthony?"

"We'll be doing the limbo and trying to break the record for the world's longest conga line!"

Cruise assistant Kimberly is enforcing the fun as the ship plows through the Chesapeake en route to Florida on the first leg of a Caribbean tour. At a welcome-aboard ceremony inside the Galaxy Theatre, scores of the ship's 1,800 passengers listen to plans for battle-of-the-sexes games and bingo, frozen drinks and midnight buffets.

Ben sits next to his wife. She whispers loudly in his ear.

"Can we go home?"

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