In Light And Shadow

Ben Oliver crosses a new threshold, his spirit intact. And Helen McKay reaches dizzying heights.

February 20, 2004|By Story by Ellen Gamerman

Ben Oliver gets his wife. It's early for guests, but he wants her to meet someone.

A cheerful stranger with a Mickey Mouse embroidered on her blouse waits in the living room.

Ben explains to Florence that he will leave their Leisure World apartment for several hours today and this helper will look after her. He has some errands to do; she can stay comfortable here while he's gone.

His wife doesn't speak.

The stranger says hello.

Florence raises her cane in the woman's direction and shoots it like a rifle.

Anita Davis, the professional caregiver, smiles. She knows the first day can be hard.

Ben shows Anita around the apartment, tries to get her acquainted with Florence and warns her that his wife will start asking for him a few minutes after he walks out. He writes down his schedule, in case of emergency, in shaky letters: "CLUBHOUSE I, OLNEY BLOCKBUSTERS, L.W. MED. BLDING - X-RAY, GIANT, RETURN."

Then he leaves.

His wife looks at the door.

Anita remembers her instructions and pops a Motrin directly into her new employer's mouth, hands over a glass of water, then puts in another pill. Florence sighs after she swallows, looks toward the ceiling, searches for her saint.

"Saint Anthony," she says, "today we start our day."

Anita looks down at her.

"Today we do."

Florence's fall at the Leisure World ballroom dance a few weeks ago - the first time Ben ever called the paramedics for his wife - was not her last. Since that Hawaiian dance on July 26th, Florence has tumbled twice more in their home. Ben was in another room both times, unable to stop her fall - her world suddenly beyond his control.

He had never dialed 911 before; now the paramedics were learning his address in this Silver Spring seniors-only community. Three times in as many weeks, they came to Leisure World for the Olivers.

After months of fighting this new reality, insisting he and his wife could carry on as always, Ben could no longer deny what was happening to Florence. He called his daughter. Can you stay with your mother, he asked. He left with the shopping cart, told Florence he was getting groceries, didn't add what else he was doing. At the Leisure World Medical Center, the social worker told him about agencies that place aides in the homes of sick people.

He returned to the apartment with a cart full of food and, hidden in his pocket, a red pamphlet listing caregiver options.

Ben knew what brought them across this threshold: It was seeing danger, up close. Florence wasn't badly hurt in any of these falls, but she could have been. He began to wonder: Was it right to bring her everywhere he went? Three years since his wife's diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, the fear finally took hold of him.

And when it did, he dialed the 10 digits that led him to Anita.

In the living room, the lights are out.

Florence ignores the stranger and sings "Que Sera, Sera." After a minute, the lyrics fade.

Anita figures her new, $15-an-hour job will be steady. She knows once people break down and hire a caregiver, they don't usually go back. She's starting with just Fridays. Soon enough, though, she'll be coming Mondays, too.

Florence stares out the window at what she calls her "crookedy" tree, its limbs all twisted. Anita talks to her but the words hit silence, falling unheeded into the soft pile carpet. Florence goes into something of a trance.

Sometimes the family thinks it's a relief that a part of Florence has gone missing, that she's not really there to think about what comes next, when an in-home caregiver will no longer be enough. Florence always was terrified by the thought of her own death. Ever since those seances her relatives held when she was a child, this devout Catholic has feared the end. Now, the family thinks, maybe it's better that when she looks into the distance all she sees is a crookedy tree.

It has been 30 minutes.

Anita approaches her charge.

"I think somebody needs to get up and dance!"

The 81-year-old Florence just stares at her.

The mantel clock ticks loudly. Two more hours pass. Florence sits unmoving for most of them, though she allows Anita to get her up to pace around the building - really an excuse to look for her husband.

In his absence, Florence won't eat. She won't watch TV, she won't chitchat, she won't even go to the bathroom. She convinces herself that her husband has gotten cancer. That's why he's gone: He's dying.

Anita tries to lighten things up, offers thoughts as chipper as the Mickey Mouse grinning from the pocket of her blouse. But everything is coming out slightly off-key. Anita wants to know more about Ben, but she keeps calling him "Oliver," as if that were his first name.

Then, silence again, except for that clock.

Florence asks a question, the only question. Where is he?

"Who?" Anita asks. "Oliver?"

Helen McKay savors her solitary ritual.

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