He stood at the door and watched as she slowly lowered herself into her chair, her hands gripping the narrow arms as she tried to level out the descent. He had to force himself not to go to her aid, recognising her need for independence.
Once an outgoing, vital person, with numerous interests both in and out of the home, his wife was now in rapid decline. Jed was afraid to touch her lest he caused her some pain. Although she never complained he caught the odd wince when his handling was less gentle.
Satisfied that Martha was settled, Jed went into the room to get her reading matter, a paperback, the only thing she had left to do apart from eat and sleep. Gone are the days when she fanatically enjoyed working her many crafts. Or jigsaws, though not the easy kind, she preferred difficult ones, working without pictures, forming scenes in her head as she concentrated on fitting each piece. There was always a project to do when all else was done. Now she couldn’t even hold a heavy book in her misshapen hands.
It broke his heart to see her suffer, though she never complained. Sometimes he had to leave the house, seek refuge somewhere, see people, do something different; the only way to get some solace. The whole sickness regime wore him down. He didn’t know what to do and if he was honest he didn’t want to know. He yearned to have the fun years back, when there were no worries about ill health.
In years gone by, they danced at the local ballroom. A practised dancer, Martha would whirl round the floor in her special dress and high heeled satin shoes, her flame coloured hair flying behind her, while he tried desperately to keep up. She would pull and tug and remonstrate that he wasn’t trying hard enough.
But he did try. He had always tried to do his best for her. He guessed that sounded as though she was demanding when she wasn’t. It was just that he loved her so much and couldn’t bear her to suffer disappointment or hurt.
He looked up, realising she was watching him.
‘Are you in pain?’ she asked.
He moved to stand beside her chair, one hand stroking her grey hair. ‘No, my dear, I was just besieged by a memory.’
‘Best leave the memories to me,’ she replied, smiling. ‘I’m better equipped to deal with them.’
And she was! Another example of her sense of humour.
Thinking back over the years he smiled, remembering. Martha’s humour was the first thing that attracted him to her. She was sitting in a coffee bar, breaking squares of chocolate from the bar and dropping them into a paper bag wedged between cups. When she saw his inquisitive stare she explained that she intended to throw the chocolate away because she was on a diet. At his suggestion that she could simply toss away the whole bar she countered that it would be too quick and wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of handling each little piece.
The first years of their marriage were great fun, starting right on their wedding day when she tried to explain to the priest during the ceremony that the ring went on the third finger of the left hand. On honeymoon she hid her underclothes lest they offended her new husband, and when their daughter was born she wanted to spare him from seeing her undressed. Those were the good old days when she was young and fit, full of life and a trifle silly.
There were no regrets. Martha’s life had been good, and still was. Although she had fond memories she wasn’t one for constantly remembering the past. Her style was always to live each moment and move on. Sometimes she’d felt a little claustrophobic with the pressure of remembering to order. It was too difficult to go down the route of reliving each long gone experience. She’d always wanted to be free to have her own opinions and ideals; they had shaped her life, shown her the way to proceed. She supposed she was thought of as unsentimental and in a way she guessed that was right. She wasn’t frivolous but light-heartedness suited her best.
And now here she was, confined to the house and sometimes the chair, surrounded by love and compassion yet still feeling stifled. Was that a sign of getting old or had she always felt that way? She sighed and opened the paperback book, one she’d chosen simply because the title intrigued her: Up Close and Personal, written by someone she’d never before heard of. She read the first few pages until she heard the softly closing front door. Glancing at the clock on the sideboard she saw that it was three o’clock. Much too early, she thought, for a visit to the Queens Head. Thoughtfully she returned the book to the table beside her chair.
She knew all about Jed’s quandary. Despite his unwillingness to be tied down to domesticity he was a good and kind man and she loved him dearly. However, coming to terms with his impatience of long term ill health had taken her a long time. Her first encounter had been when his father had a stroke. Jed was first at his bedside but subsequent visits were well spaced out, prompting fierce arguments between them until she recognised that he hadn’t sufficient aptitude to get more closely involved. But it didn’t mean he didn’t care, that’s why she had vowed not to be a drain on their everyday life.
As if that thought was a reminder, she painfully stretched an arm out to the side table and selected a pill bottle from an array of similar bottles, all with caps ready loosened. Damn these fingers, she cried, as she shook out two easy to swallow painkilling capsules.
‘Hi Mom,’ said Danny as he and Babs let themselves into the house.
‘Hello, dears,’ called Martha, straightening her plaid skirt so that she would look more respectable for her children.
Carrying flowers and a basket of fruit, brother and sister entered the room, both of them trying not to appear shocked at their mother’s appearance. In a short space of time she’d shrunk to nothing, from healthy plumpness to this emaciated existence. The doctor put it down to inactivity, lack of appetite, and old age.
‘Where’s Dad,’ enquired Danny.
‘Probably gone to the park,’ Martha said. ‘He likes to get out when the weather’s fine.’
Danny inwardly seethed although he knew better than to say what was on his mind. His father had always cut and run rather than face up to domestic situations.
Martha could see that her eldest child was privately at war with his father and wished there was something she could say in Jed’s defence. Instead she asked Babs to brew them a pot of tea and reminded her that the biscuit tin was still full of her favourites.
Babs chuckled. ‘Oh Mother, I’ve brought you some more. I thought you would have eaten the others by now.’
With Babs out of the way Martha turned to her son and said, ‘Don’t feel badly about your Dad.’
Danny shrugged. ‘It upsets me when he leaves you alone so much.’
For the first time Martha admitted aloud that she preferred it that way. ‘It means I can wallow when I’m on my own. I have to put up such a front when your Dad’s here.’
‘Because he loves me,’ she said, ‘almost too much.’ She knew that Danny would never understand but she tried to elaborate. ‘He lives in the past, you see. He always has done. I think he’s afraid of what the future will bring. I’m more realistic. I don’t let on too much when I have pain because I can’t take too much fuss. Your Father does a lot for me but I prefer not to wear him out. It’s selfish, I know, but then we’re both selfish. We know when to keep our distance and when to allow some dependence upon each other. It’s about knowing each other, Danny, respecting who we are, but in a strange sort of way it shows how much we care about each other.’
She didn’t enjoy seeing the tears in Danny’s eyes but she’d had to be blunt. She just hoped he and Babs would finally realise that although their parents had faults their relationship was as strong as it ever was.
At the end of the afternoon visit Danny and Babs left the house by the front door, leaving Martha still sitting in the chair. Just before the door closed, Martha heard Babs say ‘Well, I for one don’t understand it. Wouldn’t you think that being in love would make people more accommodating?
One day, thought Martha, you might be more understanding of the human race. Being in love is wonderful but it doesn’t necessarily iron out all of life’s wrinkles.