He stared into his coffee cup while tugged on his beard out of habit. A single white hair came loose between his fingers, then drifted lazily onto the table next to the cup. “You think you die once, but you don’t,” he said. “Not really. Not when you watch your wife disappear inside herself one day at a time.”
Joe Tagget’s wife had been diagnosed with early onset dementia five years before. Since that day in October when the doctor had explained what that meant for her future, their future, he’d mourned her. He was a quiet man, not given to shows of emotion. It’d been hard on him. He had one friend, Arne Gustafson. They met for coffee every morning at the diner, to drink together. Sometimes they’d talk too.
They’d known each other since high school. After fifty years, they’d become almost identical in every way, save for Arne’s full, shaggy mane of black hair that he kept tied back in a pony tail with a leather cord. They were stocky men. Ruddy skin and scarred, callused hands. Both had gone to work out of high school at the mine. Both had married their high school sweethearts. They watched their children grow up, move away, get married, then disappear into their own lives. They’d seen the town thrive, then watched families pack up and move out after the mine closed. They figured they had seen it all. That is, until the doctor told Joe and Vera they had five years at the most before she’d have to be moved into the dementia ward at the local hospital. That night was the first and only time in his life Arne would see Joe cry.
Arne looked at Joe. His friend’s face was a mask of broken capillaries and pain. “What’re you gonna do next,” he said. “What can I do,” Joe said. “I can’t take care of her anymore. I’m up with her all night. She used to wake up in the night and scream my name. Now she just screams. God help me, Arne. God help me, but sometimes I pray she’d die.” “You mean that” the other man said. “I do,” he said. “I do. If she died she’d be at peace. I’d be able to bury her. I could sleep again because I’d know she was finally at peace. I’d know some peace. God help me, Arne. God help me.” Arne snorted and tapped the rim of his cup with a thick, yellowed thumb nail. “Then maybe it’s time you thought about putting her in the hospital.”
Joe looked at his coffee cup again. Arne imagined this must be what it’d be like to sit across from a fortune teller while she tried to see into the future in her crystal ball. “I’ve thought about it, sure. I’ve thought about it a lot. But I’d feel so guilty I’d… You think when you’re young, you think folks live their lives then one day they up and die. But it’s not like that for us, Arne. Not anymore. For a while Vera knew she was losing pieces of herself. But at least she knew. We could sit and hold each other then. We were together. We could talk about stuff. But now, I’m alone in the room with her, remembering for the two of us. I’m talking for the two of us and mourning for the two of us and dying for the two of us. We didn’t get to die all at once, Arne. For five years I’ve mourned her death. And every day she’s more and more someone I don’t remember.”
Joe gritted his teeth and slammed his fist down onto the wooden table. Both coffee cups hopped then splashed their contents onto the table. Arne mopped at the spills with his napkin. “You want me to go with you,” he said. “You want me to drive?” “No, I can do it,” Joe said. “Alright… I’ll come over later, then. After dinner. We’ll throw some cards,” Arne said. “I don’t know if I’ll be up for it,” the other man said. “What else are you gonna do, sit alone in the dark and feel guilty that you did the right thing?”
Both men pushed their chairs away from the table and stood up to leave. As they made to leave, Arne said, “Did I tell you? The other night Linda said she ran into Pastor Lewis at the bank. You remember him? He was our pastor back, must be fifteen years ago. He married our oldest, Mary.” “Yah, I remember him,” Joe said. “What of it?” “Oh, nothing… It’s just that I ran into him myself yesterday. He’s retired now. Him and his wife moved back up here. Anyway, we got to talking and I told him it’d be good to catch up, maybe throw cards with him like we used to do on Friday nights at the Legion. So… you mind if I bring him with me? I’ll make him buy some expensive Schnapps for us on the way over.” “Sure, I guess,” Joe said. “I guess, whatever… yah, that’d be alright.” Arne grabbed the brass knob and opened the door. They walked out onto the sidewalk and squinted against the sunlight.
“You need something you call me,” Arne said. “I will,” Joe said. “You’re doing the right thing,” the other man said. “I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes you do what you have to do, and it’s not about right or wrong. It’s hard… she’s my wife, Arne.” The other man looked down at his work boots. Then he looked up at his friend. “Joe, you need anything you call me. Otherwise, I’ll come by with Pastor Lewis round about seven o’clock… with the Schnapps.” Joe nodded. Then he turned and walked in the opposite direction. Arne watched him go. “I’ll come round with the pastor,” he said to no one.