“Do you love me?” I asked clearly and distinctly.
A faint “yes” came from the inert form slumped against my shoulder as I sat with her on the sofa in the nursing home room that has become her home.
She has Alzheimer’s disease, that cursed affliction that, while not the most painful, is surely among the most cruel diseases to haunt humanity.
I ran my fingers through her blond hair, smoothing it from her face, a face without expression, a once expressive face that glowed with the usual range of emotions, especially enthusiasm, and reflected her zest for life.
I remember the first Christmas morning I spent at her family’s home. I was courting her older sister, who would become my wife.
Apparently, my beloved had bored the family with exaggerated recitals of my perceived qualities and charming personality.
Carolyn handed me a beautifully wrapped package. I tore into it as eagerly as a 5-year-old, only to retrieve a simple burlap bag. Pinned to it was a note: “For the man who has everything, here’s a bag to put it in.”
I’ll admit I was somewhat taken aback, realizing that while I may have won over the rest of the family – the widowed mother and the other two daughters – I had not scored a hole-in-one with this middle sister.
It is said that middle children often tend to become rebellious, if not problematic, because of their birth order. Although Carolyn was never a real problem while growing up, she was not as docile and unquestioning as her two sisters.
On the other hand, she was regarded as the prettiest of the three pretty women.
My wife, Nancy, has never forgotten a particular incident that occurred during a visit with relatives.
During the visit, my wife overheard an aunt say to another aunt, “Ah, isn’t that Carolyn simply beautiful?”
“Oh, yes,” agreed the aunt, then adding, “But Nancy Jean is awfully smart.”
At that time, when most girls would rather be beautiful than smart, my wife’s feelings took a nose dive.
I have since convinced her that, to me at least, she is both smart and beautiful. But somehow, memory never quite lets go of some childhood hurts.
As my sister-in-law nestled her head against my shoulder, I reminded myself that life has not always dealt gently with her.
At age 9, she was struck by a car and hospitalized for weeks. Weeks earlier her father had died at age 42. Her beloved high school sweetheart and, later, husband was killed when a truck driver ran a stop sign and crashed into his car. He, too, was only 42. As a medical technician at Rex and Wake Med, she earned the reputation of being among the best. Patients would request her expertise at drawing blood, because she did it so painlessly.
I glanced at a framed photo on a nearby table. It pictures Carolyn and her second husband, Bob Brinkley, who died of a heart attack Jan. 20, skiing in the mountains of Colorado. They were members of a Raleigh group that made the ski outing an annual event.
The day before my visit, while having coffee at a nearby Chick-Fil-A, I encountered a member of that skiing contingent, Linda Hancock.
“There were some good skiers among us,” she reflected. “But Carolyn was the best.”
The insidious Alzheimer’s struck surreptitiously, gradually invading the brain. For almost three years, my wife and I had Carolyn visit us on Sunday afternoons to play Scrabble, hoping the word game might slow the disease’s progress.
Carolyn was my “partner,” at first helping me form words. When she lost that capability, I would have her count out the tiles we needed for our next play. Eventually, that ability also disappeared.
On those Sundays, as she came in the door, I would sing the words from an old song: “Come sit by my side little darlin’, come lay your cool hand on my brow, and promise me that you will always, be nobody’s darlin’ but mine.”
She would smile happily. Then the smiles gradually vanished.
I remember that at my daughter’s wedding, Carolyn had toasted the couple with, “May you live as long as you want to and may you want to as long as you live.” The toast now seemed sadly ironic.
I left without bidding her goodbye. Why inflict more pain? Anyway, we had been saying goodbye for three years without realizing it.
Nevertheless, I left feeling grateful for the “yes,” when I had asked if she loved me. It was the only word she spoke during my entire stay. How appropriate it seems that in the dwelling place of human emotions, love is the last to leave.
(Editor’s note: Carolyn Hill Bulla died Tuesday, after this column was written.)
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