This story is by Sharon Hetherington and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Fireflies flickered and danced in the moonlit gardens as Charles and Grace swayed back and forth on their old porch swing. It was an unusually warm September and Charles savored the fresh air, fragrant with fall scents. A Glen Millar waltz wafted softly through the open window and the tiny sparks of light in the garden seemed to keep time with the music.
Charles’ faded blue eyes crinkled as he smiled affectionately at his wife. Squeezing her hand, he said “Gracie, do you remember when we used to go dancing? Oh, but you were beautiful with your golden hair and sparkling eyes. I was proud as a peacock to be with you; and you…well, you stole my heart before I knew what hit me. Here we are sixty-five years later, and you are still beautiful.”
Grace stared straight ahead at nothing in particular; perhaps lost in thought, or memories of her own. But when another gentle squeeze of her hand did not rouse her, Charles’ heart sank like a stone, and he sighed with dismay. She had slipped away again.
Charles and Grace had lived a full and happy life together. Oh, there had been a few good bumps in the marriage road for sure, but on their wedding night, Grace made Charles promise that no matter what they quarreled about or how angry they got, they would never take their anger to bed. And borne from that promise, were four wonderful children, now grown with children and grandchildren of their own.
Charles and Grace were now both in their eighties and had remained independently content for years. But then last fall, Gracie became ill. And now, their children were urging Charles to sell the house and move himself into a senior’s apartment and Gracie into a nursing home. Charles knew they meant well, but life without Gracie by his side would be impossible to bear.
Charles gazed sadly at Grace, so lost within her own mind. Her illness had been a gradual progression; so gradual in fact, that she was probably ill for some time before Charles became alarmed enough to take her to the doctor. He thought of how they laughed together at her little slips; the time she put the dish soap in the refrigerator or the time she went shopping for bathroom tissue twice within three days. Eventually, the little slips became serious events.
Last November, Charles returned home from an early morning haircut to find Grace wandering around the backyard. Shivering in just her nightgown, she was distraught because she could not find her way home. In January, Grace started to heat a pot of soup on the stove and then forgot about it. The pot boiled dry and when Charles returned from coffee with a neighbor the house was fogged with smoke. The smoke alarms were screaming, and Charles found Grace crumpled in a corner, hands over her ears, sobbing inconsolably. Charles called the doctor and after a barrage of tests, Grace was diagnosed with dementia.
There were still good days when Grace was lucid; chatty, witty, and pretty much her old self. But as these days became fewer, Charles treasured every moment even more.
Charles himself was in reasonably good health. He was grateful, as it allowed him to care for Grace, although caring for someone with dementia was stressful and demanding. Gracie was a gentle soul, but with her dementia came personality transformations. There were periods of agitation and fear. Occasionally, in her confusion Grace would become violent and Charles bore the bite marks and bruises inflicted on him as he tried to tend to her needs.
On Grace’s bad days, Charles would often collapse, exhausted and consumed with despair, agonizing that he would not remain well enough to care for his wife. He loved Grace to the very core of his being; she was his world, and he knew that he would do anything for her or die trying.
“I’m ready to go.”
Charles jumped, startled from his musings. Taking Grace’s arm, he said “Oh. Yes, of course, dear. Are you ready to go to bed now?”
Grace looked directly into her husband’s eyes and smiling softly said, “No, Charlie, I’m ready to die now.”
Charles just sat there stunned, mouth open, trying to form words that simply would not come. Finally, he managed to stammer, “Oh no, Gracie, surely you don’t mean that!”
Grace’s smile faded and tears welled in her eyes, spilling over and down through the aged creases in her cheeks. Pulling Charlie’s hand to her heart, she took a weary breath and said quietly “I’m just so tired, Charlie, so tired. I’m ready to go.”
Grace’s eyes pleaded with Charlie’s heart. He was her everything and had always done everything for her. With unmistakable clarity and conviction, Grace asked the unimaginable. “Charlie love, please help me to find my way to peace.”
Charles wrapped his arms around his wife and held her close so that she would not see his anguish. Had Gracie just asked him to help her die? His heart cracked open a little each time he thought about losing her, but with the way his heart was hammering, he was sure it would explode.
Charles took a deep breath and gave Grace’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. He planted a soft kiss on her wet cheek and guided her toward the door. “Why don’t we get a good night’s rest, dear and we can talk about this again in the morning.”
But Charles did not rest well that night. He barely slept at all. He woke weary and depressed, and he caught himself selfishly hoping that Grace had slipped back into the hazy shadows of her mind.
At the kitchen doorway, Charles stopped to watch Grace. As she moved slowly around the room, a lump of despair caught in his throat. Even though it was her wish to die, the thought of helping her, tormented his soul.
“Good morning dear.” Grace’s greeting startled Charles, but he smiled brightly, still unsure if she would remember their conversation from last evening.
They shared a simple breakfast of toast and jam, a meal that Gracie could contribute to with minimal risk of mishap. Charles was quiet. He feared conversation would burst the fragile bubble that floated between them, unleashing that terrifying word; ‘death’.
“Charlie, remember you said we could talk?” Grace was watching him earnestly.
Charles tried to veil the despondency in his eyes as he feigned forgetfulness. “What’s that dear? Yes, of course, we can talk. What would you like to talk about?”
“My death, of course.” The bubble had burst.
With a calm resolve, Gracie continued. “Now I have given it some thought Charlie, and I would like to have a nice quiet death, nothing messy or complicated. Perhaps just a good dose of my sleeping pills, mixed into a little bowl of custard. Would that work?”
Charles’ heart shattered. He grappled for reasoning that would change Grace’s mind but found none. Gracie was old and tired. She was sick and she longed for peace. What right did he have to take that away from her? But how would he ever let her go? He was old and tired too. The guilt of taking part in his wife’s death, even if mercifully, would most likely send him to his own grave. And if that didn’t, his broken heart surely would.
Charles was suddenly struck by a revelation. They had been together most of their lives, perhaps if they died together their souls could continue the journey.
“Gracie, yes, I think that would work,” said Charles slowly. “I wouldn’t want it any other way for you. It’s just…well, I don’t want you getting lost on the way to Heaven so, I’ve…”
Grace was looking at him quizzically. “Well…I’ve decided I’m going to go with you”, blurted Charlie.
Grace hugged Charles tightly and with a voice throaty with emotion, said “I wouldn’t want it any other way either, Charlie!”
That was it then. Charles felt giddy. He and Gracie would dance their last waltz together in two days, on their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. It would be a perfect ending to a perfect life together.
There were no loose ends to tidy up; those details were taken care of years ago. On Saturday, Charles and Grace dressed in their best outfits and gathered with family to celebrate their milestone anniversary. Their smiles were bittersweet, and they hugged their loved ones close, knowing this would be the last time they would be together. They tried to absorb these cherished memories into their souls so that the memories would not be left behind.
That evening, Charles and Grace wrote a lovely, heartfelt letter to their children. Then, together they prepared some warm custard and ate it in bed with a biscuit and a sip of sherry. Afterward, Charles and Grace snuggled together in a loving embrace, kissed goodnight, and let the music of a sweet waltz carry them away.