This story is by Kim Hardin and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Ready to go, Grandpa?”
“Almost.” He looked at his wife of seventy-two years and gave a little smile. After all this time, she still took his breath away. Then he leaned down and gently kissed her cheek. “Bye, Doll.”
He still remembered the first time he saw her like it was yesterday. On an unseasonably warm October day, he and his buddy stopped at the local ice cream shop for a cone. The war had just ended. Everyone everywhere smiled – their boys were coming home. A sense of relief had settled over the city.
As he stepped inside the ice cream shop, he couldn’t help but notice the new girl working behind the counter. At the sight of her, a bolt of lightning zinged through him. Her bright blue sweater brought out the sparkle in her eyes and the fire in her hair. When she looked up at him and smiled, he thought he could see forever in her eyes. Her name was Delores, but she was as beautiful as a porcelain doll, so he called her Doll instead.
For the rest of the day, it felt like the sun shone just for him. Two hours and three cones later, he knew she was the one. When he left that ice cream shop, he left his heart.
Three months later, against the wishes of both their parents, they married.
“You’re so young. You’re making a mistake,” everyone had said. But they were wrong. In his heart he just knew. And when he promised to love, honor, and cherish her for the rest of his life, he meant it.
They bought a small house and settled in. He found a job while Doll took care of the house. He worked hard, but looked forward to nothing more than coming home to Doll’s smiling face at the end of the day. Things weren’t always easy and they weren’t always rosy, but they were in love, and happy.
When their first child, Bobby arrived, he brought with him all the joy that comes with being new parents. A year later came Tommy. Then the twins, Mikey and Mary.
Now he felt like his life was complete. He took care of his family and loved them fiercely.
With four children, the house bustled with activity and Doll was in her glory. She hosted birthday parties and helped out at school. She joined the PTA and made friends with other mothers.
The neighborhood kids decided they liked their house best, because nine times out of ten, Doll had freshly baked cookies waiting for them. Some days the pile of shoes by the back door was so big, you couldn’t close the door, but he and Doll loved it.
He loved her kindness most of all. The way she would bring food to elderly neighbors. Or empty their closets for the family that just lost everything to a fire. She gave from her heart and never expected anything in return.
One by one, the kids graduated from high school and went off to college. And the pile of shoes grew smaller and smaller, until finally, there were just two pairs left, and a quiet house.
When he retired, they had more time together. They traveled some, but mostly just loved staying home. Sometimes reading by the fire or swinging on the front porch. Or just puttering around in the garden, he in his vegetables, she in her roses.
Grandchildren came next, bringing an unexpected joy into their lives. Doll doted on the grandkids, baking cookies, telling stories, playing games. The best times were when the house was filled with laughter. Life was perfect again.
Then Doll got sick.
Suddenly there were endless doctor visits and waiting rooms. Chemotherapy and radiation. Long nights beside her on the floor while she vomited her life away. She clung to life while he clung to her, all the while urging her, “Fight, Doll. Fight.” And so she fought.
And she won.
More frail now, but she’d survived. He’d almost lost her, but his Doll was back and he held onto her just a bit tighter. With thankful hearts, they watched their grandkids grow.
But little by little, he noticed Doll forgetting things. Unimportant things at first, nothing to be concerned with. But when he found her wandering the next street over, crying and lost, it became clear, something was wrong.
“Alzheimer’s,” the doctor had said. He’d cried on the way home. Doll didn’t seem to notice.
Life went on. Some days, she was herself, singing, cooking, taking care of the house. Other days it was as if a stranger had become trapped inside her. She’d rage and cry, frustrated by something she couldn’t name. Or she’d sit for hours, staring at nothing, locked inside her own world.
The worst days were when she didn’t recognize him.
Then she forgot who she was…forgot how to take care of herself…how to eat. So he took care of her. He bathed her and fed her. And when their grandson asked, “Why don’t you put her into a nursing home, Grandpa?” he just shook his head. He couldn’t explain it.
“Because I know she’s still my wife, even if she doesn’t,” he’d wanted to scream. “Because I promised to love, honor, and cherish her for the rest of my life.”
Because she was still his Doll.
Every Tuesday, he’d help her into the car and they’d drive to their old favorite ice cream shop, where he’d order a small vanilla in a cup and share it with her. Just like when they were first married, when money was tight. Only now, with shaking hands, he fed her, bite by bite.
Each time, with that first bite of ice cream, he’d hold his breath and wait, would she remember?
Most of the time, she didn’t even know what she was eating, didn’t seem to care. But on rare occasions, as she tasted that first bite, she’d smile. And suddenly, he had his Doll back. He’d see the sparkle in her eyes and the fire in her hair, like that October day when they’d first met. And that’s why he did it.
On Tuesday, they’d gone for ice cream, and Doll was lucid, almost her old self again.
On Wednesday, she didn’t wake up.
Seventy-two years was a long time. But he never regretted one moment of it. He’d do it all again. No hesitation. She’d been the greatest part of his life.
“We had a good run, didn’t we, Doll?” He put his hand over hers and held it there for a minute. “Well, time for me to go.”
As he stood up, a single tear rolled down his cheek and dripped onto the casket. He stared at it for a second, then brushed it away with his sleeve. Then he nodded to the waiting funeral director, who stepped forward to close the lid.
Seventy-two years. He couldn’t have asked for a better life.
Then, turning away, he took hold of his grandson’s arm and shuffled out into the gray afternoon.