“Come on, Daddy. Wake up! It’s time for our Saturday walk.”
“Okay, okay, I’m waking up.” He opens his eyes expecting to see a child, but the sunlit room is empty. Where is he?
He sits up, puts his feet on the floor, then looks around.
Nothing looks familiar. Not right. Name things. Start naming. “Bed. P… pillow. Sitting, no… chair. Picture. Table… no, not table, dressing… dresser.”
“Dresser.” He picks up the picture. The woman’s hair is long and dark. She’s wearing a blue dress… Think, Charlie, think!
“Charlie. I’m Charlie Johnson.”
“Charlie? Did you call me?” A voice from the doorway of the bedroom.
I know her, but what’s her name?
“Are you all right?” she asks. When she steps into the room, he notices a cast on her leg.
“What happened?” he asks. He points at her leg.
“I fell down the front steps three days ago,” she says, “and I broke a couple of bones in my foot.”
“I remember,” he says. You don’t really remember. “Yes, I do.”
She hugs him. “I believe you, Charlie. You called 911, then went with me to the hospital. You stayed with me the entire time. You took good care of me.”
Annie. He hugs her. “Annie. You’re my wife, Annie.”
He feels her body tense. “Yes, sweet Charlie. I’m your wife, Annie. And you, sir, have been my husband for thirty-six years.”
She’s smiling, but something’s wrong.
“Tell you what,” she says brightly, “you take a shower, and I’ll fix us breakfast.”
“Good,” he says. He looks around the room.
She points to a doorway. “The bathroom is there.” They walk to the doorway and he looks in.
“Be sure to wash your hair—it’s sticking up in the back like a haystack.”
He looks in the mirror over the sink. “What if I like it this way? Maybe it’s a new style I’m trying out.”
She smacks him lightly on the arm and smiles.
“Do you need any help with the shower?”
“No. I’ll be fine. I’m not a baby.”
She picks up a spiral-bound tablet on her nightstand and thumbs through several pages. “I’ll wait until you’re finished with your shower. Would you like some toast with your eggs?”
“Sounds good,” he says as he strips off his pajamas.
After his shower, he feels fully awake. The foggy feeling has gone. He sits on their bed, pulling on his socks, when the tablet catches his eye. He picks it up and opens to the first page.
The word “December” is written at the very top. “Morning, Afternoon, Night” are spaced on the top line from left to right. The days of the month run down the left side. Checkmarks are scattered on the page. He counts them: ten. The next page has eight, and the page after that has fourteen. May has eighteen and June has twenty-five, with checkmarks in the morning, afternoon, and night columns. He does not know what this means, but his heart is beating faster as he thumbs through July, August, and September. More marks. October has even more marks, sometimes several in a day. The last mark is in the morning on day 23. He looks at the calendar on the wall next to the dresser. October is in large print at the top.
His stomach twists into a knot. He is breathing faster, and it’s hard to take a deep breath. He rushes out of the bedroom, through the living room, and into the kitchen.
Anne jumps and drops the knife she is using. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s this?” he asks, waving the tablet at her.
She takes it from him, then says, “This is how I record your ‘lost time.’ That’s what you call it, ‘lost time.’ You asked me to keep track.”
“Oh,” he says. He tries to remember, but his memories are like small fish that he can see but cannot capture. He feels dizzy, so he sits in one of the chairs at the small table in the dining nook that faces the oversized kitchen window.
She sits in a chair next to him. “It was early in December when you asked me to keep a log. We were sitting here, at this table.” She puts the tablet down and rests her hand on his.
“You asked me to do this because your doctor said there would be more daily episodes just before you… before I lose you.” Her voice becomes softer.
He picks up the tablet and turns to the last page. He studies the page for almost a minute, sorting through his jumbled thoughts to make sense of the marks on the page.
“This says October. We’re in October, right?”
“Right. This is today’s date.” She points to the 23.
He points to the previous week. Every day has at least two marks under “morning” and “afternoon,” but three or four in the “night” column.
“So they’re becoming more fire… first…” He shakes his head.
“Yes.” He points to the mark she made this morning. “I’ve already had one… today?”
“Yes.” Frown lines appear between her eyes.
“So it can happen any time. I could lose time, like this morning, but never come back.”
Anne’s lips compress into a straight line as she nods. Her eyes glisten.
“I’m scared,” he says softly.
“Me, too.” She scoots her chair closer to his. He feels the weight of her arm on his shoulders.
He closes his eyes. Clock is ticking. I feel Annie breathing. That smell… that’s Annie’s soap.
I’m home. This is home. Annie is here.
“How about breakfast?” Anne asks. “We’ll feel better after we eat.” He nods.
As she works, he stares out the window as pictures of his mother squeeze into his brain. She was in the end stage of Alzheimer’s, lying in her bed, silent and mindless. This is his future. Acid rises in the back of his throat.
A movement outside snaps him back to the present. A black squirrel scurries through the deep green grass of the vacant lot that sits between his house and the neighbor’s home.
They’ve lived there a long time, but I’ve lost their names.
More movement. The trees lining the street are dropping their leaves. Single leaves flutter to the ground, but when a breeze passes by hundreds fall in a blizzard of color.
He leans back in the chair and sighs.
It’s so pretty.
Two small children are playing in the vacant lot. He hears their thin, high voices through the closed window.
He is grading papers in his home office when Jimmy interrupts him.
“Come play the troll game with us, Daddy.”
Soon he is lurching between the trees waving his arms and growling about eating little boys. They shoot him with finger guns as they yell “Pow!” He staggers as the imaginary bullets strike him, but doesn’t fall. Boyish sopranos yell and scream as they evade his waving arms.
He reads Dr. Seuss books to Jimmy at bedtime. Each character has a different silly voice. Sometimes they act out the story until Annie appears in the doorway.
“Jimmy, if you get your daddy too riled up, he won’t be able to go to sleep tonight,” she says. Jimmy laughs at her joke. But sometimes she can’t resist, and piles on the bed with them.
Jimmy loves the Saturday walks. He would—
“Breakfast is ready. You’ve been looking out the window for several minutes, and I’m a little worried that you’re gone again.”
“I was feeling nas, nostro, astro… ”
“I was… I was thinking about the Saturday walks that Jimmy and I used to take. Do you remember?”
She sets their eggs and toast on the table. “Yes. You and Jimmy would go off together on Saturdays, and, according to Jimmy, I was not allowed to go along. ‘Saturday walk time is just Daddy and me,’ he said.” She pours coffee for both of them.
“It was not unusual for both of you to come back from your walks with mud on your shoes and clothes, and bits of leaves in your hair.” She smiles as she shakes her head. “My boys.”
He hears her voice catch. Tears run down her face, and she uses a napkin to dab them away.
For a moment, she says nothing. Then, “I miss him.”
“Jimmy. That’s who we are talking about. Our son.”
He nods. “Of course. Jimmy. He woke me up this morning.” He looks around. “Where is he?”
She takes his hand. “Charlie, Jimmy died a long time ago. His heart just stopped one day.”
His eyes grow moist, and his voice shakes as he asks, “How old was he?”
“Twenty,” she says softly.
He pulls his hand away. “I’m sure I heard him this morning. Am I going crazy?”
“No, Charlie. The doctor said there would be a time when you would have… when you would be seeing or hearing things.”
“Where is he… his body?” he asks.
“He’s not in a cemetery. He was cremated.”
“Do you remember what ‘cremated’ means?”
“Burned up. I can remember some things, weird things.”
“We scattered his ashes in the little brook that runs beside Hancock Park.”
“Is that the park I see on my walks?”
“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!”
“Yes. You and Jimmy had a lot of nice times on your walks there, and he loved playing in the brook. When I took him, he would spend hours there floating dead leaves and small twigs.”
She wipes her eyes with her fingertips, then says, “We should eat now. Our food is almost cold.”
Charlie has no appetite, so he only picks at his food as images and sounds tumble over each other in his mind. His heart beats faster and his hands shake. He looks over at Annie, and sees her looking back. She has a puzzled look on her face.
“What’s going on, Charlie?”
“I’m afraid, Annie.” His fork and knife clatter on his plate. He reaches for the coffeepot, but Anne stops him.
“Let me,” she says as she pours some into his cup. “What are you afraid of, Charlie?”
“How could I forget that Jimmy is dead? I’m hearing things that aren’t there, and I even forgot your name for a while this morning. I’m losing big chunks of my life.
“And I’ve been thinking about those marks in the book.” He picks up the tablet, turns to the last page, then lays it on the table so she can read it. She covers it with her napkin. He reaches for her hand; she pulls away.
“What are you trying to say, Charlie?”
“Annie, I… ” He looks out the window. “Time has run away from me. I don’t want to leave you, but…”
He tries to catch her eye, but she will not look at him. Her face is pale and rigid.
“I need to go,” he says. “I’m afraid that if I wait much longer—”
“You don’t know how much longer you have before—”
“This book,” he says as he points to the tablet, “this book says it is happening soon. And think about what I’ve already forgotten. I’m afraid that if I wait another day—”
She throws the tablet on the floor. He is shocked into silence.
She shakes her head, stands, starts to speak, but stops. Then, with agitated movements, she picks up their dishes and puts them in the sink. A butter knife clatters on the wood floor; she picks it up and tosses it onto the counter. With her back to him, she puts her hands on the sink and stands stiff-armed as her head falls forward. Her shoulders are shaking. He stands behind her.
“Please, Annie. Please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I’m afraid. So much is gone. I have to—”
With a raspy, gasping sound, she turns, wraps her arms around him, and buries her face in his chest. Her shoulders heave as her tears dampen his T-shirt.
She says something.
“What did you say?”
She looks up at him. “When? When do you think you’ll… ”
He pulls away from her. “Today. I’m afraid to wait any longer.”
Her body sags. He holds onto her, helps her sit down. She rests her elbows on her knees and holds her head in her hands as he kneels beside her. He lays a hand on her back, but she shrugs him off. His insides are churning, and his knees are hurting. He sits on the floor with his knees drawn up. The silence feels long and heavy.
“Annie,” he says. She does not respond.
“Annie, I don’t want you to see… I don’t want you to see me like I saw my mother.”
“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!” Her face is white with anger as she hugs herself and goes to the window. He uses the chair to leverage himself to his feet. He wants to walk away, but it might make her mad. He wants to go to her, but she might tell him to leave her alone.
Stay? Go? “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.” A small sound escapes from him, followed by another, then another as he breaks down.
He feels her arms around him, holding him up.
Her voice is soft. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Charlie.” He opens his eyes and sees she is crying.
“I knew this day would come,” she says. “I know you’re scared, and I’m scared, too. When you brought that notebook to the table, I knew what you were thinking. I knew it would be soon. Part of me was hoping you might forget those damn helium tanks you bought. But another part was afraid you would forget them, or you would wait too long and not know how to use them, or—”
“I’m getting confused,” he said, pulling back so he could look her in the eye. “I can’t think fast enough to understand what you’re saying.”
“I’m confused, too. I don’t know what I want.” She smiles as she wipes her eyes. “I know you have to do this. I hate what you want to do, but I understand. I know how terrible, how awful your future is. I know you are afraid of ending up like your mother. I’m not afraid of that, but I am afraid of how I’ll feel two, or five, or ten years from now when your body is alive but you’re gone.” Her voice breaks. She hugs him hard. “You’re doing this for both of us. I love you for that. I’m not mad at you, but I’m furious that this damn disease is taking you from me.”
She looks up at him. “Now am I making sense to you?”
“Yes,” he says as he takes her hands and kisses them. He sits and pulls her onto his lap. They kiss, then she touches his face and hair. She looks at him like she is memorizing each gray hair, each wrinkle, each blemish. They remain like this a long time, breathing in each other as the sun pulls its rays from the room and rises higher in the clear blue sky.
Charlie comes out of their bedroom in his walking shoes, long pants, and a T-shirt under a fleece hoodie. He stops at the closed door of the guest room, takes a breath, then opens it. Two helium tanks, connected by a short hose, are standing at attention beside the bed. A longer hose snakes from one of the tanks to a breathing mask that lies on the bed. Charlie shivers at the sight. This is why Annie keeps this door closed.
A single page of lined yellow paper is on the bed next to the mask. In his handwriting, there are the three simple steps that will end his life: 1. Turn the handle on tank #1 to “on.” 2. Turn the handle on tank #2 to “on.” 3. Put on the mask.
Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. He squeezes his lips together as the chant plays in his head.
“Charlie. You have your walking clothes on.” Anne is in the living room. She steps toward him but stops when she sees the guest room door is open.
“Are you going for your walk?” she asks.
“I want to keep my routine.”
“But I can’t go with you because of my foot.”
“How many years did I go on my walk alone?”
“I’ve walked with you for the past year. Well, until three days ago. But why today… if you’re going to—” She covers her mouth with her hands as she takes several deep breaths.
“Look,” she says as she drops her hands. “Rachel can be here in ten minutes.”
“Rachel?” I should know this.
“My sister, Rachel?”
Sister. “Yes, Rachel.” What does she look like?
“Rachel can go with you.”
“I’m feeling fine. I want to go alone. I want to keep my routine.”
She shakes her head. “But why today?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know why… I guess I want to say good-bye.”
“Good-bye? Who will you say good-bye to?”
He opens the front door and steps onto the cement stoop. He looks around at the autumn colors of the trees against a deep blue sky, and a lump forms in his throat. Wordless, he opens his arms, then turns back to Annie.
She starts to say something but stops. Her eyes are full of tears.
“Wait just a second,” she says as she thumps back to their bedroom. When she comes back, she hands him a phone. “All you have to do is touch this button, and you can call me.”
She sounds nervous.
“Annie, I’ll be just fine. I’ll take the same right—”
“Route. I’ll take my usual route.” He slips the phone into his pocket.
“I’ll call Rachel so that she can be with me…” She presses her lips together, then kisses him and walks quickly away. He pulls the door closed.
A light breeze and cool air bring a chill. He zips his jacket to his chin, pulls his hood over his head, then steps down from the stoop onto their short walkway. He turns left on the broad sidewalk. Annie stands at the front window. He waves. She waves back, then turns away.
Splinters of golden autumn sunlight pass through the colored leaves of the large maple and oak trees, casting narrow, uneven patches of light bordered by shadow onto the sidewalk. He turns onto Arnold Street with its long blocks of shaded streets and modest, red-brick houses sitting behind their leaf-covered lawns. Several families are already out, clearing their lawns. Young children are jumping over, into, and onto piles of crinkling, multicolored leaves.
Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate.
Charlie remembers pictures that Annie took of Jimmy and him. They showed two sets of legs—his and Jimmy’s—stuck out from piles of leaves. He smiles at the images as the aroma of leaves under his feet brings back childhood memories of autumn days.
He remembers the feel of the rough bark as he shimmied up a tall maple, his favorite tree in the woods near his house. He loved the way its thick branches were swayed by even a light breeze. On windy days, he would sit on the moving branches and imagine he was holding on to the mast of a great sailing ship as it plowed the ocean.
He notices that large trees on both sides of Arnold Street have thrust their branches over it, creating a long, leafy cathedral with ever-shifting light. They stand like silent giants, extending their arms over him in a rustling benediction as he passes beneath them. When he reaches the corner of Arnold and Hancock, he turns around. He touches his forehead in a loose military salute.
“Hail and farewell,” he says. The trees, moved by a passing breeze, wave back.
After a lingering look, he turns. He is about to cross Hancock Street but stops. Nothing looks familiar.
Names—start naming. “Street sign, trees, houses. I came from that direction.” He points along Hancock Street. “Or maybe I came from that—” He’s startled by a car horn, then he realizes he’s standing in the street.
The car pulls closer, and the driver rolls down her window.
“Doctor Johnson?” she asks.
“Y—yes.” Who are you?
“You probably don’t recognize me. I’m Patricia Ferris. I was an English major twenty years ago. I took every one of your classes and learned so much from you.”
“That’s nice,” he smiles. I taught English?
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Well, maybe not. I want to get to the uh, the uh… Trees. Lots of trees. Post. Park. I’m looking for a park. It’s around here somewhere.”
“It’s right there—Hancock Park,” she says, pointing. He follows her finger.
“Well, damn,” he said. “I guess I got a little turned around.”
She smiles. “Just a senior moment. I’ve had a few of those, and I’m still in my forties. Oops, I better move. There’s another car coming. Nice to see you, Professor.”
“Nice to see you as well,” he says. She drives away, and he steps onto the curb.
“So I was a teacher,” he says as he walks toward the park.
He leaves the sidewalk that curves into the shifting shades of the trees. I think I used to know what kind they were. Every breeze makes the colors ripple, hundreds of leafy flags break apart and flutter to the ground.
“It’s raining leaves!” He laughs and turns in circles as they fall on and around him. He is drawn deeper into the woods as he tries to catch some of them.
“We have to catch at least one before it hits the ground, right, Dad?” a man says.
“Right,” Charlie says. He catches one by clamping it to his chest. “Got it.”
“First one of the fall,” the voice says.
Charlie turns in the direction of the sound. The man darts around, chasing the falling leaves. He is tall and skinny, with dark hair. He stops moving and grins as he faces Charlie.
“But I thought you were dead.”
“I am dead.”
“Are you a ghost?
“No, Dad, I’m not a ghost. You’re having a hallucination. You had one last week, remember? In that one, I was eight years old.”
“No, I don’t remember. I have Alzheimer’s, you know. But how can you remember something if I can’t?”
Jim shrugs and smiles. “I thought you might need some company on your last walk,” he says as he walks by Charlie. They wend their way among the trees and come to a grassy area beside a shallow brook.
“I’ve always loved this spot,” Jim says. “I’m glad you and Mom brought my ashes here.”
Charlie sits down with a grunt. “I forgot that you died, and that we brought your ashes here. Annie told me this morning. I’m sorry I forgot.”
Charlie sits in silence for several minutes, listening to the brook.
“What’s it like?” he asks.
“What?” Jim asks.
“Dying. Did it hurt much?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I’m your hallucination, so what would you like me to say?”
“I’m scared, Jim.”
“I know, Dad. Killing yourself is scary, but you don’t have to do it. You could let nature take its course.”
Charlie shakes his head. “I can’t put Annie through that.”
“You have these little tricks, like naming things.”
“But that won’t work much longer. I know.” Several leaves drift along on the brook. I wonder where they go? It would be so easy to just float away.
“Daddy?” A boy’s voice.
“Jimmy!” Charlie smiles at the boy sitting beside him. “You woke me up this morning, scamp.”
“How did you get so old, Daddy? I thought you were old, but not this old.”
Charlie chuckled. “Hell if I know.”
“Daddy, you always told me life was just one adventure after another. Why are you scared about this one?”
“I’ve never died before.” Charlie picks up a small stone and tosses it into the brook. Jimmy does the same.
“Can we do the leaf pile again?” Jimmy is on his hands and knees.
“Sure can.” Charlie hauls himself onto his knees and gathers armfuls of leaves. It is not long before he is on his back under them with some of them pressed against his glasses, backlit by the sun. Their intricate, tiny veins amaze him, just as they did when he was a kid. His eyes are watering.
“What’s the matter, Daddy?” Jimmy is lying beside him.
“I don’t know, Jimmy,” he says. “Something about all these leaves dying made me sad, I guess.”
“Oh,” Jimmy says. “Let’s be quiet and pay attention to what’s around us. That’s what you told me to do when I felt sad.”
“I told you that?”
“Yeah, a lot of times. Sometimes it even helped.”
Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate. Charlie smiles as he catches the scent of grape-flavored bubblegum.
“Daddy, look at the light and colors,” Jimmy says.
He opens his eyes into narrow slits like he did when he was a kid. Everything is slightly out of focus, and sunlight twinkles through the tiny openings between the leaves. It is almost as if he were floating.
“It’s like little pieces of sunshine,” Jimmy says.
“Jimmy, will you remind me about this today when I’m dying?”
“Sure. I’m not afraid, Daddy. I’ll stay with you.”
The sound of an old-fashioned phone ringing startles Charlie. Leaves scatter as he sits up.
“Charlie, are you okay?”
“Annie, I’m fine. I’m in, um, the tree place, lots of trees, and a stream…”
“Hancock Park,” Anne says. “I can see it on my phone.”
“On your phone? How?”
“I put a tracker on your phone last year.”
“Are you lost? You’re normally home from your walk by now.”
“So, are you lost?”
“No, I’m not lost,” he says. “I just can’t remember the name of the, the park. Jimmy and I have been having a good time.”
Anne gasps. Then she says, “Charlie, we just talked about this. Jimmy died—”
“I know it’s a halo, hollow, hal—”
“Hallucination. It’s nice to pretend. We came here on our Saturday walks.”
“I know.” After a pause, she adds, “Rachel’s here. Would you like her to come get you?”
“No, I’ll walk. It’s a beautiful day. Maybe we could play in the leaves when I get home.”
“I would like that,” Annie says.
“I’m coming home. G’bye.” He slips the phone into his pocket. “Jimmy, I have to go.”
The only answer is the sound of breeze-blown leaves and ripples in the brook. He looks around, sighs, then sets out for home.
Everything seems clearer, the contrasts sharper. He likes the feel of his running shoes on the ground, the cool air on his face. The scent of a wood fire from a neighbor’s home makes him smile.
Several minutes later, as he turns the corner on his street, he sees Annie and Rachel on the stoop, waiting for him. He waves, and they return the wave.
I’m almost home. Not much longer now.
“Daddy, I’m coming with you.”
“Jimmy? I would like that.”
“It’s been a nice day, hasn’t it Daddy?”
“It sure has, Jimmy. The best.”