The struggle was finally over.
Seven years of emotional pain, distress, and misery had mercifully stopped – however, despite all of the anguish, eighty-four-year-old Joseph Spencer was devastated that it had come to an end. He fully realized how selfish that was, but he couldn’t help himself. Even in recent weeks when it was almost unbearable, at least he and his wife were together. But now, she had been taken away forever.
As a couple, they had endured endless torment during her illness, but for Joseph, the last twenty-four months were the worst. That’s how long it had been since his wife had recognized him.
The newly widowed man shuffled into the living room and dropped into his favorite chair. On the left was a small table and on the other side was Meredith’s chair.
For years they sat side by side each evening, chatting about the day’s events as she relaxed with her knitting, and he read his mystery stories. Sadly, that’s what they were doing the first time Meredith stared at him without knowing who he was. It was the heart-wrenching point in her illness when he lost all hope.
For the next few months her ability to recognize him came and went until one day it left and never returned. From then on, her husband didn’t exist. It was impossible to describe what that felt like. You love someone so much, you’re right there in front of them, but you’re meaningless. You become a stranger to them.
For Meredith, their marriage of sixty-five years had never occurred. The joys, disappointments, successes, and challenges were no longer part of her. Every day they had shared together simply vanished.
But the fact that his wife no longer understood their relationship in no way diminished his unconditional love for her. Joseph had cared for his wife in every way that he could because he knew if their roles were reversed, she would have been by his side every step of the way – and dementia was not a journey you wanted to make alone.
Their life-long commitment had withstood everything life could throw at it, but the cruelty of her condition had proven to be overwhelming. The relentlessly insidious destruction of Meredith’s mind had been crushing to witness. Worst of all was how utterly powerless Joseph felt as he helplessly stood by while the doctors tried without success to slow the progression of the disease. Nothing had prepared him for the shattering experience of watching the person he loved retreat into a world he could not enter.
But he knew from professional experience that it happened to people in every segment of society, including people just like the two of them. They had, after all, lived unremarkable lives. Before retirement, he’d been a pharmacist, and she was an elementary school teacher. They were not special, they weren’t unlucky, and he could not believe they were singled out to suffer by a deity. Dementia was simply a tragic fact of life. He was well aware that, at any one time, five million Americans were living with it.
But because his long career had provided him with access to the medical field that others did not have, Joseph was confident that someday the disease would be eradicated. Undoubtedly, advanced therapies and medications would render dying in such a dreadful way unthinkable, however, that was some time in the future. It would be too late for the millions who were suffering now – just as it was too late for the person who meant everything to him.
He thought back to the last moments he spent with his wife. Meredith had been unconscious for thirty-six hours before she died. He was holding her hand when she took her last breath and more than eight decades of life effortlessly slipped away. In that instant, she found peace as her illness receded into darkness.
He remembered gazing at her face as the finality of their relationship closed in on him. Although her body had been ravaged by the years spent fighting her condition, to Joseph, her beauty remained untouched. In his eyes, Meredith was still the person who’d walked down the aisle and stood by his side so many years before. In his last act of devotion, he’d tenderly kissed her on the forehead, and whispered that he loved her.
To think that he would never see her again was devastating – but he knew that he’d actually lost Meredith twice. Two years ago when her memory of him faded, and two days ago when she died. That was the heartbreaking reality of the disease.
He’d spent months trying to imagine how it would feel when they were permanently separated, but now that it’d happened, he was inconsolable. Their marriage had passed with startling speed, and it was difficult to believe that their life together was really over.
He thought back seven years earlier to the morning when everything changed. The first sign that something was not right happened on a quiet Saturday. He had gone to the grocery store to pick up a few things she needed, and when he came home, he found her sitting at the kitchen table. Strangely, however, Meredith had made two cups of tea. The one in front of her was almost empty. A full cup sat across the table. Joseph only drank coffee, so he asked why she’d made two cups. She looked at him as if he’d asked a foolish question and answered that her mother had stopped by and asked for one. She said they talked for about a half-hour.
In an instant, a wave of horror swept over him because his mother-in-law had been deceased for more than a decade.
That day he had no way of knowing how his life was going to be affected. He would be tested in ways he never thought possible, and it would require courage that he did not know he possessed.
That courage had lasted through this morning.
Out of concern for those who knew and cared about Meredith, Joseph had desperately tried to put on a brave face at the funeral, but it was almost impossible to hide his despair. Inside he felt cold and desolate as if nothing had any meaning – he could only hope that it wasn’t too obvious. But now there was no one to be brave for, and it left him feeling cut off from the world.
Leaning back in the chair, he closed his eyes. Emotionally he was wrung out, and just the thought of waking up each morning knowing his wife was no longer a part of this world was excruciating.
For seven years he had waited for a miracle that never came. He’d watched as others desperately prayed that God would intercede and heal Meredith – but their prayers had made no difference.
Although Joseph had spent his life trying to be tolerant of the religious beliefs of others, they were rarely inclined to return the courtesy.
At the funeral home, a grimly pious man that Joseph had never met, told him that Meredith’s dementia was God’s will. He had claimed with self-righteous authority that it was all part of the Lord’s “divine plan”, but Joseph could not bring himself to believe that an Almighty God would allow anyone to suffer in such a brutal way.
Even this morning as he stood at his wife’s grave, a sanctimonious woman he did not know had the nerve to approach him and state with arrogant assuredness that Meredith was now looking down at him from heaven and that she could recognize him again. He knew she was making the all too familiar religious attempt to be comforting, but it certainly didn’t help.
At the very least she should’ve respected the fact that he was experiencing the absolute worst pain of his life and that it was not the right moment to share her particular faith. But over the course of Meredith’s, illness he had discovered that people who were convinced of their beliefs were more than willing to proclaim them loudly and forcefully whether he wanted to hear them or not.
He wondered why people couldn’t just share genuine human compassion without feeling the need to force their personal beliefs on others. Why couldn’t they just be there for the person and support them?
Joseph sighed deeply and looked around the quiet house. They had lived there for more than forty years, but it was no longer a home without his wife. He’d had a long time to consider what it would be like without her, and he found it deeply disturbing to envision his remaining years alone. But before he spent any more time dwelling on such an unthinkable future, he decided to take a few minutes and look back at the marriage they had happily shared.
He reached over and picked up a large photo album from the table. The sheer weight of the book gave testimony to the lifetime of memories it contained. Slowly, he turned the pages as each picture tore at his heart and reminded him of everything he had lost.
Joseph met Meredith during their junior year in high school in 1952, and it didn’t take long for him to decide the young lady with the bright auburn hair was like no one else he’d ever met. She was kind, funny, and the freckles on her face seemed to dance when she laughed. He didn’t think he’d ever met anyone who was as happy as her. She was friendly and outgoing without ever needing to be the center of attention. Joseph had always loved the way she gave no indication that she was aware of how pretty she was.
He continued to work his way through the album until he came to a picture of Meredith in her wedding dress. Even after so many years, seeing her at the happiest moment of their lives took his breath away. They were married on Saturday, June 5th, 1955, and the moment the Justice of the Peace told him he could kiss his bride, Joseph knew he had become the luckiest man on earth.
Carefully, he slid the photo out of the sleeve and placed it on the table.
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. On this day, more than any other, he wished he had family members who could share his grief and feelings of loss – but he was on his own. Because Meredith had miscarried twice, they were never blessed with children, and his only sibling, a younger sister, had died several years ago. He was left with no one.
Joseph’s isolation had become complete, and he wondered what life could possibly hold for him going forward. Why should he sit alone in the home they’d shared for decades, struggling to hang on without a purpose or a reason to live? To his way of thinking, that was not living. It was nothing more than existing.
Because Meredith was the center of his world, it had always been his secret wish that he would die first. And as they grew older, that wish intensified. With advancing age, he had less and less desire to go on without her.
That was why he had been considering a different course. Why should he passively wait for death to strike, when he could face it on his own terms.
Joseph had been weighing the issue over the last two years as he contemplated what was once unthinkable. Although a person had no choice in being born, he believed they did have the right to decide when they would die. After all, it was his life. Why shouldn’t it be up to him? There were no children or grandchildren to consider, so why should he be forced to go on?
Of course, many people believed it was morally wrong to end your life – but he no longer cared about the moral implications or what others thought.
Massaging the back of his neck, Joseph felt drained. He knew it was possible for a person to lose the will to live, and after fighting so hard to remain strong during the last seven years, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d had enough. As Meredith’s health deteriorated, he had descended into hell and the experience had altered his view of life – and the end of it.
Now, with his partner gone, dying was no longer a disturbing thought. He felt calm and at peace with himself. This was something he’d been considering for a long time, and he realized he was ready. After months and months of deep reflection, Joseph had made his decision.
To understand how to make such an attempt, most people would have to perform an internet search – but his long career as a pharmacist allowed him to know precisely what he needed to do.
Gathering his strength, he stood up, grabbed their wedding photo, and walked to the kitchen where he poured a glass of water before heading to the bathroom. He went straight to the medicine cabinet and opened it.
Joseph stared intently at all of Meredith’s medications. Although he had been forced to move her to a memory care facility more than a year ago, he had never disposed of her meds. He’d saved them because he knew they might be needed, but he was never absolutely sure if he would use them until now.
Relying on his years of professional experience, he started lining up the prescriptions beside the sink. Having played this out in his mind countless times, he knew exactly what combination he needed.
Without hesitating, Joseph reached for the first bottle, and within minutes the necessary dose had been taken.
He picked up the faded photograph and carried it with him as he slowly walked into the bedroom and laid down.
It was not long before the powerful medications started to make him relax, and his mind filled with thoughts and images of Meredith. He heard her voice and the way she laughed. He could smell the perfume she liked to wear, and he recalled how she always took his hand when they walked. He thought about all of the happiness and joy they had shared as well as the small quiet moments that were so meaningful. And he remembered the most important day of his life when he and his beautiful bride had said, “till death do us part.”
Gradually his thoughts became less focused and his awareness began to fade. Overcome with grief and exhaustion, tears streamed down Joseph’s face as he clutched their wedding photo tightly to his chest. He could only hope that death would arrive quickly and lead him into eternity.
But despite all of the months of deliberate thought, extensive planning, and careful preparation, Joseph’s attempt to end his life was not successful.
The broken man who was lost in his suffering did not realize that deposits of protein fragments were slowly accumulating between the nerve cells in his brain. Tragically, one of the most destructive characteristics associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease had rendered him incapable of sound reasoning.
Not surprisingly, there were warning signs, but, as so often happens, they slipped by unnoticed. The pious individual at the funeral home that Joseph thought he’d never met, actually served as his best man when he and Meredith were married, and the religious woman at the graveside, who he believed he did not know, was, in fact, a lifelong friend since childhood. And, of course, his neurological disorder had compromised his cognitive function causing the confusion that led him to make several critical mistakes in his choice of meds.
Instead of escaping a future he wanted no part of, a grotesque twist of fate assured he was destined to travel the same desolate road as his late wife, only with one important difference; Joseph would be forced to make his long frightening journey without a loved one by his side.