Robert Hays/Voices | And so I'll cry myself to sleep

Robert Hays/Voices | And so I'll cry myself to sleep

By ROBERT HAYS

She spends much of her time now talking to the pretty woman staring back at her from the bathroom mirror. Usually it is a friendly conversation, laughing and joking, enjoying one another's company. But at times the face turns ugly, turns into someone menacing and threatening, someone who makes unreasonable demands and brings on great anxiety.

More than once the sinister face told her I might be evil or pledged to hurt her, or even to take her life. Then she came to me for help. I could protect her from danger if I could make the face go away.

It was not always so. This is Mary, a remarkable woman with a brilliant mind and engaging personality, a woman of warmth and character who shuns vanity and always has held to rigid standards of hard work and integrity and giving to those less fortunate.

She never held a job she didn't do well, and her volunteer efforts were coveted by those with causes to fund or elections to win. She was a dedicated campaigner for causes and candidates alike when she believed they were good.

She spent hours on the phone before elections, reminding voters of issues that mattered. And although she never would have told it publicly, she took secret pride in gaining the trust of people like John Bardeen, the University of Illinois professor with two Nobel Prizes in physics.

Bardeen told her he didn't need issues information. "Just skip all that and tell me who to vote for," he said.

She worked tirelessly in campaigns of U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, longtime personal friend from our years in Carbondale. She was devoted to helping coordinate volunteers in what was then the 15th Illinois Congressional District. Simon told his staff, "Mary knows what she's doing. Just tell her what you need done and leave her alone."

The Champaign County chapter of the National Organization for Women, a powerful force for political action in those days, honored her for her work, presenting a plaque before a moderately large banquet audience. While I knew her reaction would be modest, I hoped for at least a short acceptance speech.

She took the award, waved to those assembled and said, "Thank you — a lot." And that was it.

Her work for politicians or worthy causes was not her true measure. This was displayed, instead, by the care of the two young sons she always was there for, the countless friends who knew they could call on her in time of need, the abused women she sheltered in our home and the bewildered new students enrolling at Parkland College for the first time who found comfort in her friendly demeanor and kind manner and patient explanations as they struggled through the registration process.

And my well of memories goes much deeper. This is Mary, the pretty young University of South Carolina coed I met in church when I was a soldier at Fort Jackson, S.C. I was a backward southern Illinois farm boy who'd volunteered for the draft at age 20, and I was quickly swept off my feet.

It still amazes me that, though she didn't date soldiers — well, she did. We will have been married 61 years in December.

Life is a game that must be played to the end, though, and in the words of Kahlil Gibran, it "goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday." And life can be unfair.

The first clear warning came the day she got lost driving back from a place she visited often, a place only a few blocks from home. Now she's well into her fifth year after a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

I try not to be angry. But sometimes I am. I was angry when I read news reports detailing an American attack on Syria in which 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired into that hapless nation. According to various credible reports, those missiles came with a price tag of nearly $77 million.

What are our priorities as a nation? How much scientific research on the causes of and possible preventives or cures for Alzheimer's might that $77 million have paid for?

Anything gained from today's research will be too late for Mary and the millions of others who suffer this horrible disease, of course, but I pray that future generations may be spared the agonies of its mental turmoil and the pain endured by loved ones who must helplessly sit by and witness its demons at work.

Mary is not with me tonight. I cared for her at home as long as I could manage, but now she needs the safer environment of a memory care assisted-living unit, and we just moved her there. She is a resident of the Carriage Crossing in southwest Champaign, which is only about a 5-minute drive from our house.

I know this new environment is better for her, but the emptiness of our house is overwhelming. I sit at the computer struggling for the right words. I have music in the background, streaming from YouTube autoplay. Il Divo, 1970s Abba, classic Neil Diamond. YouTube knows my likes, what I've played before.

And then something less familiar. It's Bruce Springsteen. I vaguely remember these lyrics. They are much more poignant now, much more personal: "Darlin', hold that last dance for me."

Mary and I didn't get our last dance. There is so much we had yet to do, so much to look forward to.

And so I'll go to bed and cry myself to sleep, then when a new day comes I'll visit her and be greatly comforted by knowing she's still nearby. She may not know me, not remember me as husband and father of her sons, but she will know I am someone who was nice to her, someone good.

One day will be different. It is an insidious characteristic of Alzheimer's that specific recollections ebb and flow. On that day she will know who I am. Her room will be cheerful, with sunlight streaming through a wide window. She will smile that irresistible smile.

I will be swept off my feet one more time by this pretty coed from Carolina. We will embrace. I will feel immensely rewarded by her simple recognition.

There will be music. And maybe, just maybe, we will have that last dance.

Robert Hays is emeritus journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the author of 13 books. His newest novel is "A Shallow River of Mercy." He may be contacted at bobhays@Illinois.edu.