The congealed pork sat on the plate adorned with blue forget-me-nots. The irony of the little blue flowers on Lauretta’s plates wasn’t lost on her husband. Howard picked up the dishes to scrape the day’s old pork into the garbage can. Who could have known Lauretta would have choked like that during dinner? She lost consciousness while he tried the Heimlich maneuver several times until the ambulance got there, then the paramedics took over. They wouldn’t let Howard ride in the ambulance. There was not enough room in the vehicle and it was against their policy. He called his neighbor Velma and she took him to the hospital.

Lauretta was brain dead. Lack of oxygen. The pork was lodged down deep in her throat. Even though the paramedics tried to do a tracheotomy in the back of the ambulance, they still didn’t get below that piece of meat lodged in her throat. They told him after five minutes of being oxygen-deprived, the brain forgets how to breathe. By the time they were able to remove the obstruction, Lauretta had been dead over ten minutes and there was no bringing her back.

He remembered their wedding day. Lauretta made such a beautiful bride, dressed in the whitest of gowns, the sun catching the beads on the dress; she wore a small crown of flowers in her hair, forget-me-nots, her favorite flower. God, how he loved her. The future was before them. Nothing was insurmountable with Lauretta by his side. Together, they had survived marriage, children, debt, prostate cancer, and a heart attack. He always thought he’d go first. Why the Good Lord figured he should still be here on this Earth puzzled him. As Lauretta’s life shrunk, so did Howard’s. They had dealings with doctors and the neighbors, and that was their small, contained life.

At first, Howard didn’t notice things until after looking back on the last year or so. Lauretta was always losing something. One day, searching the house for her car keys, the problem came to a head, revealing itself. They couldn’t ignore it any longer. Lauretta was so upset, and then Howard found the keys in the refrigerator. Lauretta remembered then she’d brought in the groceries. She probably just dropped them on the shelf when she was putting them away.

The garage door closed down on the car before she parked, losing her glasses, leaving the gas stove on unattended. Little things started to pile up into small mountains. They sought help from a neurologist. Dr. Bennett gave them the devastating news: Alzheimer’s.

“How long?”

“Well, you can have it for years. We have medications to slow it down.”

Howard and Lauretta left the doctor’s office. He held her arm as they walked to their vehicle. She handed him the keys because she couldn’t drive anymore; the doctor made her surrender her license. It was so emotional for his wife and was the beginning of her dependency on Howard for everything.

At first, their life didn’t change much. Howard drove her to the store where she shopped for what she had on a list. He’d help her go over everything she purchased. When she got home, she’d forgotten where she put things. They figured out that part. The medication seemed to make things a little less confusing for her.

“Come on, honey,” Howard soothed as she walked down the sidewalk to the hairdressers. She had been going to Kate for years. She suddenly froze in her tracks.

“No, I want to go home.”

“Honey, you’ve been looking forward to seeing Kate and having your hair done for a week.”

“No,” she shouted and pulled her arm out of Howard’s. She ran for the parking lot forgetting which car was theirs. Howard was so close to losing it. He called the salon as he buckled his wife in the car.

“Kate, she can’t do it, I’m sorry.” Lauretta gave up things, hair appointments, brushing her hair, or teeth, bathing. Howard assumed all those duties. He swore an oath to Lauretta many years ago: to death us do part. He had no idea the toll Alzheimer’s would take on their lives. Everything was up to him. She stopped sleeping nights and slept during the day. He couldn’t do this anymore. He asked the neighbor, Velma, for help.

“I’ll take the day shift and you take the night,” she told Howard, but that came at the cost of Lauretta’s Social Security check. Howard agreed. While Velma watched soap operas and let Lauretta sleep in a chair in front of the television, Howard slept upstairs. His days and nights were reversed. When he woke and took a shower, Velma left the house, bidding him good night. He couldn’t complain; at least Velma was doing housework for him while she watched Lauretta. She’d vacuum and do the dishes, made a meal or two in the crockpot. Soon she was staying for the meals she had cooked. They ate with Lauretta at the table in the kitchen. Lauretta didn’t like the dining room any longer. She called Velma “mother” and Lauretta called him Clifford, the name of her dead brother. It was a sad day when she didn’t remember her husband’s name any longer.

Velma felt bad for Howard; she hinted he should look at a nursing home for Lauretta, and he shut her down fast.

“I promised her; she promised me.”

“I don’t think Lauretta ever thought it would get this bad.” Howard didn’t want to listen. Months rolled along, and Howard no longer had a social life with anyone but the doctors and Velma Ritter. She was widowed three times. He laughed at her stories about her three deceased husbands.

“Charles was t20 years older than me,” she told Howard. “I wanted to live like a queen. But he got dementia, and the nursing home took all his money. I married Andrew. He was younger than me. Exciting. We traveled all over until my life insurance money was exhausted, and I found out that was all he wanted from me was my money. Then there was Brett. He was a fine man; a bad ticker. We were in the throes when he had the big one. I haven’t had sex since I killed a man.” Velma laughed at her joke. Howard blushed. But they opened a bottle of wine and had a drink out on the porch.

Smoke alarm.

Howard rushed in. Lauretta, forgetting she had already eaten supper, decided she should make some soup. The dishtowel she laid on the burner was on fire. He turned off the burners and grabbed the dishtowel, running it underwater in the sink. The smoke alarm screamed and so did Lauretta. Velma tried to calm her down and took a fist to the face. She went home to put ice on it while Howard pulled the battery out of the smoke alarm and opened the windows on a chilly night. The smoke cleared and Lauretta walked into the living room to sit in her favorite recliner. Howard cleaned up the mess. He didn’t know how much longer he could live like this. Lauretta was sapping every ounce of happiness out of him. His only relief was laughing with Velma, who had become his right hand.

Howard stayed awake the whole night. He took the knobs off the stove burners, locking them in a drawer that he put a baby lock on. There was no way Lauretta would figure that out. He also packed away all the appliances she could hurt herself with, like the toaster or the blender. Everything in his house became a menace to his wife’s health and welfare. When he looked at something, it wasn’t just a socket anymore, it was a hole that Lauretta could stick a fork into when he wasn’t watching.

Each morning when Velma got there, Howard trudged off to bed exhausted. Lauretta would sleep all day, having been wandering around at night. He’d taken to walking her around the block until the darkness started to scare her. Howard woke early to get some groceries. Velma remarked how early he was up when he explained he needed to get supplies.

When he got back with the groceries, Velma left him with Lauretta and went home. Howard put everything away. He sat in the recliner and fell asleep with Lauretta sitting next to him in hers. When he woke, his wife was gone. Howard ran through the house in a panic.

“Lauretta,” he called out to her, still disoriented. Where could she have gone? He heard the garage door opening and his car coming back into the garage, parking in its usual spot. Lauretta pushed the button watching the door close, walked into the house, put the keys on the hook where they always hung. Howard couldn’t believe it.

“Lauretta, where did you go?”

“I drove around the lake; it’s so lovely with the full moon,” she said. Howard grabbed the keys off the hook and slid them into the drawer with the baby lock on it. He walked around the car; not a scratch. How had she driven the vehicle and found her way home? There must be some part of her brain that remembered. Howard pulled the emergency release on the garage door; he took a pair of vise grips and locked the door to the track. When he walked into the house, she sat in her chair watching the television, oblivious to what had just happened.

Since there were no scratches on the car, Howard had to believe she didn’t hit anyone. That didn’t stop him from watching the news a little bit closer for the next couple of days for any story about a hit and run.

Howard was exhausted. The clothes hung on his body from the worry. He told Velma he was going to see his doctor, renew his prescriptions.

“The cancer is back.” Four words that couldn’t have scared him more. He didn’t give a whit about himself. He was so tired. Death would be a relief. But Lauretta; what would happen to her? The doctor said as long as she could swallow and eat, she could live years yet. Howard didn’t listen when he heard the options. So many rounds of chemo, so many rounds of radiation. He had been there and done that. It was horrible. The so-called “cure” was worse than cancer. He just didn’t have it in him to go through all of that again.

“I’ll think about it. I have to go home and make arrangements for Lauretta; you know she’s got Alzheimer’s, and she can’t be left alone.” The doctor was sympathetic to Howard’s plight but insisted he schedule himself soon.

Damn cancer; he trudged through the snow to his car. “Take me now, God!” he shouted. What was he going to do? Didn’t he have enough on his plate? Now this? His mother used to tell him that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Well, he was crying “uncle” now. Howard got out of the car, walked into the garage, pulled the vise grips off the track, opened the door, drove the car, and reapplied the temporary lock. It was all so exhausting. Velma smiled when he came into the living room; Lauretta stirred.

“Clifford, close the door.” Lauretta smiled. Why couldn’t’ she remember his name? Was it asking so much? Her brother had been dead for ten years. He didn’t even have the energy to correct her.

“Velma, I am going back to bed. I am tired.”

“I’ll make supper for you. Pork chops, your favorite, with apple stuffing.” Howard managed a wry smile and thanked her as he climbed the stairs.

Howard felt better, having slept. Velma left, telling him everything was in the oven. Howard opened the oven door; nicely browned pork chops with his favorite apple stuffing. Howard put Lauretta’s favorite plates on the kitchen table. He cut her pork chop into small bites. She was having trouble swallowing, so she needed plenty of water and small pieces. He put a small amount of stuffing on her plate and called her in for dinner.

Lauretta sat at the table. She saw her plates.

“I used to have a set just like these. Forget-me-nots.” Howard was surprised she even spoke.

“They are lovely dishes. I am glad you like them.”

“Clifford, when is Mother coming home?” Howard breathed in and out before answering her.

“It shouldn’t be too long. Mother is stopping for groceries after work. She told us to eat now and save her some of this delicious dinner.” Lauretta allowed herself to be seated; Howard pushed in her chair under the table. He put the plate in front of her and sat down. The chops smelled delicious and the apple stuffing even better.

He took a forkful, sighing as he chewed. Velma had outdone herself. The woman seemed to know when he needed to be babied, maybe from all the different kinds of men she had married.

Lauretta choked. “Slow down, honey.” He handed the glass of water to her. Lauretta tried to take a drink. The water dribbled out of her mouth onto the table. Howard couldn’t look. Was it asking so much to have a quiet dinner with his favorite meal? He cut another chunk of the pork chop and started chewing. He watched as Lauretta picked at her plate. She grabbed one large piece and stuffed the whole thing in her mouth. Howard’s first instinct was to jump up and take the food away from her. Instead, he watched to see what she would do. He took another delicious bite of the apple stuffing.

Lauretta started to choke. Howard went to her and put his hand over her mouth, pushing the pork chop in deeper. He suddenly knew the answer to his dilemma; if Lauretta were dead, he wouldn’t have to go through chemo or radiation. His pecker could fall off this time and he wouldn’t care. Lauretta would be safe and he could finally find peace.

Lauretta bucked a few times and then passed out. He sat back down, finishing up his meal. Five minutes went by; then he called the ambulance. He grabbed Lauretta and tried to do the Heimlich maneuver. The paramedics came through the front door seeing him try to revive her. Howard was exhausted. He plopped back into the chair while they attempted to remove the chop from her gullet.

“She has a swallowing problem.” Howard said breathlessly. While one person took him out of the room, the other took Lauretta out to the ambulance. Howard handed a bag to the medic.

“These are all of her medications. Why can’t I ride with you?” When the ambulance left, he called Velma to drive him to the hospital.

“I feel so bad. I should have made Lauretta oatmeal or something.” Velma clutched the wheel.

“We couldn’t have known. The doctor said she would forget how to swallow. I cut so many tiny pieces for her, but she grabbed the big chunk and tried to swallow it.” Howard looked out the window watching the streetlights hit the snowbanks.

They sat in the waiting room. Howard produced Lauretta’s Medicare and supplemental insurance card. It was a while before a nurse asked him to come back to a private room. Howard knew this wasn’t good.

“I’m sorry; your wife didn’t make it.” Howard wept inconsolably. He hadn’t meant for this to happen.

“I am also going to tell you that there is no way your wife could have gotten a pork chop that far down her throat without help.” Howard started the waterworks again.

“I have cancer, and it’s come back. There is no one to take care of my wife. She started choking, and I let her die.”

“I tell you what I’m going to do. See this big stack of files on my desk? I am putting your wife’s at the bottom of this stack. It’s going to take me several days to get through it. You go home and put your affairs in order before I report my suspicions to the police.” Howard stood, thanking the doctor as he twisted his hat in his hands.

“How is she?” Velma was all over Howard.


“Oh Lord, I’m so sorry, Howard.” Velma drove him home and dropped him off.

“Do you want me to come in?”

“No, I just need to be alone right now.”

“I understand, sweetie. Call me if you need me,” Velma drove off.

Howard went to bed and slept for two days. Then he got up and started to clear the table of the dirty dishes. Howard had further clarity of what he’d done. He took an oath, in sickness and in health, to death us do part. He cleaned the house and set out his will and Lauretta’s on the study desk. He then went to the bathroom and rummaged around.

Pain pills. Just what the doctor ordered three years ago when he had cancer, the one that came back after they assured him it wouldn’t. One little cell they missed left unchecked for three years put him right back here. Howard took the whole bottle.

He climbed in bed, taking Lauretta’s pillow and putting it to his nose. He could smell her scent. He said the Lord’s Prayer as he grew tired. “Now and forever.” He thought how odd the Lord’s Prayer said forever, just like his wedding vows. He’d never noticed that before. Howard closed his eyes and looked forward to eternal slumber.