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first person

Rachel Wada

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My husband of 47 years clutches his walker, nine-metres back from the exit doors. Any closer and his wander-alert bracelet sets off the alarm, and after many breaches, he knows this. So he waits just out of range, which is almost more than he can bear. He’s keen to get away, to be in the van with me, where he’ll be understood, and where, most importantly, he can smoke.

As I approach the glass doors from outside, he’s bouncing at the knee like a kid in a Jolly Jumper. His eyebrows fly and a huge grin lights his face. He wears well-worn jeans, a Levi shirt, his black cowboy boots and his black trucker’s cap. He’s worn versions of this all the years of our marriage, and I wouldn’t change any of it. The utter familiarity of him causes my heart to lurch and my bones to melt.

How can our lives have come to this?

There’s no question that I’ll always be there. This frail man is my manly long-haul trucker, my hero. He parlayed years of long-haul road experience into an assistant manager position and became the “go-to” guy when ships arrived in Vancouver, spending long days at Vancouver’s docks expediting freight, a task never before undertaken by trucking companies. He learned how to sweet-talk the forklift guys, with cases of beer if necessary, to get the load placed where it needed to be. After 35 years in the business, he knew just where to lay a heavy load of pipe to achieve equal balance and weight, saving his company hundreds of dollars in fines at the scales. Blessed with a good eye and quick-mental-math abilities, he could calculate weights and widths, converting from Imperial to metric in a flash.

Now his trucking days are over, but he still loves to be “on the road” with me. He has survived a brain tumour, heart disease and collorectal cancer, but these days, a slow-moving dementia has him in its grip. The inventive mind that wrote and published two books of funny trucking stories in retirement can no longer think logically or retain information. His speech is garbled as he struggles to remember words, and I must often rely on tone or inflection to catch his meaning. Our saving grace is his indomitable spirit. He is always cheerful.

Now I’m inside. The friendly receptionist smiles as I pass her desk. She’s very young, and as her face lights up, I can see that she has something to tell me, something she finds amusing and is quite certain will delight me, too.

“He told me ‘a friend’ was coming,” she chuckles, unaware of the effect this might have on me. It’s a small joke, meant well, and certainly bearable, but it's another small stab to the heart. He’s never referred to me as “a friend” before. Will we soon reach the stage where he doesn't know who I am?

“It’s all right,” I tell myself. But it hurts. After 47 years together, it’s another measure of how I’m losing him. Admirably, he himself does not fear death.

“I’m 76 years old!” he boasts. “I'm ready to go anytime.”

Yes, I know you’re frail. But I still I need you.

I hurry across the carpet, as his impatience may make him push his walker over the alarm barrier. He’s still standing on the linoleum, bobbing up and down, his arms now stretching toward me.

“Don’t fall!” I pray inwardly. Beside him now, I wrap my own arms around his thin, little frame and we hold each other tight for a long moment, whispering sweet nothings, reassuring one another and ourselves of our unbreakable bond. Only 24 hours have passed, but it seems like a week.

After signing him out and disarming the wander-guard, I wave him forward. He shuffles the walker along, trying to hurry, then frees a hand to wave at the receptionist.

“Goodbye, you!" he beams in that genial way that endears him to all, even perfect strangers, whom he greets as if he’s known them all his life. We’re now out of San Quentin, as he calls it. For the next two hours, we’ll drive around the suburbs together, laughing and talking nonsense and singing She’ll Be Comin' Round the Mountain or You Are My Sunshine. We’ll stop at the Tim Hortons' drive-through for coffee, then, with the motor turned off, we’ll sit in the vast parking lot watching huge airplanes descend toward the airport.

Best of all, for him, will be smoking in a warm car. It’s a luxury, as the “home” allows only seven per day, supervised. The van is more welcoming; it has become his last refuge, a cozy place where he can travel the city streets as he did in his trucking days. It is our gypsy caravan, a place where life can be normal once more.

“I just love driving around like this!” he says. “I could do it all afternoon.” Because he can. He counts the Skytrain cars, offers driving tips and comments on each truck we pass.

“There's a tandem Kenworth!” he exclaims, as if he's never seen one.

To extend the outing, we crawl along the side streets, passing silly judgments on houses. “There’s a 42-er!” he says, meaning “old” (built in 1942, though 1952 is more likely). We scorn the ones that still have stucco.

“Wow! Look at that newbie!” he raves, drooling over some modern mansion much larger than our own 1980s bungalow. He babbles away, and I agree to it all, even though much of it makes no sense.

Ten minutes later, he repeats. “I sure love this car! I could drive around all day.”

I note the repetition, but his trucker's heart touches me, and if it weren’t for the sore legs that come with too much sitting, I could drive with him all day too.

Margaret Nelson lives in Vancouver.

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