A dozen years and a million dreams ago, to the week, my oldest niece celebrated her Bat Mitzvah in grand style. Three hundred guests gathered on the roof of a skyline landmark for an elegant sit-down dinner, copious libations, and dancing until the wee hours. For Sara, it became a memorable send-off to an adulthood of promise and hope. For my partner Michael, however, the evening was his last such affair, if not his last ”night out”.
Many of you now know of Michael’s illness. His disease ultimately robbed him of all cognition and ability, before he eventually succumbed. His doctors had prepared me that his condition could change dramatically one day from the next, and to always be prepared for the worst.
As he dressed for the evening that Saturday, he no longer could shave himself, chat on the phone, or remember most of his friends and family. He could neither maneuver the studs for his shirt, nor secure his cummerbund. He was, however, still able to drive. Just past seven, we were “en route” downtown with Michael at the helm … as I gazed out the passenger window.
The venue filled quickly. Two friends met us there so they could help me steer Michael away from any awkward moments, such as those when trapped in ”cocktail repartee” with a stranger. Although he could to a degree still talk, he had lost over 95% of his vocabulary; didn’t always comprehend the most basic of subject; and was given to occasional inappropriateness. We were successfully able to guide the conversations, so that Michael never got angry, frustrated, or felt unnecessarily self-conscious. He savored the two dirty Bombay martinis that night, but I’m not so certain that he still had the taste for them.
When it came time to be seated for dinner, the four of us were joined at a large round table with a half dozen people that knew us, and were well-apprised of the sensitive issue at hand. While everyone anticipated the lavish six course feast, Michael looked up at the stars. At each place, was a silk butterfly, handcrafted by an Israeli artist.
One by one, however, everyone at our table got up and leaned over to Michael at help him feel included and at ease, asking simple ”yes or no” questions, and rubbing his back. When the main course arrived, Michael beamed when he saw rare lamb chops, as that was his favorite. I nonchalantly cut the meat for him, since he wasn’t dextrous enough to manage a knife … but he was thrilled nonetheless. After dinner, as our waiter took our orders for cognacs and coffee, Michael just played with his butterfly, managing to secure it to his lapel. By the time the dancing started, everyone at our table had given him their butterfly keepsake.
Since Michael had lost any interest in dancing or music, we took turns sitting with him, while the rest of us danced and gathered for toasts. When it finally came time to head home, he had accumulated a pile of butterflies, as word had gotten out and everyone wanted to make the evening as special for him, as it was for my niece.
As we got into the car, I put a basket of at least a hundred winged, gossamer mementos in the back seat, rolling down my window to take in the brisk May night air. Michael tapped my shoulder and proudly said: ”fun!” When he could indeed articulate, he rarely spoke in full sentences anymore. But we were both happy and content, and I was relieved.
The next morning, I got up at five: my only private time was whatever time I could steal before he awakened. Michael got up after eight, having slept soundly, I’m sure from all the excitement and activity of the previous night. He stumbled into the office, leaning over to kiss me on my forehead. He didn’t say anything as I took his hand and led him into the kitchen to prepare his breakfast and give him his morning medications.
On the island was the basket of butterflies. He pointed to them and looked at me puzzled and befuddled, unaware of their meaning or origin. Moreover, my heart fell to the tile floor as I realized that he had lost whatever remaining verbal skills he had.
I wanted to sob, but couldn’t … not even allowing the swell of such a tear. I fixed Michael pancakes, smothered in butter and ginger syrup, and went back to our bedroom. I knew that he now could no longer drive, so I went to locate his car keys and secure them. After he finished eating, I sat with him on the porch and took a deep, focused breath. I then had to tell Michael about the driving, afraid of an angry outburst, one that might overpower me. But when I was finished, he patted me on the head and kissed my cheek, nodding in agreement. I don’t think he fully understood but he knew to trust me.
I put the butterflies away as I did with almost everything that created confusion or feelings of inadequacy, loss, or frustration. Another obstacle was just ahead, as I’d need to let his mother, who had yet to accept Michael’s illness, know of the latest developments.
As I had feared, the Bat Mitzvah was a turning point in his degeneration. We never again went out at night or, for that matter, much during the daytime. His health declined rapidly over the summer, with his body finally giving out in October.
Tonight, I came across one silk butterfly as I rummaged through my desk in search of an old document. I smiled as I vividly remembered Michael’s touching memorial service and how a few days later I drove Michael’s car out to the cemetery and scattered the remaining silk butterflies over his grave.
I closed my desk drawer and went outside, sat on the front stoop, and sobbed into the brisk June night air. One of the cat angels confided in me and shared a secret of the Universe. Michael’s soul is soaring and en route to some grand angelic cotillion.
(Image: ‘The Jeweled Lady” by René Magritte, 1947.)