She was sitting beside the Christmas tree.
Her back was to him. Joe slowed his pace, so he could sneak up on her. His ornery streak never would grow up, he supposed.
She had a cute knit beanie cap on her head. From the back, she could have been a teenager. But he knew the vibrant brunette-turned-silver strands that used to billow around her shoulders were gone. Chemo had robbed her glory. And she hated it. In fact, she would rarely let him see her these days without a hat or scarf.
He walked closer and saw her arms resting on the arms of the wheelchair, her ankles crossed daintily in front of her. And he remembered how her feminine grace had always exhilarated him when he was in her presence. She had a power over him that he had never been able to explain. Like every other son of Adam, he was captivated with her womanly ways.
Joe rested his hands lightly on the handles of the wheelchair and leaned around to kiss her cheek. She jumped. He grinned and rested his face against hers for just a minute before sliding around and sitting down on the chair next to her. “Hi, beautiful.”
The glow from the Christmas tree sparkled on her face. And while it made the room cozy, it also showed reality.
She was old. There were wrinkles on her forehead and her high cheekbones sagged a little. Her chin wasn’t tight anymore. Her small hands were lumpy from arthritis and speckled with age. Her graceful figure was misshapen now, the feminine curves all out of proportion. Her feet were a little puffy today, though she had tried to disguise that with the pretty ballerina house slippers she was wearing. His Maggie was beautiful.
She dimpled at his voice. He liked that. When a man can have that effect on the woman he loves, life is good. “Hey, handsome thing. I didn’t expect you until later.”
“I know. That’s why I showed up now.” He squeezed her hand. “I want to eat my Christmas dinner with my best girl.”
“Joe, the children wanted you to spend some time with them.”
“I’m going there later. Amy and Emma have the food all planned out, and Joey is planning some kind of fun with the grandkids. We have some pretty cool kids, you know that? Like their mom.” He winked. “Afterward, we’re going to bring you some food and a bunch of presents and just trash this place! They’ll see how the Watson family has fun.”
She giggled. “You’d better not embarrass me, silly. I have a reputation to guard.”
He leaned in and brushed her lips with his. “I know. But they’d better get used to me now! I’m hanging around you for good.” He took her hand then and snuggled in as close as he could with the wheelchair arm between them. And they sat while around them the aids whisked residents in and out of the activity room and the bustle from the kitchen told them the staff was hurrying up the lunch preparations.
“I like your cap.” He tugged on it gently.
She rolled her eyes. “I’d like hair better.”
He heard the almost tears and squeezed her hand as tight as he could without hurting her. “You don’t need hair to keep me interested, baby.”
Maggie punched him playfully, but not nearly as hard as she thought it was. Her grip was weaker now. But he pretended it hurt. “You’re still a crazy old man, aren’t you? You think I believe that?”
“Yes, lady, I’m crazy. About you.” He slipped his arm around her chair then and hugged her shoulders.
Joe wasn’t blind. And he was old, but not dead. His manly sensibilities were still aware of real female beauty. The young barista at the coffee shop and the clerk at the Hallmark store yesterday when he’d bought a card for Maggie and the young woman at the front desk today were, each one, more youthful and vibrant than the woman beside him. Their fresh vitality and firm healthy appearance defined magazine-cover appeal. But he couldn’t explain with words how the wife with whom he had lived for so long was still fascinating to him. He wished he could let her see through his eyes. Sure, he saw the lines and lumps, the furrows and bulges. But they were like a veil on her, like the gossamer tulle she’d worn over her face on their wedding day. And now, fifty years later, he still had no trouble seeing her. There weren’t any ravages of age and disease that could erase the stunning girl who’d stolen his heart the first time he’d seen her. His friends had told him to stop staring at the cute girl in choir. He’d told them he was going to marry her, so he could look at her the rest of his life.
As a young man, Joe hadn’t understood Browning’s immortal words. “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” To a man in the prime of life, what could be better than new love and fresh beauty? Perfume was always sweeter than liniment, right?
But now, having lived and loved for half a century, he could finish the stanza honestly. “The last of life, for which the first was made: Our times are in His hand Who saith ‘A whole I planned, Youth shows but half, trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’”
This was the other half of life, this all-consuming desire to spend every moment you could with another person, a person in whom you had delighted, with whom you had argued, for whom you had worked, about whom you had dreamed, and to whom you had pledged forever love. This was part of the Whole the Creator planned for love – not only the intoxicating giddiness and passion of youth but the enchantment of lifelong knowing and the commitment of years liking the same face over the breakfast table.
Joe leaned closer to his Maggie so he could whisper in her ear. “Merry Christmas, Darling. . .
“Mrs. Watson? Are you ready to go to the dining hall?”
Maggie startled and blinked. The young aid standing in front of her wore antlers on her head and a bright green sweater. Her toothy smile was bright in the florescent lighting. Too bright. Maggie wanted to be left alone, wanted to finish her dream. But Jesus wanted her to be kind. Even to young adults who couldn’t understand the season she was in and the ache in her heart. The girl was trying. She always made an effort to be cheerful and gentle. Maggie disliked the trash talk she sometimes heard about the staff; she knew many of them were genuinely trying to do a good job.
“Yes, Brittany. You can push me to my table. Thank you.”
The young woman eased off the wheelchair brakes and swung the chair around. “Okay, Mrs. W. Let’s go. I’m sorry I had to wake you up.”
Maggie reached around to pat the young hand. “It’s okay, sweetie. I was just dreaming about my Joe. Maybe the Lord will let me finish it sometime.”
The aid stopped in front of Maggie’s table and positioned the wheel chair. Then she knelt down beside her and took her hand. “Mrs. W, do you know what? You’re beautiful. And I think your Joe would say that today if he were here. There’s something inside you that just radiates out. I hope I can be as pretty as you when I’m your age.”
“Thank you, dear. Let me tell you something. There are two men responsible for any beauty I have. My Lord and my Joe. Both of them loved me and pursued me and stayed by me. Jesus, of course, made all the rest possible. You know, I’m going to spend eternity with them both. And I’d sure love to introduce you to them.”
“Awww, that’s so sweet, Mrs. W. Here’s let’s get your lunch started.”
She wasn’t ready yet. Maggie could tell. But that was okay. She had time. Maybe that was part of the reason she was spending this Christmas at Brookdale Home instead of celebrating with Joe and seeing Jesus.
Maggie bowed her head for a blessing on her food, then picked up her fork and took a bit of ham.
“Merry Christmas, beautiful!”
She dimpled as Joe, Jr. leaned around her chair to kiss her cheek. Her beloved lived on in their son. And he stretched the truth just like his father.