At first, they annoyed me. Her husband shuffled behind his walker as she led him into my section without waiting for a hostess. It was like they owned The Pie Shoppe or something. He was pallid and potbellied, and his face looked baffled. Rumpled clothes hung loosely and thinning hair stuck out confusedly. She was alert but equally disheveled in a faded, floral tent dress. Her hair looked to be tied in a bun a couple days before and hadn’t seen a comb since.
She guided him carefully into the booth, folded his walker, and neatly set it out of the way. I told them I’d be back with menus. When I heard her tell her husband with a musical voice that “her friend” was getting them menus, I became charmed. I’d never seen them before.
I brought them menus and exchanged politenesses with her as he sat silently. “We’re ready to order,” she stated with firm intent.
He started the order. “I want a French dip and fries,” he said in a loud, expressionless voice. As he spoke to me, he watched her and she nodded her approval. He went on, his words garbled as if his tongue was too thick. I had to pay close attention to understand. “What’s the soup?”
“Our soup of the day is beef barley,” I said.
“I want some soup.”
She shook her head. “You can’t have any soup. It’s too much salt.”
He repeated, “I want some soup.”
I looked to her uncertain of how to proceed. Her head did not stop shaking. “So, no soup?” I asked.
“No soup,” she confirmed. He continued to stare at her. She ordered a cheeseburger, medium-well, with fries.
They had no conversation as they waited for their food. When it came, she was in the bathroom. He didn’t acknowledge me, but gaped at his plate of food, grinning. A loud guttural noise escaped his throat. As I walked away, he sang a toneless, wordless song to himself in an outside voice while sprinkling salt on his food. This humming continued sporadically after his wife joined him to eat.
“I want a peanut butter cookie,” he said as I cleared their plates.
“You can’t have a peanut butter cookie.” She sounded like a mom admonishing her 8-year-old for the umpteenth time. “You’ve had enough sugar today.”
He stared at her.
As I ran their credit card, she sought my company at the computer. “It’s his first night out after his stroke,” she announced without provocation.
“Oh.” I was at a loss. “He seems strong.”
“His body is strong, but he’s got vascular dementia. He’s lost most of himself. It’ll progress until his mind is utterly gone. Still, the doctors know how to keep him alive. They know how to keep his body ticking.”
“Yeah. Modern technology can do a lot.”
“It’s the Tree of Knowledge. We think we’re doing good, but we don’t know what we’re doing. We keep our bodies living long after our essence has died. We keep the heart beating and the blood pumping. For what? The empty shells we become? That’s not a life. People weren’t meant to live so long. My father died at 68. His mind was still sharp and that was long enough. Now I’m 74.” Her slate eyes shined like water running over river rocks. “He’ll be 81 next month.”
“You’re very spry.”
“My mind is healthy. I’m lucky. Not everyone is like me.” Shiny eyes stared at her husband. “I already lost him.”
“Yeah, I understand.” I said. My chest knotted.
She signed her credit card receipt, then grabbed my hand and squeezed, her eyes still watery. “Thank you. Please enjoy the rest of your day.” She walked back to her table to gather her husband. They shuffled out the way they came.