It was a hot day in early September, a day when the air stood heavy around the wide railed porch where Oliver Birch sat in his usual spot, a white spindle backed rocking chair with Irena, his wife of 51 years, beside him. It was the same every evening for the pair.
After fixing a simple dinner of crisp potatoes fried in the cast iron skillet and brown beans cooked soft on the stovetop all day and a fresh tomato from the garden patch and serving a humble meal on chipped gray plates, they came here on the porch to spend the evening watching the sun drop down behind the trees in the field across the road.
On this day, Oliver had dressed Irena in a button-up calico print blouse especially for the nurse that came to visit that day. He always tried to make her look her best when the nurse came by as she did every few months to check on Irena who had memory lapses and even a loss of speech for the last several months.
Earlier that day the nurse pulled into the long drive in her brown state car and rapped on the wooden front door and Oliver brought Irena from the kitchen to her favorite chair in the living room after sharing a sandwich at noon. Irena sat dutifully, a porcelain doll, expressionless except for the curve of her thin lips.
“Now what do we have here today? “ the nurse asked leaning over to touch Irena on the shoulder.
She knelt beside her, removed the blood pressure cuff from the bag she carried and wrapped it around Irena’s right arm. She paused, her stethoscope pressed to the underside of Irena’s arm intently listening to her pulse. When finished, she draped the stethoscope around her neck.
“Well, her blood pressure is holding steady. 115/70. That’s pretty good. She hasn’t been stumbling when she stands up has she?”
She stood and turned to Oliver taking in his brown worn pants and plaid shirt that looked a size too big on his stooped frame.
“No, she hasn’t fallen or anything like that. She’s just the same as she has always been except she’s quieter now,” said Oliver.
Irena said nothing, but looked at Oliver with eyes that still held a glint of understanding.
“How long has it been since she stopped talking?” the nurse asked.
She looked across the room at Oliver sitting on the edge of a brown leather chair.
“I guess it’s been about two months now,” he choked back the words. “She doesn’t seem to be any worse for the wear though. She’s cooperative, still eating, and walks just fine. I just miss her voice, but that’s to be expected when you’ve been together as long as we have.”
“Of course it is. I do think though,” the nurse insisted, “that she’s ready to head to a nursing home now. There’s no sense in her keeping you tied down here in this house all alone without anyone to talk to. All it takes is a phone call, I can arrange it today.” She stared down her slim nose where the edge of her glasses had fallen on the tip.
“Naw, I don’t want to do that. I don’t mind taking care of her. She’s no problem. Of course, I’d be lonelier without her too. We have an understanding after all these years. We don’t need no words to talk,” he said looking down at the floor the toe of his worn shoes tracing the edge of the rag rug.
The nurse spoke more abruptly, “Sometimes it’s not about how we feel Mr. Birch. It’s about what’s best for her and you.” She walked to the door. “I’ll let myself out. You have a good day now.” The door resounded behind her.
Oliver got up from his chair and sat in the old green recliner beside Irena taking her hand in his.
“I reckon they are going to try and take you away from me, Irena. I can’t allow that you know. I promised you that we’d never be apart and I’m intent on keeping that promise.”
He leaned over and gently kissed her on the forehead. She rested her head against his face and they spoke in their secret language of the years.
The remainder of the afternoon Irena rested in her chair while Oliver piddled around the house. He checked on her between the tasks of the day just trying to keep himself busy. There were dishes to wash, floors to sweep, and laundry to fold and put away. At times, he sat by Irena stroking her hand and softly humming old tunes which he hoped would bring comfort to her.
Midday he guided her up the oak staircase to the bedroom where she would nap while he sat beside her reading the almanac or newspaper. When she woke, he wiped her face with a cool damp cloth and helped her back down the stairs where they would spend the rest of the afternoon.
After dinner, while rocking on the porch, Oliver would talk to his silent partner about all the late summers they had shared. He talked to her of his memories about the kids under the trees at sunset following lightning bugs as they pulsed with light in the warm veins of summer air and how they would push them into cobalt jars and sneak them into the house at night. He spoke of the neighbors long since gone who would stop by at dusk carrying tomatoes that were plentiful that year sharing them with those who needed them. His mind wandered to their children now grown with children of their own. A wistful smile passed between them.
As the shadows lengthened on the ground, a white car pulled into the driveway. It was the local police. Oliver stood and walked to the edge of the porch to greet the officer who emerged from the driver’s side.
“Good evening, Mr. Birch,” said the officer as he left his car and started to the porch.
“Good evening, officer. What can we do for you?” said Oliver with a sinking feeling in his gut.
Then from the corner of his eye, Oliver saw the nurse from earlier in the day step from the passenger side of the car. Then he knew. They were here to take Irena from him.
The officer reached the porch and began to climb the stairs.
“Now Mr. Birch, we don’t want any problems. Let’s just get this over with and we can all go on. I’m just here to follow orders.”
“There’s no such thing as orders to take my wife. She’s been mine to love for half a century and it’s going to stay that way,” he said stiffly. He went down the stairs to meet the officer blocking him from his task. “Now you just go on there and we can forget this happened.”
“Now Mr. Birch, you know I can’t just walk away from here and not follow my orders. Now you’re going to have to move. I have to take Mrs. Birch to this nice home in in town. You can visit her whenever you want.” He turned to look at the nurse who was standing beside the car. “Isn’t that right?” he called down to her.
“Yes, that’s right. Now Mr. Birch, we talked about this earlier today. We have to do what is best for her and sometimes that’s not what we want.”
“What do you know about what’s best for her? I’ve been caring for her all these years and we are doing just fine and you know it. Your intentions are bad. We still talk, you just can’t hear it. We hear each other,” he said then turned again to the officer who was trying to shove his way past.
“You can’t stop this now,” the officer said as he pushed Oliver out of the way and reached Irena at her chair now with frightened look in her eye. The officer took her hand and guided her from the chair as the nurse rushed past Oliver to meet him beside Irena.
“You get your hands off of her!”
Oliver regained his balance and began to ascend the stairs. But it was too late. They were guiding Irena off the side stairs from the porch into the yard away from him. As his body turned toward them, his back suddenly gave way and he fell to the hard surface of the porch. They didn’t stop to help.
Oliver called from the floor, “I’ll come get you Irena. Now don’t you worry. I’ll be there soon.”
Oliver heard the car door shut and the engine put into gear as the car eased out of the driveway into the road and drove away. His cheek felt the warm surface that he helped build thirty years ago and tears fell.