What You Wish For: Clarinda Harriss

Sixty-some years ago I had to let go of my high school crush on Tom. We were both graduating, me heading up the road to Goucher and he taking off into the wild blue yonder (literally); besides, despite from his unabashed kindness to everybody (quite remarkable in a high school BMOC who was both an athlete and a schoolbook whiz), he had barely noticed me.

Clarinda Harriss
Clarinda Harriss

Actually I didn’t let my crush go altogether. I always inquired about him when our various five- and ten-year reunions rolled around. Via alumni chatter I learned he was a pilot and later that he had a glamorous, globe-encompassing career in the airline industry.   I held onto the idea of at least seeing him again someday, but I let him go again when, to my surprise, he showed up at a reunion—possibly our class’s 30th—with his second wife She was so clever and so lovely (to this day I envy her nose) that I knew Tom was lost to me forever.

Then came the months-long preparations for our class’s 55th reunion. The reunion dinner was to be held at my house, with close to 55 people in attendance. The pre-dinner months brought a frenzy of email. At one point I got utterly fed up with myriad Reply Alls about stuff that concerned only the sender and sendee. I pecked out a message: COULD WE PLEASE STOP HITTING REPLY ALL TO EVERYTHING? RE. THE CURRENT DISCUSSION, PLEASE JUST LOOK AT THE REPLY FROM TOM AND DO WHAT HE SUGGESTED.   But of course that message required me to hit Reply All.   So Tom was among the recipients.

To my huge surprise, he replied—to me only—that he was happy to re-make my acquaintance. In fact, he’d like to head up to Baltimore sometime soon. He had been holding onto the notion of revisiting the town he spent his youth in. Maybe dinner. . .?

Thus a long (time) story became short.   When the reunion dinner actually took place, I was barbecuing for the multitudes on a fancy new outdoor grill, courtesy of Tom.   Shortly thereafter he moved to Baltimore. Within the year I allowed as how it was pretty stupid of him to maintain a Baltimore apartment when he had so far spent a total of two nights there. My house had plenty of room. It was the “Old Manse” I’d lived in with my parents and grandmother when he and I met in high school: a perfect place for me to Live In Sin with someone who was quite literally the man of my dreams. He moved in.

Fast forward, but not very far.   I enjoyed being with Tom. My friends and family did too. I liked developing routines, his running, my writing, our multi-family holiday seasons, discovering our favorite places to eat raw oysters. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that something was very wrong. He was not a heavy drinker and he certainly didn’t do drugs, but he had the sense of time (or rather the absence thereof) commonly associated with potheads. Not much sense of direction, either. Strange indeed for the ex-captain of an industry where space and time were of the essence. Pressed for specifics about his last couple of decades, I discovered that he could barely remember them. Such discoveries slammed me like a runaway truck.   Especially because by this time I no longer had a crush on Tom.   I loved him. And the feeling was mutual.

The first appointment at Johns Hopkins’ memory loss clinic confirmed what had already dawned on me: Tom had Alzheimer’s. Had? Has.   Its grip on Tom was fairly light at first, but it is tightening, tightening.   The Big A is not something that lets a person go  It holds on as a cat holds onto a mouse, playing with it before killing it.

About six months ago I began keeping The Dementia Diary. I started it at the suggestion of a close friend. I’d too often emailed her screens-full of the latest losses of keys, glasses, wallet, the latest finding of the dirty laundry whirling in the dryer. Of all three pairs of lost glasses, crushed to smithereens.   Of being asked a dozen times in as many minutes what we’re doing an hour from now. Of his conflation of the TV remote with the phone. And losing them both. Of the time I freaked out and rolled myself up in the soft kitchen rug, screaming.

Luckily I had the D. Diary to turn to when I got home from an hour at a near-by restaurant lunching with some close women friends to find an ambulance and two police cars in front of the house. Tom had hit the “panic button” on our burglar alarm. Of course it was an accident—he’d been trying to make sure the alarm was off before opening the door for the UPS man—but I think he was, in fact, panicked.   Like many people with Alzheimer’s, he becomes agitated at the unusual, and the most unusual thing of all is for me to be somewhere else.   Those afternoons with “the Ladies Who Lunch” are my once-a-month two hours away. I hold onto them for dear life, as for dear life he holds onto me.

And that is exactly why, though I need to let go of the idea of Tom and me having what could be described as a normal relationship any more, I hold onto him with love, and I do mean romantic love—not just for the charming boy he was when I got that first crush, but for the remarkable man he is now. He remains one of the sweetest, best-looking, most generous-spirited, smartest humans I’ve ever known, despite how hard it has become for him to put his ideas into words. Though his children say he used to be quite impatient, he never makes a fuss when I myself do something dumb, forget something important. I believe he would lay down his life for me.

I understand now why he seems so much more fearful than I am when police helicopters shine search lights into the yards of our leafy, lovely, crime-ridden neighborhood. I used to think it was simply because I’m used to this ‘hood and he isn’t. But no, it’s because he feels he must protect me. I saw this in action last September at three AM when a cat burglar really did creep into our bedroom. Tom leapt for him, yelling threats, cussing like a sailor, and the robber ran like hell with Tom at his heels.

Tom has not let go of what makes him him. I hold him close.

Bio: Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of English at Towson University.  For more than four decades she has done several things dear to her heart, and continues to do them:  publish BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press, and worked with prison writers.   Her most recent book, THE WHITE RAIL (Halfmoon Editions, Atlanta, GA) ,  is a collection of short fiction, not her “real” genre, poetry.  She delights in her two children and five grandchildren.

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