If I Ever Get Like That by Bruce Jacobs

Old man Leonard loves his ageing and confused wife, but wonders how much longer he can look after her.

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At seventy-eight, Leonard discovers that fork split is just a marketing descriptor, not instructions. All the forks are in the dishwasher so he pries the muffin halves apart with a butter knife, and neither nook nor cranny appear worse for wear under such treatment. So he toasts and butters her muffin, peels her hardboiled egg, squeezes the juice of one lemon into her tea, and idly wonders if Xanax would dissolve in a cup of hot Lipton's - and, if so, how many.

Leonard had been a finance guy, not a chemist. Which is ironic because it has taken a spreadsheet to keep track of all the pills, even before she started losing her marbles. The periodic fine-tuning of her pharmacological regimen always requires a sit-down with Excel before printing the results, refreshing the contents of her S/M/T/W/T/F/S-type pill case, and tacking the updated spreadsheet to the refrigerator, for reference.

"Hah, listen to this one!" Emmaline cackles, without looking up from the obituaries, as Leonard sets the plate and cup before her. "Hephzibah," she says. "Went by Hepsie. What kind of name is that?"

Xanax can be found in neither the spreadsheet nor the pill case. There is, however, a surfeit of Xanax in the cabinet above the fridge, in the plastic caddy containing it and other out-of-present-rotation contenders. One milligram tablets, Leonard recalls - a big dose for such a tiny thing - as needed for anxiety. Prescribed during that narrow window of time when she'd been just lucid enough to understand, to know how this would end. She'd taken one, didn't care for it, and refused another. So, a full prescription minus one, only recently expired.

"Beverly," Em mumbles, bits of yolk jumping the crooked fence of her yellow teeth and landing on the newsprint. "Well, that's no fun."

Tea, heck. At this point he could probably give it to her straight, can envision exactly how it might play out. He'd appear at the table with her pill case and a glass of water.

"Time for your medication, M'love."

"I just took my pills."

"We missed one. Here."

Emmaline can still summon her childhood telephone number: "Evergreen six seven seven three eight." She still remembers German, though her immigrant parents are decades gone and there's no one left with whom to speak it. She'll drive herself mad trying to find her cigarettes, though she hasn't smoked in years. But for Leonard to disappear from the room, only to reappear a moment later, can present opportunities.

"Mornin', Em. I've got your medication," he'd say.

"Didn't we just do that?"

"Nope. So, down the hatch."

He could even duck into the bedroom and change his shirt each time, for effect. Rotate through his extensive collection of baseball caps.

"Here, M'love. I've got a little something for you."

"Well, alright," she'd say, beginning to slur. "Let's have it then."

All those pills. Leonard could always make the case that, in the end, he was the one who'd gotten confused. Nobody would blame a fumbly old man for screwing this up. Would they?

Meanwhile, back in reality's harsh light, Em leans over her paper. "Monique?" she says, squinting into the magnifying glass she keeps close at hand. "Oh, please. Doesn't look French to me. All I see is a black, head-shaped smudge."

Leonard clears his throat. "Don't forget, M'love," he says, confident that aside from his own newfound willingness to expand his horizons in the kitchen utensil department, nothing will change. "Bath day."

"Well, I know what Monique looks like," Em declares. "Monique looks like a -"

Cue Pete, little blue parakeet, for the save. See him alight without a sound on the windowsill over the sink.

"Hey, look!" Leonard interrupts, quite pleased with his little co-conspirator's timing. "Your buddy's back from his morning fly, M'love."

"Mornin', Em!" squawks Pete.

The first time Leonard had walked into the kitchen to find the window wide open, along with the hatch to Pete's unoccupied cage, he'd taken it as a sure sign that Em's wheels had finally come off.

"Oh, he'll be back after a spell," she'd said, dismissing her husband with the flick of a hand.

Now, Em puts down her magnifying glass and turns to look.

"Petey!" she calls, spewing an ejecta of half-chewed, fork-split muffin. "C'mere, precious. Come to Mama, you little bastard."

Pete blinks, clicks, and tilts his head sideways, mulling the options. Then he takes to the air again, swooping through the open hatch of his waiting cage. After a peck at a plastic tray of seed, he hops onto the wooden bar of his perch and settles in for his regularly-scheduled post-fly preening session.

"Why, you little -" Em growls, before losing herself once again to her morning amusements.

A hard fall is always an option.

"Bastard," she says, with a sidelong glance at Pete as she scoots through the kitchen and into the living room, thus completing a sentence one hour old. One of the rear legs of her walker, Leonard notices, is missing its associated tennis ball. He brings this to her attention.

"How the hell should I know?" she replies.

He watches her departing wake, her slippered feet dragging fresh tracks through old shag. She pulls up abeam her knockoff La-Z-Boy, comes about with the dexterity of a freighter in a narrow channel, slowly reverses until her varicosed calves kiss brain-colored faux leather, releases her grip on the padded bars, and lets gravity deliver her person into overstuffed decadence.

"Hmph," she grunts.

She has fallen before. Most recently, he'd found her during the night, lying on the floor in the bathroom with nothing but her nightie against the chill of cold tile. She was uninjured and the fall was inferred. But the gut punch of disappointment, upon finding her merely asleep, could not be denied.

Motors whir and upholstery squeaks as the recliner unfolds to its full, lie-flat glory, the stuff of ocean-spanning, widebody Arabian splendor, of hot towels and great circle routes mapped on seat-back screens. Deeply she sighs.

"Goddammit," she squawks, frowning at the popcorn ceiling. "Orange juice!"

"Of course, M'love."

"With pulp," she orders. "I need my pulp."

She has - of course - fallen into a deep slumber by the time Leonard appears before her, clutching a faceted green lowball half-filled with Tropicana. This is what Em does now during normal business hours. She sleeps. All night as well. Preferably in her bed or chair, but the kitchen table or the bathroom floor will apparently do in a pinch. Lunesta and Benadryl have joined Xanax in the caddy above the fridge.

Barring any unscheduled and especially heinous accidents in the bodily function department, baths happen on Wednesdays and Sundays. Or on any old day, truth be told, which Leonard chooses to designate. But today being, by most modern calendars, a Wednesday, the bathtub drowning scenario naturally comes to mind.

It would begin as all other scheduled events, with pushback from the Em sector.

"I already had my bath," she'd protest.

"That was Sunday," he'd remind her. "This is Wednesday."

"So what? I'm not clean enough for you all of a sudden?"

"Well, of course you are, M'love. But -"

As per usual, Leonard would choose not to dwell on the reasons why it should be far more difficult to get Em out of her clothes at seventy-seven than at seventeen, nor (more to the point) how long ago the effort-to-reward ratio, qualitatively speaking, went inverted, and continues to grow ever more divergent. For the sake of the narrative, Leonard assumes that, by hook or by crook, he'll meet with success. He usually does.

He would then ease her into her bath, which he'd have scrupulously prepared to the optimal temperature. Using the soft sponge, he'd tenderly bathe her while she'd grumble feebly about the kids who'd been running up and down the stairs all night long. Imaginary kids, imaginary stairs, but to contradict would be to confuse. So he'd continue in silence, taking his time. He'd soothe her by gently working his fingers into her thinning scalp, sweeping foam from her forehead to keep the shampoo from her eyes. He'd wash her feet, slipping his fingers between her soapy toes. And after a cursory diligence to her pits and privates, he'd run the hot and cold taps again until the temperature was just right.

"Time to rinse," he'd say.

With the handheld wand he'd run the warm water through her hair until the last of the suds were rinsed away, while she would scrunch her eyes closed like the little girl, like the toddler, like the infant she is slowly becoming. Then he'd shut the water off, hang the wand on its clip, and reach for a towel.

The second-to-last act would be a kiss to the forehead.

You could call it a mercy killing. After all, she'd asked for it.

Promise me, Leonard. If I ever get like that.

But the context was gone. Was she referring to her aunt, who'd grown vicious and given to throwing things? Was it that man in the waiting room, planted in his chair like a bloated toddler, with the dead-fish eyes and the bulky undergarments and the wife with her endless Close your mouth, Richard or Stop staring at people, Richard - was it him? Was it the president?

If I ever get like that. She'd said it more than once, this half-sentence left for him to complete. An inadvertent overdose, an unfortunate fall, an accidental drowning while his attention had strayed. What else? Leonard sips some juice from the green glass and regards his wife, little more than a snoring hole now, engulfed as she is in unalloyed opulence. It could be arranged, he supposes, sucking a fleshy bit of pulp from between his two front teeth, to have her wander off, never to be seen again. Stranger things have happened.

Promise, she'd said.

He sips. The juice makes him pucker while he compiles a mental inventory of items on hand: Toaster, fork. Step ladder. Drain opener, antifreeze, bleach. Rake, shovel, and pick. Space heater. Extension cord. Jumper cables.

Because accidents happen.

If he's honest, Leonard has no idea what color brain is. Neither does his colorblind wife. All she had specified was something comfortable, neutral in color. Cream or tan. Never one to pass up a chance to stretch his dollar when he can get away with it, he knew there were deep discounts to be found in discontinued colors. Apparently, the shade that he can't help but think of as Blanched Cerebrum had never been one of the more popular choices. Yet, there she lies without complaint, her shriveled, bird-like frame swallowed in it, and Leonard adds one more item to the list.

He hasn't seen it in years but knows it's around, somewhere. A cavernous monstrosity rendered in rugged burgundy vinyl. Four tiny casters and a matching leash, PanAm tag still affixed to the handle. It had always been a bone of contention, that suitcase. He'd known it would be, right from the start, when she'd selected it from a department store lineup all those years ago.

"Buy a suitcase like that," he'd groused, "and you'll only fill it."

Irony, fifty years in the making. Should you choose to see it.

Fate disencumbers Leonard of the decision-making process the very same morning that Pete fails to return from his morning fly.

"Shawanda," Em chortles, the runnier-than-usual yolk lending a stringy consistency to the lemon-infused Lipton's clinging to her bottom lip. "Shawanda Mattox. Jesus H. They lie around and they smoke their crack and -"

Of all things, this is the way Leonard will remember that day: He resumes (creature of habit) splitting her English muffin with a fork. And Pete is lost, never again to appear at the window just in time to brighten Leonard's aspect.

"Savages!" Em declares, gaveling her tiny fist on the table. Her pill case shakes like seven conjoined maracas and a teaspoon leaps from the edge of her saucer and cartwheels to the floor.

"Hon?" Leonard hazards, clearing his throat. "It's almost nine and Pete isn't back yet. Should we be concerned?"


"Pete. Your little blue -"

"That lazy bastard," Em grumbles into her empty teacup. "Should have left him while I had the chance."

Soon she has collapsed once again into her lounger, right on schedule. On this day her random demand is fruit cocktail from the can, topped with a generous shot of Reddi-Whip.

"And why the hell not?" she growls, displaying her bottom teeth, daring him to hesitate.

As expected, Leonard promptly delivers the request du jour to an inert divot in texturized pleather. He sighs, shrugs, and begins to shovel the syrupy mixture into his own mouth. The mantle clock ticks and his nose hairs whistle as he masticates the overpowering sludge of sugar-pickled fruit and canned foam. Subtle notes of solder and propellant arise, and he wonders how long the sugar rush will last. Once again he has risen from the bed they still share, sleepless and ashamed from having passed the small hours in homicidal ideation. Twenty minutes, he figures, give or take. She'll be down for hours. He so seldom does it, but something's got to give.

Leonard places the empty bowl on the upright Baldwin nobody plays, shuffles to the couch, kicks off his brown corduroy slippers, and sits. On the end table is a dusty glass lamp, a box of yellow Kleenex, a defective heating pad rolled up in its own cord, two cork coasters, and a dog-eared book of word-find puzzles she hasn't touched in a year. And just the other side of the end table there lies, in a dead-to-the-world slumber, his wife.

He can hear her breathe. Can smell her, Lord knows. Asks himself, what could possibly go wrong? Answers, to hell with it. Leonard pivots, lifts his legs onto the couch, scooches to the horizontal, wedges a bolster under his head, pulls a moth-eaten afghan over himself, and settles in with deep satisfaction.

Yet, ideation lingers like a bad hangover. He adds the defective heating pad to the list. The garden hose. And the pillow she'd insisted upon purchasing from that mustachioed idiot in the late-night infomercials, only shortly before she'd forgotten how to use the credit card. But as the sugar infusion is beaten back from the gates of slumber, the contenders trend from the unwieldy - carbon monoxide, lightning - towards the slapstick. Swimming pool noodle. Nerf bat.

The sugar rush lasts (for those keeping track) seventeen minutes, exactly, before Leonard, with a devilish grin, succumbs.

Promise me, Leonard. If I ever get like that.

Leonard suddenly finds himself sitting bolt upright, his seventy-eight-year-old ticker hammering double-time in his chest. A gluey paste coats the inside of his mouth and he can hear water running. The light, he notes, has shifted while he slept, and now casts an oblique slice of pale yellow across the carpet and onto the coffee table. He squints at the mantle clock and recalls that he'd been dreaming. Something to do with a glimmering, stainless steel cheese grater, ten stories tall. He pines for a glass of water. And needs to pee.

Only then does Leonard notice that Em's walker is gone, and her lounger is returned to its full upright position.

The afghan falls to the floor as he rises to follow the fresh tracks in the shag. The trail leads past the kitchen and down the hall. So, she's in the bathroom, he deduces. Had to tinkle, most likely, and upon finding her good-for-nothing husband (the thought process, as such, undoubtedly went) asleep on the couch, she'd decided she didn't need that lazy bastard's help anyhow.

Well, he thinks, good for her.

The hallway is dim and he castigates himself for not leaving a light on. The water still runs. Maybe she'd managed it after all. Made her way to the toilet, maneuvered her walker into position, unfastened the appropriate buttons and snaps, lowered herself to the padded seat, and conducted her business. Then, after a perfunctory stab at personal hygiene, she'd done it all in reverse. And now she washes her hands.

Leonard pauses to listen. "Em?"

Water, uninterrupted. The low whirring of unseen supply lines, the hissing of the aerator, the unbroken plashing against the porcelain of the basin, the unending gurgle of the tiny Coriolis circling the drain. A chorus of modern plumbing in one sustained note. On and on it runs.


A doctor who does not, in Leonard's estimation, appear old enough to handle sharp objects unsupervised slides two images into place and switches on the viewer.

"Left hip, femoral neck fracture. From here," the doctor points with a drug company pen, "to here."

Leonard refrains from asking to see, by way of comparison, an image of an unfractured femoral neck. He also fights the urge to call this acned upstart son. As in, that's my wife you're pointing at, son.

"On this side," the doctor continues, moving on to the next image, "we have the right wrist. Distal radius fracture. Classic examples both, with a hard fall like that."

What Leonard wants to say is, I'll show you classic, pipsqueak. Instead, he nods and tugs at his chin. Em has fallen. And Leonard is beginning to understand what this means. There are broken bones. Hematomas and contusions assorted. Up next: clotting, bedsores. A urinary tract infection, bound to happen. Rehab and physical therapy. Unexplained charges on indecipherable invoices. Endless phone trees. A stroke, another fall. Unreliable in-home care from a constantly rotating roster of minimum-wagers who - let's face it - have learned to settle for something less than their biggest dreams.

Leonard turns inward for a brief but clear-eyed self-inventory: Stooped, slumped, shambling. A little drifty himself, truth be told. Numbers look good, his own doc says, every damn time. Ticker like a Swiss watch. But pushing eighty, Leonard reasons, one can never know. There's an awful lot on his plate.

"It happens," shrugs boy wonder in his white jacket, "and we can fix it. But there are compounding factors -"

No one would blame him.

"- complications."

And questions, Leonard knows. Things he should ask, contingencies to consider. But by the time our young doctor wraps up his monologue, flubs the attempt to casually slip his pen into his embroidered breast pocket (Milton S. Boner, M.D., God bless him), and extends a limp hand by way of excusing himself, Leonard has already made the decision that, he finds, wasn't so hard to make after all.

He lies in the predawn darkness of his first morning alone, trying to decide what color a regulation tennis ball is. The sound of an impact had woken him, of a firm yet softly-sheathed object abruptly meeting a hard, unyielding surface. Like a tennis ball, maybe, hitting a window. While he waits for it to happen again, Leonard tries to decide: Yellow, or green?

He'd been dreaming again - this time, oddly, about an impact of a different sort: A large chunk of blue ice had fallen from the sky, crashed through the roof, and come to rest right there in the bed beside him. With the cool detachment afforded to either dreamers or users of heavy narcotics, Leonard had simply propped himself up by his elbows for a moment, in contemplation of this novel development. As broad as a coffee table and of a shape strongly suggesting the state of Texas, the ice was marbled with frozen turds and veins of toilet paper. Yet, in this dream, Leonard had somehow been able to shed all that negativity, had found himself imbued - yes, it's true - with a preternatural ability to appreciate the beauty in all things. What a wonderful shade of blue, dreaming-Leonard thought as he rolled onto his side. Would that I could hold it close. And just as Leonard scooched in a little closer, raised an arm so that he might embrace that shit-pocked, Texas-shaped ice chunk from the heavens, the sound that woke him, woke him.

Yellow, if he had to decide right then and there, the theoretical gun-to-the-head scenario. Definitely yellow.

After the deepest sleep he has enjoyed in God knows how long, Leonard's mind is restored, sharp and limber. The sound has not happened again. But by the time he pushes the covers aside, swings his legs to the floor, yawns and stretches, he knows that it never will.

On his first morning alone, Leonard stands at the kitchen window, drinking a half-pot of coffee slowly, waiting for the sun to break clear of the trees. Then he gets a shovel from the garage and buries Pete, little blue parakeet, right where he has fallen.

Leonard walks down the long hall carrying a foil-covered plate of tartlets and a fresh can of Reddi-Whip, wondering if today she'll call him Daddy.

Seasons have passed and the way is beset by ironies he no longer regards. The mocking permanence of an engraved brass nameplate affixed to every door. The faded Kinkades on the walls in between, the way time has robbed the artist of his one special trick. At first, Leonard felt duty-bound to visit every day, like the leg that keeps twitching after the head has been severed from the body. But now he's strictly a Monday/Wednesday/Friday-type loved one, between the hours of three and four - unless prior engagements and/or named weather events dictate otherwise. Emmaline doesn't seem to mind. If she had once worried that she'd become her aunt, she needn't have. Em has only grown softer with time, has mellowed with age. Like some wines. Like cheese in reverse.

She has called him Daddy before. Opa, twice. Both sympathetic players in the story of Emmaline's life, and Leonard has no qualms. But if he'd had some questions the one time she'd welcomed him - with a sly, come-hither grin - by the name of his long-dead older brother, Leonard has chosen not to dwell. Daddy he can handle.

Some of the doors along the way are open but there is nothing to be gained by a furtive glance within. Nor will the interior windows that approach midway, with a view into the common area, tempt him. Enrichment Hour will be in progress where, betimes, simple games are played. A balloon man or a magician performs. Vintage cartoons by the brothers Warner, aired on a flat screen bolted to the wall, for those who might wish to participate. On this day, a man with an acoustic guitar presents a selection of so-called oldies - presently, a reedy, off-key rendition of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". Such irony will, of course, be lost on those assembled, who are little more than absentee landlords to the husks of their former selves. And while Leonard can't help but admire such ballsy pluck, he knows that he must press on, must hold firm to the vanishing point. Thus he continues, carrying a small sampling of comforts from the home she no longer knows, and walks, resolute, into institutional fluorescence.

The engraved placard on the door at the end of the hall reads: Emmaline Fulmer. The door is open a crack and Leonard pauses to listen. On occasion, there will be company. Dora or Vanessa, most likely. Names that not long ago would have come up short, by Em's estimation, for their entertainment value. It is Leonard's hope - and there are subtle tells, if one knows where to look - that in her profound regression, she has shed some of her old ways. It would do her, Lord knows, a world of good. Yet, tucked under his arm is a folded-up newspaper. Included is the comics section, which she still seems to enjoy, in her way. Not included are the obituaries, just in case.

The muted strumming up the hall has changed key. A new song begins. Leonard nudges the door open with his foot.

On this day, as most days, Leonard will find Emmaline alone when he comes through that door. She will have been dozing in the discount recliner he'd arranged to have relocated from home. The blinds will be drawn, The Weather Channel will be on with the volume turned down, and the air in the room - if he's lucky - will bear a warm funk suggestive of athletic footwear. If she awakens, she'll call him Daddy and he'll serve the tartlets, which she will consume with a gusto that will make him yearn for something he can't quite articulate, like a dream half-remembered.

But if she's gone deep, he'll set the things he's brought aside, pull up a chair, and try to lose himself in the innocence of her sleeping form. He'll remember cotton candy and Tilt-a-Whirls, bicycle rides, cartwheels on the sandy flats down by the river. Truth or Dare - she'd pick a dare, always - and a midnight romp in a stolen rowboat. On the silent screen, an on-scene meteorologist will stand on a pier, leaning into a gale with his poncho and his mic, while Leonard will try - and fail - to pinpoint the exact moment he said goodbye, without actually saying goodbye.

He'll do this for as long as it takes. Or four o'clock happens. Traffic can be hell.


  1. A wry, dry humor pervades this tale of the inevitability of growing older than is recommended. Leonard passes the time spent fretfully caring for his elderly wife by forging plots to assassinate her. It is all, as it turns out, just dark fantasy. Ultimately Em is consigned to a nursing home and is pretty much out of Leonard’s hair, much to his relief. Great attention to spiteful detail is expended by the author and one cannot help but empathize with a beleaguered Leonard, alone but for Em’s surly attitudes. It’s interesting that Leonard would recognize the Pink Floyd tune, “Wish You were Here,” from an album that’s nearly 50 years old. On the other hand, members of that band are at least as old as Leonard himself is, so maybe not so strange. Fine story, Bruce; I enjoyed it.

  2. I recently read Jay Leno’s (American comedian) wife has dementia and sometimes does not recognize Jay. I was so sad to hear it. This story was tender devotion endured through murder fantasies (which were said with humor to my mind). The scene in the bath is tender. Even when Em goes to a home, he religiously visits her. Beautifully written! Thank you!

  3. Leonard is an admirable husband. It’s easy to stay committed to each other during the “for better” and “in health” parts of marriage, but it’s much more challenging during the “for worse” and “in sickness” stages. I find this story deeply romantic, in a somber and poignant way, as Leonard cares for Emmaline, as best he can, during her last difficult years.

  4. That was a very hard read; not for any flaws, but because it dredges up memories of my own mother and grandmother and their descent into the dark valley of dementia. And I'm old enough, and my wife is old enough, to have our own chronic complaints, and fears are all there. My father was a lot like Leonard, and visited my mom every day for 11 years until he finally succumbed to cancer; a love that survived when everything else was lost.

  5. This is, as others have said, a deftly written bitter-sweet tale of old age and the thoughts and emotions that go along with that. There is a romance here, but also a real sadness to this tale.

  6. Rozanne CharbonneauApril 9, 2024 at 4:11 PM

    This is a very poignant, timely story. We are all living longer, but often succomb to devastating illnesses. Leonard is devoted, with murderous thoughts. His inner conflicts are completely understandable. As Adam has written, this is a true romance. Well done, Bruce.

  7. I was crossing my fingers that Leonard wouldn't go through with any of his ideas, and I was very glad the story kept to my expectations. Maybe it's just personal taste, but I found the funniest of several funny lines to be, "I need my pulp" (and my tastes are: yech!). I love how this story put voice to the dark thoughts that will inevitably occur in such a situation, way back in the deep recesses of somebody's mind, or in Leonard's case, a little more towards the front! That said, you showed the true Leonard through his actions, which were often sweet. Excellent story!

  8. Love the humorous way this tragic (and all-too-realistic) story is told. Thank you!