Gertrude and Henry
A Short Story by
Whippoorwills and Lightning Bugs:
Gertrude clutches the cell phone in her fist. Her curly white locks drench with sweat, along with her glasses fogging up in the steamy heat. Her T-shirt and shorts cling to her, as she stumbles down a wooded path. Gertrude keeps calling Henry, but he doesn’t either hear his phone as usual, or can’t. She hopes it’s the former.
“Your husband has dementia Mrs. Olson.”
“How long will he live?” Gertrude wavered.
“Patients with dementia can live many more years after diagnosis. It’s a crapshoot.”
Gertrude smirked with the doctor’s choice of words. She didn’t want many more years of this. She wanted her Henry back. His crooked smile, pale blue eyes that revealed his Norwegian heritage, his wry sense of humor. Now he growled anger in his eyes, anger in his words.
Gertrude continues to stagger along the path, hoping to catch any sign of her wandering companion. They used to follow these trails together on long summer nights, listening to the whippoorwills, watching the lightning bugs along the way. They held hands as lovers did, fingers entwined. Now there was no trail to follow and no hand to hold. All that was remembered was lost.
“I can’t take care of him anymore,” Gertrude sighed.
“I understand,” the nursing home administrator crooned.
Gertrude wondered what the woman could possibly understand. Did she commit her husband of fifty years to this loony bin? Did she have to share a bed with a stranger? Did she search the starless country roads at night, frantic with worry over her partner in life? No! Gertrude wanted to shout. No! I don’t want any of this. I want my Henry back.
On the trail, Gertrude stops as she sees a shadow in the path ahead of her. She runs to the crumpled form of Henry and collapses on the ground beside him. No sound of whippoorwills tonight. No sight of lightning bugs. As she cradles Henry’s head in her lap, he opens his eyes, a glimpse of recollection in them.
“Oh there you are, give me your hand.” Henry clasps his wife’s hand in his, the crooked smile on his face. They entwine their fingers, listening to the whippoorwills, watching for the lightning bugs.
“Made to be broken, baby.”
Gertrude stands in front of the marker to Henry’s grave. She is prepared for this, this eventuality. Yet, her body is stiff, mind frozen in time. She clutches the flag in her arms, not wanting to let go of this last gift from her husband, her companion, her partner in life.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.” Gertrude beamed as Henry cocked his fedora, trying to imitate Humphrey Bogart. They finished watching “Casablanca,” of which they enjoyed every Valentine’s Day since the advent of the VCR. They saw this movie on their first date all those years ago. Gertrude could still smell the salty, buttery popcorn, hear the crackling of the film, and feel the warmth of his hand grasping hers. This was a world previously unexplored, that feeling of love at first sight.
Gertrude and Henry’s lockers were across the hall from each other at Moorhead High. As they caught sight of each other numerous times, Gertrude longed for Henry, dapper in his suit and tie complete with fedora, to come over and talk to her. She was too shy to attempt such a feat. So she craved him in her dreams, day and night. Finally one day Henry ambled over to her and said, “Gertrude, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” She trembled all over in excitement.
“We’ve got to go, Mom.”
“Give me a few more minutes, I’m not ready.” Gertrude mumbles in her stupor.
Gertrude notices the turned over dirt above Henry’s grave. She glances around at the other graves, wondering how long they had been there, how long since they had visitors. She vows to visit Henry’s grave every day. Gertrude could not bear to leave him here alone, with strangers. Now that Henry has his mind back, she wonders what he thinks of his new neighbors. Silly thinking, she thinks to herself. Gertrude just wants to pass the time, to prolong the inevitable.
Gertrude and Henry loved all the classics and their stars. At office parties and backyard barbeques, Henry entertained others with his impressions of famous actors, gone but not forgotten. In a popular skit with Gertrude, Henry introduced his co-star with a flourish.
“You promised,” Gertrude whined.
“Made to be broken, baby,” Henry mocked.
The party chuckled, easily entertained by cocktails. The script heard from a cheesy love story seen years ago, a B-rated movie whose title they long ceased to remember. Yet they recalled this hokey line at the end of the movie, with the heroine’s plaintive plea and the cruel villain’s sneer.
“Mom, we should go, you’re getting cold.” Her daughter tries to wrap her arm around her, but Gertrude won’t leave, can’t leave.
“You promised,” Gertrude whispers, swallowing her tears.
“Made to be broken.” She replays the script in her mind, and breathes.
Amy Hetland is a freelance writer who hails from the land of sky-blue waters: Minnesota. She loves to read, travel, and advocate for animals. Amy also teaches English as a Second Language.