Sam Burnside stared with disdain at the ten-year-old Hewlett Packard desktop. Although he used a computer every day for his construction consulting business, he’d never really embraced the technology. The fact was, he missed his stationary: From The Desk Of Samuel A. Burnside. Even more so since he could no longer write.
His wife, Sharon, had called him one afternoon and asked him to pick up a couple of steaks on his way home from the office. He’d done as she asked, stopping at the neighborhood market where they’d done most of their shopping over the last twenty years. When he arrived at the check-stand, he laid the steaks on the conveyor belt, then set his checkbook on the little pull-out table at the counter as he normally did. He removed his pen from the sleeve inside the checkbook and…nothing.
He couldn’t fill it out.
He just stood there with his Mark Cross pen hovering over the check. He knew he should be writing the words Tenth Street Market and Deli on the Pay to the Order of line, but when he touched the pen to the check, the words simply weren’t there.
“Twenty-five fifty-two, Mister Burnside.”
He looked up. Tony, one of the market’s clerks, was gazing at him expectantly.
Sam looked back down at the open checkbook. After a moment he snapped it closed and shoved it back in his shirt pocket. “I’m sorry, Tony, I just noticed I’m almost out of checks. I’ll pay with my debit card today.”
“Sure thing, Mister Burnside.”
Sam removed his wallet and held out the debit card.
“Oh, you have to slide it,” Tony said, smiling reassuringly and pointing to the card reader attached to the counter.
“Of course,” Sam said, sliding the card. “Long day.”
“Don’t I know it. You need help out today?”
“You have a good evening, then. Enjoy those steaks.”
Sam picked up his bag. “We will.”
He was halfway to the door when he heard Tony call from behind him: “Mister Burnside?”
When Sam arrived home he set the steaks on the kitchen counter. Sharon, who was busy chopping lettuce for a salad, thanked him for remembering. He kissed her on the cheek and went straight to his study. Once inside he shut the door and walked over to his desk. He sat down, opened the top drawer, and removed a yellow notepad. He set the pad on the desk-blotter, then took a pencil from the painted tin can his granddaughter Lisa had given him for Christmas several years before.
He stared at the paper.
He thought, I’m just going to write my name.
The words were there; he could say them aloud: “Samuel Burnside; Samuel Alton Burnside.” But just like at the market, when the pencil touched the paper, they simply vanished.
Built up anger suddenly exploded. He took the pencil in his fist and repeatedly stabbed it into the notepad, breaking the graphite and tearing ragged holes in the first few sheets of paper. He snapped the pencil in two and threw the pieces across the room. It wasn’t enough; he picked up the tin-can pencil holder and chucked it at the wall where it struck an Andrew Wyeth print before clattering to the floor and scattering pencils everywhere.
There was a tentative knock on the study door. “Sam?”
“Just dropped Lisa’s pencil holder, hon,” he said, standing up and moving to pick up the pencils. “C’mon in if you want.”
Sam’s wife of thirty-five years opened the door and looked in. “I just wanted to know if you’re going to want to eat soon?”
“Whenever it’s ready.” He was on his hands and knees, shoving pencils back into the can.
She looked dubiously from him to the crooked Andrew Wyeth. “Okay, well, I’ll put the steaks on, then.”
He caught the look. He’d seen it often over the last year or so. He smiled. “I’ll be right out if you need help.”
“I’ve got it,” she said. “Maybe you can catch the end of the ball game.”
“Good idea. A cold beer and watching the Giants lose is always a good closer to a busy day.”
She nodded obediently and closed the door. He picked up the last of the pencils, straightened up the Wyeth, and walked back to his desk. He set the pencil can on the blotter and sat down heavily. Things had been strained between him and Sharon for some time. Ever since she’d suggested he see a doctor.
His memory loss crept up slowly, over about two years. He’d find himself grasping for names; familiar names, like a client’s, or a neighbor’s. He’d forget what day of the week it was, and he, along with whoever he was with, would laugh and shrug it off. He’d say things like, “Must not have been important,” or “Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart,” and people would chuckle and say things like “Tell me about it,” or “I know how you feel.” No one, including himself, thought anything of it.
Things got worse. He began forgetting important things, like appointments, paying bills, and feeding Nathan, their Yorkshire terrier.
Sharon had noticed the latter and began double-checking with him when he got home from the office. “Did you feed Nathan this morning?” she’d ask.
“Yes,” he’d say, not certain at all whether he had or not.
“Are you sure? He’s been following me around a lot today, mostly when I have food.”
“He’s a dog.”
“He’s never begged before.”
“Maybe I forgot this morning. I’ll feed him now.”
Finally she had started feeding Nathan herself. They didn’t talk about it.
One day she called him at the office. He’d been sitting at his desk, napping, when the phone rang.
Sam, there is a man here from the electric company. He says he’s going to shut off our electricity if I don’t write him a check for two hundred and ten dollars. Didn’t you pay the bill?”
“Of course I paid the bill. It must be some mistake. Put him on the phone.”
There was a brief, muffled conversation. Then: “Hello, sir?”
“This is Sam Burnside, who am I speaking with?”
“My name’s Joe Rosowski. I’m with Western Gas and Electric.”
“There must be a mix-up on your end, Mister Rosowski. I always pay my bill on time.”
“That may be the case, uhh…Mister Burnside, but our records show you haven’t made a payment since April. That’s nearly two months—”
“I know how long it is,” Sam said angrily. I’m telling you I paid my bill. I always pay my bill.”
“Sir, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you. If your wife can’t make a payment for two hundred and ten dollars. I’m going to have to shut off your gas and electric.”
“This is how you treat good customers? Put my wife back on the phone, then I’m calling your supervisor.”
More muffled conversation.
“Just write him the check, hon. They probably had a computer glitch or something. I’ll call them.”
“Okay. What time will you be home today? Are you busy?”
“Swamped. I’ll try to make it by five. I love you, sweetie.”
“I love you too.”
Only he wasn’t swamped. One by one, in less than a year, he’d lost nearly all of his clients. The fact that he handled all of his and Sharon’s finances was the only reason he’d been able to hide the business failure from her. He’d been using their retirement money to keep them afloat for months. Most days he just sat at his desk, staring at a blank computer monitor. Some days he just sort of blacked out, and he’d come to himself at a park, or at the bar. Or he napped. He napped a lot.
Sharon finally confronted him.
She was on the phone, he was eating an English muffin at their little breakfast bar. He used to read the paper with his breakfast but he’d stopped. It had started giving him a headache and it made him feel irritable. She’d turned to him, holding out the phone. “Lisa wants to talk with you.”
He stared at her blankly. “My granddaughter?”
She put the phone back to her ear. “Honey, let us call you back in a little while…yes, okay. Love you.” She hung up.
“Who was that?”
“It was your granddaughter, Sam.”
“You should have let me talk to her.”
She kneeled in front of him and took his hand. “Sam, we need to get you in to see the doctor. Something is wrong.”
“What do you mean, something is wrong?” he asked waspishly, pulling his hand away.
“You’re forgetting things, Sam. You can’t remember to feed the dog, you forget names, dates—you missed your dental appointment last week. I know how you are about your teeth. You haven’t missed a checkup since we’ve been married. You never set your alarm clock anymore. You wake up at five, or five-forty-five, or six-thirty. You eat breakfast twice on some days and not at all on others. I call you and ask you to stop at the store on your way home from work and when you finally come home, you’re empty handed, then you insist I never called. You’re angry most of the time. You started calling our next-door-neighbor of twenty years ‘What’s-his-face’ because you can’t remember his name is Mike. You can’t even remember your own granddaughter’s name—”
“YOU SHOULD TRY DEALING WITH THE SHIT I HAVE TO DEAL WITH EVERY DAY AND MAYBE YOU’D FORGET A FEW THINGS TOO!” he suddenly shouted in her face.
He shoved the barstool back and stood. “It must be great to be you,” he said venomously. “Having the luxury of staying home and watching Regis and what’s-her-face, then maybe tooling around in the garden for an hour or two before attending your book club meeting. For years I’ve carried all of the weight, building a business from the ground up, dealing with the pressure of deadlines, putting up with asshole after asshole, catering to their unrealistic demands, and…and…shit. Wait, Sharon. Hon, I’m sorry—”
She stopped, already most of the way to the back door, and wheeled around. “What’s your granddaughter’s name?”
“It’s Lisa. There. Satisfied? Look, I’ve just been a little stressed-out lately.”
“What’s your son’s name?”
“Yes, your son—our son. Do you know his name?”
“Well, yeah. Of course I do.”
Seconds ticked by. At last she turned, opened the back door, and walked out.
He made an appointment with the doctor the following day—not their doctor, who Sam hadn’t seen in almost three years, but a doctor nonetheless. The man was a GP with a medical group across town that accepted new patients and their insurance.
The wait was long, the visit was short. The doctor, who looked to Sam to be old enough to have graduated medical school around the time Franklin Roosevelt was president, had some blood-work ordered and referred Sam to the University of San Francisco’s memory clinic.
Two weeks later—he made sure he wouldn’t miss the appointment by taping notes he’d printed at his office to the inside of the office door and over the speedometer of his BMW—he drove the hour to San Francisco for the afternoon-long appointment. They performed an MRI of his brain in one building, then he was escorted to another building where he was evaluated by a team of doctors who asked him countless questions before subjecting him to a slew of cognitive tests.
The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s. Early onset, they called it, because he was only fifty-four.
He walked out of the UCSF clinic with a splitting headache, an armload of papers, and an admonishment to make a follow-up appointment on a day he could have a loved one accompany him. After dumping all of the paperwork in a garbage can and searching nearly an hour for his car, he drove home.
Sam suddenly realized he’d been off somewhere again (that’s what he’d come to call it) and after a long pause he bent down and switched on the HP desktop. With a few clicks and clacks and the familiar, odd sounding humming noise, the monitor came to life. His wallpaper was a photo of Sharon. He’d taken it while she was squatted down, weeding the small, vegetable garden she liked to keep. She was looking up at him. She was wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat and there was a dirt smear that began on her forehead, ran across the bridge of her nose, and down her left cheek. She had a faint, exasperated smile on. It was the one she reserved for him when he was doing something she thought was childish.
God, how he loved her.
He sat down and slid the keyboard toward him. The anger wanted to return when he thought of how he could still type but couldn’t even write his own name. He bit down on it and opened up MS word.
When I think about all of the years we’ve spent together it boggles my imagination. Through all those years, when most of our friends were divorcing, (some twice) we stayed together. And do you know what? I love you as much now as I did thirty-five years ago, when you were all grace and I was all thumbs. You are a wonderful wife, an amazing mother, and the most kind and generous human being I have ever known.
I have Alzheimer’s. I was diagnosed a few weeks ago…or a few months ago. I’m not sure exactly how long it’s been because I have trouble keeping track of time now. I have a pocket calendar I’ve been keeping but I can’t find it. I know the diagnosis comes as no surprise to you.
By the time you read this I will be dead. I have some pills and a bottle of Chivas that will do the trick nicely. I’m going to drive somewhere in the mountains and leave this world as Sam Burnside, not some drooling, jabbering thing with crap in his diapers who doesn’t remember his own name. I love you too much to sentence you to that horrible future. Please tell Kevin and Lisa that I love them, and don’t be sad. We had thirty-five years of real love. Not everyone gets that. I want you to remember me as the man I was.
He sent the document to the printer and waited. When he heard the sheet of paper eject he reached under his desk and retrieved it. He stood and took one last look around his study before walking out to the kitchen. Once there, he set the note on the black granite countertop where he knew she’d see it when she came home from her shopping trip.
Several minutes later he blinked and looked around the kitchen. His eyes passed over the note without really noticing it. “What the hell did I come in here for?” he asked the empty room. Finally, he opened the refrigerator.
Samuel Alton Burnside sat down in his favorite chair and took a long swallow of his beer before setting it down and picking up the TV remote. Giants might be playing, he thought, turning on the TV. I wonder what Sharon’s cooking for dinner.
Michael A. McLellan