It was 4:30 in the afternoon and I had just finished doing an EKG on Mr. Cohen. Unlike everyone else living at the Home for the Aged in Massachusetts, Mr. Cohen was spry and totally alert for his 87 years. As a third- year medical student with much living (and learning) ahead of me, I couldn’t understand why he was staying in this place, which, well appointed as it was, still remained a last holding unit for people who were waiting to die.
I asked Mr. Cohen why he lived at the home when he was clearly doing so well. He looked at me with a patient, knowing look and explained: “Two floors below us is my wife, Emma. Three years ago, she developed Alzheimer’s disease and then had a stroke on top of that. On the very best of days, which don’t occur that often, I think she might recognize me. At all other times, she’s lost.”
He went on to tell me to me that Emma and he had fled the Russian revolution together, and that more than a few occasions she had saved his life. The couple made their way to America, started a tailoring business and raised a wonderful family. “I tell my family not to visit as much as they’d like,” he said, “because I want them to make sure they enjoy their families now and because their mom and I are doing fine.”
Each day, he would wake up, go downstairs to his wife’s room, bathe her, replace the diaper she now needed, put her into a sun dress, braid her hair, have breakfast with her and then read his newspapers and books as he sat beside her.
I didn’t get it. Why was he doing this with a woman who couldn’t even recognize him? “This poor man must be eaten up with guilt,” I thought.
I suggested, presumptuously, that Mr. Cohen’s guilt would not help his wife. The old man looked at me with an amused sparkle in his eyes and shook his head at my stupidity.
“You really don’t understand, do you? This is where I want to be. Maybe someday you will understand.”
It’s been 35 years since my visit with Mr. Cohen and I think I do finally understand. Instead of guilt, he felt joy in the presence of someone he had loved and been loved by for 60 years.
This was a snippet of an original article by Mark Goulston, M.D.