All he can say is that it has been a few years since he took charge of their household.
And it's been a while since he began cutting his wife's food, and rinsing the suds off her body when she sits in the shower.
Lately she will let her pills melt bitterly in her mouth unless he says something: "For Pete's sake, Barbara, swallow."
Deric Jaques' memory is fierce for every other detail of his 85-year life. He can name everyone who hired him, and his hourly wage, and what car he drove, and when he started a new job. In almost 65 years of marriage, Deric and Barbara Jaques (pronounced JAKES) lived in 22 homes in the United States, Europe and South Africa, and he remembers every address.
But he refuses to recall how many times he has had to clean up an accident or wash her sheets.
It is simply what must be done.
Barbara, at 88, is blind in one eye from macular degeneration. A low-level lymphoma saps her energy. A walker allows her to take steps gingerly.
Worst, after many tiny strokes, she has vascular dementia. She forgets from one minute to the next, and can't name the season, the year or the president.
She struggles to form sentences. She no longer says please or thank you.
But one day last week, as he returned to their car after dashing into a bank, he heard her say, "Deric."
"What is it, honey?" he asked, and she answered in a voice just above a whisper: "I wanted to hear your name."
It's then he marvels at what might be left inside of her, and how far they've come, and wonders if he can hang on with her.
I sat with the two of them in the living room of their Novi condo, he in a gray-blue La-Z-Boy, she in an identical one beside him, separated by an end table holding a lamp and a box of tissues.
He told me how they came to this moment, and described for me the details of love at the end of the line.
It is all his story now.
Love amid a war
At first, she took care of him.
He was 20, a shy young British fellow training with the Royal Air Force on Grosse Ile. They met at a dance on base on a cold night in February 1943.
"We danced," he says, "but we didn't think anything of it, did we, honey?" She meets his eyes but is silent.
A few months later, Barbara's mother, who grew up in Britain, invited a few cadets to dinner at her home in Highland Park. This time, Deric got snared by Barbara's flaming red hair.
They began what in the 1940s was a difficult, long-distance relationship: She took two buses from Highland Park, and he took one from Grosse Ile, to meet in Wyandotte for a burger and a movie. It was," he says, "a much longer ride for her. And she'd be waiting for that last bus at 11 p.m. and think nothing of it."
He was sent to Florida for final flight training. His last flight, three days before he would get his wings, was at night. He and another cadet made several successful landings, but the instructor crashed their plane onto a dark beach.
Three of the five men on board died. Deric emerged badly burned; his nose and hands distorted, his face charred.
He doesn't remember if he asked her to come, but Barbara did, riding a train for two days from Detroit to Pensacola to sit at his bedside. He says, "My wife is probably the only woman in the world who was proposed to by her future husband while he was given a bath by another woman."
Chuckling, he turns to Barbara. "You don't remember that, do you?" She lets out a long, soft, "Noooo."
They married in February 1944 in Detroit. She followed him to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where for almost a year he underwent 14 surgeries to repair his injuries.
She never complained about his scars or his crippled hands. In 64 years of marriage, as a stay-at-home mother raising four children, he says, she never complained at all. "She has never been demanding and always been a very easy person to please."
Detroit to South Africa
She took care of him in their middle years together, too.
His Royal Air Force career ended with a medical discharge in England in July 1945, two months after World War II ended in Europe.
He didn't stay long in his home country. After a job in a bomb factory and another in a car dealership, he headed back to Detroit with his new bride. Here, he sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Then he worked in a candy factory. Finally, desperate for something that used the technical skills he had learned in the RAF, he hiked Woodward Avenue from Jefferson to the GM building, where a softhearted personnel manager gave him a job running a blueprint machine.
Between 1950 and 1956, Barbara bore five children, including one who died in his crib as an infant. Deric moved up to draftsman, a junior detailer, a senior designer, a product engineer. He swapped jobs among several auto-related companies in Detroit, Toledo and Lansing, and Barbara moved their household time and again with good cheer.
Her children remember her as good-natured and creative, an artist and crafts-maker, "a trouper" who refused to let her kids claim boredom and who forbade self-pity.
Marjorie Wilhelmi, the youngest child, a Presbyterian minister in Orchard Lake, remembers: "You were to make the best of anything and keep going."
In 1965, Deric accepted a transfer to South Africa to open a new parts plant, agreeing on the spot without asking his wife.
"I knew she'd be game," he told me. She always was.
There the family enjoyed a penthouse overlooking the Indian Ocean and staged parties in what Deric recalls was a living room measuring 27 feet by 18 feet.
They came back to the United States briefly in 1969, but Deric hated the racial tension in Detroit and the drugs in his kids' schools.
Within a year, they were back in South Africa, where a recession made finding a job difficult. At 47, he started a candy company, making fudge, nougats, marshmallows, caramel corn. The business did well, but, he says, "it was bloody hard work" for both him and Barbara.
He sold it at a loss, and finally, in 1978, returned to the United States for good with just $2,000.
He would work for another 11 years for auto suppliers and finally, again, for GM, saving 20% of each paycheck.
"I was never shy about taking a chance," he says. "And I have no regrets whatsoever. We've led a damned good life, and we've seen and done things most of our contemporaries haven't."
A change in roles
Their daughter Marjorie remembers the day 16 years ago when her mother put a dish into the microwave with the door open, then turned blankly to her daughter to say: "What do I do now?"
Her mother began complaining she couldn't understand the newspaper. She had periodic spells when her lips tingled and she couldn't get words out. Once, in South Africa, she had convulsions in bed. Ten years ago, during the couple's last trip together to England, he asked the wives of friends to look after her because she couldn't fend for herself.
His children were impressed with the enthusiasm with which Deric took over household chores.
He credits his military training.
"We had to scrub out our lockers every Thursday and polish the floors and burnish the metal rubbish bins with steel wool and sew buttons and polish the studs on the bottom of our boots.
"You learned discipline! Doing dishes, I don't mind. It's something that has to be done and you do it."
He also seeks easy recipes on the Internet. A favorite involves chicken thighs, canned cream of chicken soup, Lipton onion soup mix, Catalina dressing and canned cranberry sauce. They cannot share conversation anymore, but they still share meals, each night, at their dining room table.
Meals, mail and cocktails
They sleep now in twin beds. He wakes first, fetches the paper off the porch, turns on the electric kettle. He listens for her to rustle so he can rush in to help.
A few weeks ago, she got herself up and into the bathroom, then lost her balance and fell flat on her back. Two months earlier, she fell and broke two ribs and cut her head.
He can't let that happen again.
Tea is brewed in a small gold teapot he bought for Barbara years ago. And he serves it to his wife, with a few spoonfuls of milk, in her favorite china pattern.
Delicately flowered, edged in pink, it is called Summer Chintz.
He must remind her every few minutes to hold the saucer beneath her cup before she lifts it to her lips. "Use your saucer, honey. Your saucer, darling. Please use your saucer."
He sighs. "I've had a terrible time getting stains out of her shirts."
On an average day, Deric will glance at Barbara to find her dozing in her chair. But unless he's preparing a meal, he stays beside her, balancing his laptop computer on a folding tray table by his chair.
Each day, he serves her breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In between, he waters his small deck garden, vegetables in pots.
He reads his newspaper.
He takes his only exercise: a 200-step round-trip walk to the mailbox at the end of the street.
For a few years, he golfed each Thursday with his son. But he had to hire a woman to watch Barbara: 60 bucks a time, $240 extra each month. Plus, he's been playing terribly.
Golfing is no longer a pleasure.
Cocktails, at 5 p.m., still are. He pours her scotch and water on the rocks and makes himself a vodka martini. They watch the Channel 7 news as he reminds her not to forget her drink. But she does.
The hours pass. The TV remains on. He plays chess online.
He e-mails friends who have helped him put together his family's genealogy. And he e-mails about 40 men, all veterans of the Royal Air Force.
For a while this summer, he thought he might join them at an annual reunion in England. But he would be gone two weeks. None of his kids' homes have ground-floor bedrooms for Barbara. Respite care at a nearby nursing home would cost $2,000.
"I can't justify it," he says, "for my pleasure alone."
Nor, he says, can he justify their move to a senior center. Oh, yes, they offer plenty of activities for him. "But what would I do with Barbara?"
He hears his children, who live nearby, insist that such a place would give him a break and give Mom more stimulation. Staff would do things for Barbara that are unpleasant for him. He's looked at places and come close to signing on. But no.
Marjorie, who is 51, sees the burden of her mother wearing her dad down. But, she says: "He belongs to a generation that just sucks it up. You just do it. The great gift he has is being able to make his own choices."
Friends ask him, "How do you manage? How can you cope?"
He answers: "It's a state of mind. I mean, what can I do?... She has been my lover, my partner and my crutch, the person I could rely on all my life.
"And if the shoe were on the other foot, I know she would do this for me."
'Good night, Barbara'
About 10:30 each night, he helps her to the bathroom one final time, filling her toothbrush, changing her Depends, lifting her nightie over her head. He turns down the bed, helps her in, puts drops in her eyes and coaxes her to swallow her 10 pills.
He bends over her face, so lovely to him, so familiar, and kisses it. "Good night, Barbara," he says. She murmurs, and turns to the wall to sleep.
He stays awake for another hour or so, sitting up in bed in the dark, watching sit-coms on the BBC, chuckling sometimes, until the humor is done, and he is done, and the day is done and rest must be taken for tomorrow, whatever it brings.
Contact SUSAN AGER at 313-222-6862 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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