Today we went on our annual Christmas tree hunt. We have cut down a tree on the farm almost every Christmas since we moved down here.
Ralph and I still remember the first time, 25 years ago. Piled into our old Suburban with our two kids, our friend Amelia and our two dogs, we drove all over the land we had just purchased. We didn’t know our way exactly and the roads were overgrown so we got stuck several times as well as a little lost, although Ralph wouldn’t admit it. He shot mistletoe out of some very tall trees—who knew that’s where you found mistletoe—and cut down two beautiful pines, one for our family and one for Amelia’s. Then we drank hot chocolate. It could not have been more greeting card perfect.
But of course life changes. Amelia moved out of our lives. The dogs died and were replaced by several generations of new pets. The kids grew up and although they have never have missed a Christmas yet, I worry every year that this season will be our last together as a family. Then there is the change in Ralph himself. He used to be the center of activity and now often prefers the sidelines, napping when the others go off on adventures.
And it has become harder to find a decent pine. There aren’t as many out there, either because we cut down the good ones or let them grow too large. For the last few years, Ralph and I have dragged along grandkids or nieces, city kids who try to be patient but quickly get bored traipsing through fields. But this year there is no one around but the two of us.
So I expected Ralph to tell me that looking for a tree would be “too much trouble”– his current catch phrase regarding so many activities we used to enjoy. Frankly, in this case I was secretly thinking he might be right, that a bought tree, with its perfect limbs, might be a pleasant change from our usual Charlie Brown monstrosities. But Ralph surprised me.
He was eager to go out tree hunting. And he remembered for two days straight that we were going to go today. He even made sure we gassed up the truck before we started. And off we went. Although our paths were mowed during the recent wedding preparations, the grasses are back up high and it was our normal bumpy ride, but at least there was no rain and it wasn’t too cold.
Soon, not far from our pond, we noticed a tree with potential, despite a flat side. I suggested we tag it with a pink ribbon, but Ralph insisted that he would remember where it was. After a lot more driving, also jumping out of the truck opening gates and stomping through high grasses, we found another tree, a tall one in a thicket of our old cow pasture. This one I made him tag. We spotted our third possibility in the fenced pasture directly behind the house. Ralph was happy to tag this one, and I took a picture to compare to our other choices.
By now Ralph had no clue where the other two choices were—or that we had seen other potential choices at all. As he followed my directions back across the pond, we joked about his memory in a way we don’t any more. And then we agreed, almost casually, that his condition was likely to get worse. Ralph’s potential future with Alzheimer’s has become the elephant we don’t always acknowledge taking up half the room, but in that moment of acceptance, it seemed less scary.
Because we were having too much fun. Both of us. There we were, two sixty-something-year-old cynics driving around in a beat up truck debating over the perfect height and shape of straggly pine trees as if our lives depended on making sure we didn’t end up with a bare spot in the branches. And it was great.
Lately I worry that we no longer connect as equals. It bothers me that Ralph is not interested in all the issues and concepts we used to discuss/argue about so energetically. Not only has he lost his appetite for current events but what is worse, he doesn’t want to challenge me about anything more important than whether he’s taken his pills. When he talks about the dog and the weather or repeats and repeats his anxiety about some mundane issue that has long been settled, I feel myself patronizing him. Not a good feeling. I have to remind myself who he has been in his life.
But this afternoon I didn’t have to make myself remember what I used to enjoy about being married to Ralph; I simply enjoyed being with him.