Friday, April 23, 2010

Cruise Ship People - Dr. and Mrs. Rosenberg

They are the couple that everyone is referring to when they talk about how it’s so wonderful to see such old people enjoying life on a cruise ship, but really, some people should recognize when they’re just too old.

They are both in their nineties.  He was an army surgeon, and then, I assume, had a practice.  I don’t know very much about her.  I only know about him because today, I was sitting in a green chair, and the other one was empty.  For some reason he sat down in the other one and told me a story about when he was an army surgeon in these waters, the northern Pacific along the Alaska coast.

I’ll get to the story in a moment, but I want to think about why people feel the couple is too old to be on this long a cruise, or maybe on any cruise.  She is definitely suffering from some level of Alzheimer’s, although she is often quite lucid.  During the early weeks, not just days but weeks, she had problems remembering which cabin was hers.  This wasn’t a problem only for her, as the hallways run the length of the ship, and all the doors look the same.  Still, a number of people ended up memorizing her cabin number, so they could help her find it.  She is very trusting when she is confused, and turns to the nearest person for help, so the others in cabins near hers were her first helpers.  She also had problems early on figuring out the taps in the washrooms, some of which turn on automatically, and some of which have handles to turn.  She normally wears baggy track suits, comfortable and easy to put on and take off.  Her hair is curly and, while thin, is long enough to stand up from her head and wave gently in any breeze, looking like milkweed pods in flight.

She is very dependent on her husband, and he is not as patient as he might be, although I know it is very difficult being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s.  Still, he speaks harshly to her, often, and she cries.  At first a lot of women on board spent time comforting her and were angry with him, but I think we all have a more balanced idea now of what’s going on.  Sometimes, though, she singles me out from everyone else in the library and wants to talk.  Often she’s sitting at some distance from where I am, and I can’t always hear well enough to understand, as she never speaks loudly, but I enjoy seeing the animation in her face.  And I smile and nod, and sometimes ask a question based on what I have pieced together, and that’s all she requires.  She has one of the most wrinkled faces I’ve ever seen, and the loveliest smile, and her eyes are blurred with age but that just makes them look soft and sweet.

Today, for the first time, I had a little time with him.  He sat in the empty green chair and told me about how, during the war, (WW II, I assume) he was the surgeon on ships that carried upwards of two thousand soldiers up and down the coast of Alaska.  He said they got their pay every month, but given the sparse population along the coast of Alaska at the time, there was nowhere to spend it.  So, they started gambling with it, and craps became the most popular game.

One time, everyone on board was playing craps.  “There was a group of about thirty guys over here,” he said, gesturing with a hand, “and another thirty over there.”  As people lost, the groups got smaller, and they merged.  “Eventually, there were about twenty guys who had all the money, and they got together and decided to keep playing until one man had it all.  And after a while, there were two guys, and they each had $70,000.”  His glasses are slightly tinted, and his eyes are still sharp.  He glanced up at me from time to time to make sure I was getting the points he wanted to make, but most of the time his gaze was slanted down, and inward.

“They weren’t sure what to do at that point, a lot of money would be riding on the next throws, so someone went and got the chaplain.  He found a brand new pair of dice, so no one could say they were loaded, and he stood right there while they threw.”

I don’t know much about how to play craps, but Dr. Rosenberg told me the different numbers that came up, and I gathered that the two men were tied for a while.  Then came the throw that wasn’t a tie, and one man won it all.  Everyone was very civilized about it, and the chaplain took the money and put it in the ship’s safe.  And everyone else wondered what it would be like when their tour ended and the ship took them to whatever port was their home base in the States, but the guy never said much, so no one knew.

And then, when the tour was over, and the ship reached the home port, the first people aboard from the shore were two Military Police, and they marched right up to the man who’d won all the money, arrested him, and took him away.

And none of the other men could ever find out what happened to all the money that was in the ship’s safe.

Near the end of his telling me this, his wife came by, looking very lovely in a beige suit, jacket and skirt, and a matching cloche hat, her hair wisping out beneath it.  She tapped him on the shoulder and said they needed to get going.  He ignored her for a little while, and so as I wanted to hear the end of the story, and since I could tell he was approaching the finale, I asked her if they could wait a couple of minutes.  And he twisted in his chair to where she stood just behind him, with her hand on his shoulder, and in the gentlest way said he’d be ready in a moment, and she smiled and stood quietly while he finished talking to me.  And then he rose, she put her hand through his arm, and they went off to do whatever it was that had got her to dress up so nicely, looking like a couple who’d lived together forever, which I guess they have.  And I though with envy of the couples on board who know each other’s flaws well, and are sometimes brought to anger or tears because of them, but who know at the deepest parts of their hearts that they still want to be with that person more than anyone or anything else in the whole world.

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