Today I called Daisy to wish her a Happy Birthday. It’s March 18, and she’s turning 80. This is a big one for her.
I met Val and Daisy when I was a graduate student at Princeton. One September day in 1990, I was training for a marathon. I had just set out for my daily run and was headed towards Carnegie Lake for the usual six-and-a-half-mile loop around the lake, when I saw a petite woman being dragged down the street towards me by a tall, dark, handsome standard poodle. I stopped in my tracks. I had grown up with standard poodles. I had never been poodleless in my life, until now. My heart panged with how much I missed having a dog. I bent down, pretending to tie a loose shoelace, but in truth, I was waiting for the stranger and her dog to get closer.
“Can I pet your dog?” I asked when they reached me.
“Of course,” the woman said. “This is Kate.” I held out my hand. Kate immediately pranced towards me and sniffed my open palm. She licked it gently, then edged closer. I stroked her neck and her throat. She leaned her whole body into me, rubbed against my legs like a cat, and presented her haunches to me. I massaged her hips and her lower back. She curled her head back in bliss. “She likes you,” said the woman on the other end of the red leash.
“My name is Deborah,” I explained. “I grew up with standard poodles and I really miss my dog. If you ever need a babysitter, I would love to do that.”
“OK,” she said, slowly, sizing me up. She asked me what I was studying, who my advisor was, and where I lived. I thanked her for letting me pet her dog. I hugged Kate. Kate licked my face.
“Bye, Kate,” I said to the dog. Standing up, I said to the stranger, “And I forgot to ask your name. Who are you?”
“I’m Daisy,” she said. I hadn’t noticed how beautiful she was until now, when we made eye contact. I had been so focused on her dog. She had enormous blue eyes that matched the sky “It was so nice to meet you,” she said. And then we went our separate ways.
* * * *
About a month later, the phone rang in my graduate student apartment. I was hunkered down over Herodotus. It was Daisy calling. “My husband and I are going to be travelling for a few weeks in November, so we were wondering if you would want to babysit Kate for us,” she said. I was delighted to hear from her. I was afraid she had thought I was a weirdo when we had met on the street a month before, and I’d glommed onto her dog like a burr.
“I’d love to!” I replied.
“We checked you out,” Daisy went on. “We called your advisor because he’s a friend of my husband’s, and he said you are wonderful, but my husband still wants to meet you before we go, so can you come over tonight at 7 to meet Val?”
“Of course,” I said. “I’ll see you then.” I could barely contain my excitement.
* * * *
It turned out that Val and Daisy lived just a few doors down the street. Kate was waiting for me. She was sitting on the couch, looking out the window, when I walked up. She barked to announce my arrival. Daisy came to the door. Kate leapt of the couch to greet me . Like a black stallion, she stood on her hind legs with her front paws on my shoulders. “Kate, down!” Daisy ordered. The dog obeyed and ran into the living room. ‘Follow Kate,” Daisy laughed. “She’ll take you to Val.”
Val was installed on a couch in the living room, listening to a Beethoven string quartet, looking off into space. Kate put her head in his lap, and he caressed it. “Welcome!” he said when I entered the room. He stood up from his seat to shake my hand, then sunk back into the couch and resumed petting the dog. “This is Kate, but I guess you have already met,” he said quietly. He smiled, looked at me, looked at Kate, looked away into space again. He seemed more comfortable there, lost in thought, or in the music.
We sat in silence for a while. Then he questioned me about my graduate studies, my running, about how I liked Princeton. I asked him what he did. He said he was in the Physics Department. Silence. “What do you do in the Physics Department?” I asked. More silence. He just shook his head, as if to say you wouldn’t understand. He looked down at the oriental rug, tracing the intricate design with his eyes. I changed the subject.
“Where are you going on vacation?” I asked.
“Sweden,” he said. Nothing more.
I had lived in Finland for a year, and I remembered how cold and dark it was in November in that part of the world. “This is the wrong time of year to be visiting Scandinavia,” I volunteered. “It’s so dark.”
“Well, I don’t have any choice,” he said softly. “It’s for work.”
“Maybe you will see the Northern Lights,” I suggested. He remained silent. I felt like I was messing up this interview. I was not asking the right questions, I was not answering correctly, either. I wanted to ask again what do you do for work but he had been silent on the details before so I said nothing. My mind raced. Physics. Sweden. November. Pet the dog. Listen to Beethoven. Stare into space thinking deep thoughts. And then these disparate clues suddenly assembled themselves into a coherent picture like iron filings jumping all at once onto a magnet.
“Are you going to get the Nobel Prize?!” I blurted out. Val looked down at Kate and continued to rub her head with utmost concentration and love.
“You’re such a good dog,” he whispered to Kate.
“Val, tell her!” Daisy said. Val just stared at his dog. Finally he admitted that he had indeed won a Nobel Prize in Physics a few years earlier for discovering something about charged particle-parity violation. He tried to explain it, and I understood now why he had been mute before. I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but I nodded politely as if I did. Val and Daisy had been invited back to Sweden to be part of the celebration of this year’s laureates. I was in awe. I felt so honored to be asked to take care of his dog. Maybe some of his brilliance would now rub off on me.
* * * *
This was the beginning of a most beautiful friendship. I babysat Kate while Val and Daisy went off to Sweden to be celebrated with the King and the Nobel family. And they returned, we began to take weekly walks together, Kate, Val, Daisy and I. We had dinner together every Sunday night. We talked about literature and art. We listened to music. We baked bread. We timed ourselves doing The New York Times Crossword puzzle. Val would print out three separate copies so we could all work on it side by side, but independently.
Sometimes I would finish the puzzle faster than Val. “Rats!” he would exclaim, when that happened. I adopted Val and Daisy as my parents, and they adopted me as their daughter. I had parents, and they had children, but this relationship was special. Our love for each other was unconditional, playful, and constant.
Val tried to explain scientific things to me, but my humanities brain just could not get half of what we was describing, no matter how many times or how slowly he went over the details of K-mesons or particle scattering. So he met me on ground that was more familiar to me.
Every Sunday after the walk in the woods, the bread baking, the crossword puzzle, the dinner and the string quartets, Val and I would set up the Scrabble board for what became a fierce competition between us. It was expected that Val would win, and often he did. But sometimes I would prevail. At first I thought it was an accident, but over time, it became clear that I could hold my own against this man I idolized, and when I won, I would feel somewhat victorious, but what made me even gladder, was that Val was so proud of me. This meant the world to me. “But you are getting a PhD in Greek,” he would complain. “That’s not fair. You know too many words.”
“But you have a Nobel Prize,” I would counter. “I will never be half as smart as you. That’s not fair.” And then we’d both laugh, put the tiles back in the bag, and start another game. We shared this Sunday tradition for seven years until I moved away from Princeton, and then for another dozen years until I moved away from the East Coast.
* * * *
Today is Daisy’s birthday. It has been twenty-four years since we met, and I now live two thousand miles away on the other side of the country, but I still call her every year on her birthday. The phone rings five times. I’m expecting the answering machine, because Daisy always gets the phone after the first or second ring. But I don’t get the answering machine.
“Hello,” says Val. It’s a statement more than a question. I’m happy to hear his voice, yet I’m also concerned because Val never answers the phone. I haven’t heard him answer the phone in years.
“It’s Deborah!” I announce.
“How are you?” he says. “It’s so nice to hear from you.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’m calling to wish Daisy a Happy Birthday today.” There’s a pause on the other end of the line.
“But it’s my birthday today,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“No, it’s not,” I say before I can stop the words from leaving my mouth. “Your birthday was last week. This week it’s Daisy’s birthday.” His Alzheimer’s is getting worse. I wasn’t expecting this decline at all.
“Daisy’s birthday is not until March 18,” he insists. “Today it’s my birthday.”
“Today is March 18,” I inform him.
“No. it’s not,” he says slowly, hesitantly. “It’s March 10.”
“I’m afraid it’s not,” I tell him. “Your birthday was last week on March 10. But today it’s March 18 and it’s Daisy’s birthday today. I called you last week on your birthday.”
“Oh,” he says with the softness of a falling leaf. He sounds crestfallen, embarrassed. He has lost track of time, and he knows it. My heart breaks for him, for me, for Daisy.
“I wouldn’t know what day it was if my iPhone didn’t have a calendar on it,” I say quickly, trying to gloss over the fact that he has lost a whole week.
“Are you still living in Boulder?” he asks, grasping for something that he thinks he remembers. I tell him I am. He seems glad of it, like my affirmation is an anchor that still has its grip in some sort of sand that will keep him from drifting, for now. We make small talk for a few minutes, but there’s not much more to say. I know that Val remembers me. I’m sure he remembers that he loves me. I’m sure he remembers that I am an important person on his life, but he doesn’t remember the minutiae of my life any more than he remembers the minutiae of his own life any more. Each day bleeds into the next.
I ask him to tell me about the day he received the Nobel Prize. He tells me it was beautiful. He reminisces that the women in Sweden wore crowns with real candles in their hair, and the candlelight bathed their faces in golden angelic radiance. He says he will never forget this image.
“Real candles in their hair?!” I ask, astonished.
“Yes,” he says, “It’s the most magnificent sight.” I Google this and find out that it’s true. In Sweden, they do have a custom of wearing real candles in their hair. How could I have doubted this man whom I admire so much? He can no longer play Scrabble with me, or bake bread, or even take the dog for a walk. His knees are bad, his hearing is going, he is losing track of time, and sometimes of his thoughts. But to me, Val’s brilliance will never fade. Like the Swedish angels he has just described, Val will always be an angel to me, a beacon of light who illuminates my life.
Watching someone you have loved for a very long time begin to fade is difficult. I am glad that Daisy was out to lunch with her girlfriends so that Val and I can have this exchange. Even though parts of his brain have gone offline, like puzzle pieces that have fallen between the cushions of the couch, he’s still mostly there. I tell Val I love him and we say good bye. “I’ll give Daisy the message that you called,” he says, as though nothing is out of the ordinary. “Love you, too.”