My husband and I watch BBC’s Planet Earth on his small flat-screen. It’s about primates, some of whose names I’ve never heard. Names like Tarsier, Aye-aye, and Diademed Sifaka. David Attenborough wanders the planet, showing where the various apes live, how they survive.
We sit close on my husband’s single bed or, when my bent knee aches,we stretch out side-by-side, squeezing in as best we can. I miss this cuddling, this physicality. Following his two major surgeries and the slow onset of his dementia, I can no longer look after him at home. Luckily, his facility is a good one, clean, friendly and close by. His room is warm, but we huddle together regardless.
Attenborough shows us the Aye-Aye of Madagascar, “In captivity, several types of olfactory clues were observed, including buccal (cheek) marking in which the aye-aye’s cheek is rubbed on an object.”
I smile, noting how often I stroke Don’s cheek with the back of my hand, especially in the car when hugging won’t work.
The camera moves on to the Snow Monkeys of Honshu, Japan. Don laughs at their antics, a full-on whoop, disproportionate to the occasion, but I don’t mind. As long as he’s happy. He doesn’t hear well, often talking over Attenborough’s commentary, but as I listen, I’m impressed with the way these northern-dwelling primates snuggle together in lanky treetops, huddling for warmth during the sub-zero nights.
“Twenty below!” I exclaim loudly, giving Don the short version.
“Wow!” he responds. “Now that’s cold!”
They have old-man faces, these Snow Monkeys, and double-thick fur for insulation. Watching them amidst the falling snow, we feel even cozier in our warm room.
Don seems engrossed throughout the program. His laughter is my tonic, but I know he’s a skilled pretender, ready to applaud anything he thinks I may like. Chimps can deceive and empathize too. But what we watch isn’t the point anyway. It’s what we share. We can still be together, physically and emotionally. We can still laugh; we can still bond.
Attenborough wanders among the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar.They also huddle together for warmth, adorable in their white faces and kohl-dark eyes. The commentary says they’re female-dominant and active only during the day. They have long snouts and wet noses.
“Like you!” I say, wiping his own beak with a Kleenex. He laughs, aware that it tends to drip.
At the moment, he sits on his bed while I gently stroke his back and shoulders, communicating love while receiving it back through his trust. He drinks the Starbucks coffee I brought while continuing his delighted comments about the program. His happiness comforts me.
We survive – he and I – as the apes do, by adaptation. We may not forage for food, but we do scrounge for affection. That never changes. Together forty-five years, we’re well-attuned to the other’s emotional climate and have learned to trust in the other’s regard. Of course, there have been difficulties, serious ones. But in these final years, only the love matters. All else has fallen away, eclipsed by our need to see one another to the end, to guard jealously our time together. I can’t help but wonder how long we’ll have even this limited contact. At the same time, I thank all the stars that I recognize its value.
Attenborough moves on. In a wildlife orphanage in Zambia, chimps mourn the death of a friend. Don and I watch in silence as the apes sit for fourteen minutes with Thomas, the dead chimp, alternately sniffing and touching him. They neglect even fresh food, so caught up are they by grief and the great mystery of death.
We humans struggle to prepare for death, to achieve peace of mind as we age. Sitting with Don, I realize we have it now, at least in part. Peace comes with full commitment; it’s impossible to love this deeply and still wonder about life’s meaning.
Love is why we’re here.