I’ve just returned from a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos where the peace is palpable, the food delicious, and the scenery lush and exotic with the mighty Mekong River merging with the smaller Nam Khan at the end of the peninsula. This was my fourth trip to this World Heritage town. The other three had been with my husband, Bob, who has Alzheimer’s Disease.
Sitting in a cafe sipping a thick Lao coffee with sweetened condensed milk and munching a perfectly crisp croissant, I remembered the first trip to Luang Prabang in 2005 with our friend Heiner. It was a turning point and another piece of our journey lost forever.
Travel was a large part of our life together and had been from our heady start on a small island off the coast of Sicily in 1984. And living in Bali the last twenty two years necessitated leaving every few months to extend our visas.
Until that first trip to Laos I’d been able to leave Bob alone in a hotel while I went out for some early morning ‘precious alone time’ to photograph ideas for our jewelry design business, usually while he slept. I’d leave a note taped to the door, “Bob I’ve gone out. I’ll be back at 8:30 am and we’ll have breakfast together. Please don’t leave the hotel.” And as a precaution, I’d put the hotel’s business card in his belly pack which he always carried. This had been successful for almost four years since his Alz symptoms started.
But this time when I returned to the hotel he was no where to be seen - not in the room, sitting in the garden or over at the Buddhist temple across the street. Heiner hadn't seen Bob and the staff said simply, “He go out”. We waited in the garden dipping croissants in coffee and trying not to be worried as the morning passed.
After about ninety minutes the worry broke through and shook us into submission. “I think we should rent bicycles and search in different directions for Bob," I suggested as calmly as possible. Heiner readily agreed. We bargained for two bikes, paid the deposit, and were ready to take off on the hunt when I realized I needed to change money.
As I approached the exchange office, Bob came quickly walking towards me with a mixed look of terror and relief on his face. He’d been walking and worrying, trying to find us, had gotten lost, and started to panic. “Where have you been!”, he demanded, trying to cover his tracks for having messed up. I was so relieved to see him I didn’t get upset. I didn’t even get angry at myself for not seeing he could no longer be left alone but the realization was emblazoned on my mind in flashing neon lights.
A few days later I popped into an Internet place to check our mails. Bob promised to sit on the bench outside. Soon he came in and said he’d just walk to the end of the block - a few yards away. I wasn’t happy with this but was in the middle of an important e-mail to the staff back in Bali so reluctantly said, “All right but just to the end of the block and then come right back”. I paid my Internet bill and expected to find Bob on the bench outside, but it was empty. The neon flashed intently.
Heading towards the cafe where we were to meet Heiner, I hoped that Bob would be sitting there sipping a coffee. He wasn’t, but Heiner was and rain was immanent. We hoped in our rose colored glasses of denial that Bob would magically appear. We ordered coffee. The rain pelted down. We talked, we worried, and wondered where our missing person was. It was dark now - we would have a difficult time finding him if he was lost. The rain abated.
Luck shinned on us and we found Bob back at the hotel. He’d been repeatedly asking the staff if they had seen me. They looked annoyed. Fortunately he had the business card I’d insisted he keep in his pocket and this got him home.
That trip to Laos in 2005 showed me that I could no longer leave notes taped to the door and go my merry way. What had worked for a couple of years was no longer viable. Bob had reached the stage where he couldn’t be left alone. It would be another three years until I realized we couldn’t travel together any longer. More pieces of us to grieve.
|Bob giving Heiner a lift after his bike was stolen in LP 2005|