The long goodbye
November 15, 2006
When Cal Wilkinson came to the attention of authorities in May, he was telling everyone, including caregivers at his wife’s nursing home, that Phyllis needed to die.
Officials wondered if he would hurt her.
“I’ve requested they put Phyllis and I into a tent and turn the laughing gas on. Technically, you can put me in jail for even making that statement,” the 83-year-old said one day in May as he told the story of his wife’s descent into Alzheimer’s. He would tell anyone who listened – strangers in a restaurant, strangers on the phone, companions at the senior center. Phyllis was in pain and as long as his bride of 56 years stayed in that condition, he would have the burden of living life for both of them. It was just too much.
It was unclear if Cal was always this crazed. Phyllis couldn’t tell us. She didn’t even know who she was anymore. But Cal remembered, he couldn’t forget.
For 50 years, Cal and Phyllis had only each other.
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Then, one day seven years ago, Phyllis passed out in the Laundromat. It took months for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, but when it came, Cal moved them both into an assisted living facility in Dayton. A year later, the staff said Phyllis’ condition was too much for them to handle. She needed a nursing home.
Cal was against that and managed to finagle a few more months in assisted living.
“I knew when she goes to a nursing home, our life would be over,” he said.
He cried three times a day for the first three weeks Phyllis was in a Carson City nursing home.
“The doctor asked me, ‘What can I do to help you, Cal?’ And I said ‘Can you make me stop crying?'”
He was given a prescription for Paxil. The crying was stemmed to three times a week.
Every day Cal went to Evergreen and fed his wife lunch. In the final two years of her life, she could no longer talk.
“It was all a labor of love. I didn’t become a good husband until I was married 50 years,” he said. “Fifty years we lived together, and for five years I loved her. I learned what love was when she got sick. I took her for granted for all these years.”
He said for a while he tried to feed her for two of her meals, “But I started cracking up. I was going nuts.”
His behavior was so erratic, the officials at the nursing home wanted to bar him from coming to see Phyllis.
“All I was worried about was that she didn’t suffer before she died. They told me if she smiles she can’t be suffering. So every day I tried to make her smile.”
The last smile Phyllis gave Cal was from a bed at Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center, where she’d been transferred for pneumonia.
Cal carried with him a tape recorder to play two songs for Phyllis: “Thanks for the Memories” and “Misty.” He’d listen to those songs every day, shushing people who were nearby and forcing them to hear the words. On this final day with his wife, he sat by her bed and switched on the recorder. Frank Sinatra’s voice filled the dim room.
Cal held her hand and wept. When the music stopped, Cal jumped up and wiped Phyllis’ face as the second song played.
Since he’d entered the room, she’d stared expressionless at the ceiling. When someone moved, she would watch their shadows cast by the sunlight that peeked through drawn shades.
Cal kissed her repeatedly. One kiss, followed by another, by two more. Each time he came at her, she’d pucker – but there was nothing behind her eyes. Then as Cal moved in for yet another kiss, Phyllis looked right at him, puckered and smiled.
For a flash, she was back, he said.
The tears would not stop for him. He kissed her one last time, grabbed his tape recorder and walked out the door.
“I won’t see her again,” he said.
Less than a week later, on June 1, Phyllis died.
It seemed like a weight had been lifted. Cal was no longer obsessed about Phyllis dying. He didn’t even talk about it. When a representative from a Reno crematorium delivered Phyllis’ ashes, Cal asked him to open them.
“I’ve never seen them before,” he said.
The man asked for a screwdriver and undid four screws from the bottom of the box.
Cal kneeled down and looked inside.
“That’s it?” he asked. “I don’t know what I expected. I guess I expected Phyllis to say, ‘Hello Cal.'”
Contact reporter F.T. Norton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1213.