The dark-oak farmhouse table where Page and Robert Melton spent many a dinner hour is now laden with vases and framed pictures, fragile pieces of their life together that have to be tucked into cardboard boxes. The movers are coming in the morning and, with much still to pack, Page thinks she could be looking at another all-nighter.
She picks up a sepia-toned drawing of blackbirds. They gave each other art in the early years of their marriage, and this was the first thing Page had given Robert. Next, a photo of Robert standing in front of the Virginia statehouse, looking every inch the formidable journalist he was, a guy who could intimidate colleagues with a dipped chin and glance over wire-rimmed glasses.
(Page Melton and Susan Baer took questions from readers in a Live Q&A on Monday, January 9. Read the transcript.)
The next photo is one of her favorites: Robert with family members by the porch of their homey Dutch colonial in Richmond on the morning of their younger daughter’s christening, in September 2002. A brilliant fall day, it was exactly one year before the heart attack and collapse that left the 46-year-old father of two with a brain injury so severe he would eventually live in an assisted living facility. How often Page had stared at that photo. Was he ill then? she’d wonder. Was there something she could have seen? Should have seen?
Page shakes off the thought and rolls bubble wrap around the photo, much as she has tried to cushion the hard edges of the part of their bifurcated life they refer to as “after the injury.” Robert had come a long way since 2003, when he looked at his wife sitting by his side in the hospital and said, “You seem like a nice lady. How come you’re not married?” She had gone home that day and put away the diamond and emerald ring he had given her when he proposed. Looking at it made her too sad.
Seven years later Robert was still mentally impaired and his personality far different than before the accident, but he knew his family, knew he had had a brain injury that upended their lives, and asked lots of questions. He carried with him at all times a reporter’s notebook, in which he had written the information most important to him: his daughters’ ages — 9 and 11 — and that he has “known my honey” 18 years.
He could remember snippets of his pre-injury life — the made-up song he and Page sang to their girls, his nicknames for colleagues, that he had been an Eagle Scout. And though he still broke Page’s heart every day with a sweet and childlike simple-mindedness — repeating his plans to “take meds, wash hands and brush teeth” like a mantra, or excitedly announcing that he’d won a candy bar at a penny toss “and didn’t cheat at all” — once in a while, he would say something insightful and completely on point.
Just days earlier, at the Sunrise assisted-living facility where he lived for several years, Robert had looked at Page with earnest eyes and the relaxed demeanor he used to have and asked if it was hard for her to pack up the house: “Does that cause you distress, darlin’? Make you sad?” Page took his hand, and her eyes filled with tears. “We had the best days of our lives and the worst days of our lives in that house,” she said quietly. “So, it’s very bittersweet to leave it.”