Sunday night. I just watched an episode of Poldark on Masterpiece Theater. We always watched the PBS shows on Sunday night, Downton Abbey, of course, the mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, whatever was on. We would have after dinner snacks while we watched, usually humus and crackers, or sometimes those soft pretzels like those sold off carts back in New York, only these are frozen, thawed in the microwave after adding the salt from a packet. But tonight I watched alone, my company the dog who was probably disappointed there were no crumbs to be gathered from the floor.
Herein is the conflict I wage with myself. The more I fully accept the role of caregiver, the more I must let go of the shreds of our past lives together that remain in the occasional smile, or squeeze of her hand in mine, the good morning greetings we exchange during which I tell myself that she knows who I am, the snippet of conversation concerning our daughter now living in Minnesota, all these momenst pushing against my exchanging, in totality, my role as husband for that of caregiver.
It is not that I don’t want to take care of her, as best I can. Of course, I do. We used to joke that given the fact of my being ten years older, there would come a time when she would push me around in my wheelchair. Her disease has reversed that prognosis, a prognosis that did not include my losing my cognitive ability as she has. The idea was that my body would have weakened, not my mind. In our present here and now, her body is still quite strong as evidenced by the deep bruise she left on my bicep when in a panicked fear of falling she clutched me there.
She was always physically strong and capable, the first woman shaker driver harvesting cherries among the orchards on Old Mission Peninsula, competent behind the wheel of any vehicle, a splendid driver and horsewoman, a serious walker, and even more recently before her cognitive decline, she was out there shoveling the edges of our driveway missed by my snow blower.
I don’t think she has lost much of her strength. What she has lost is both the control of her muscles, and, more importantly, the confidence to use them.
Her continued physical strength contributes to my difficulty in letting her pre-disease self go, and accepting her here and now self, with all its difficulties. Part of me, a persuasive part, insists on trying to retain some sense of normalcy in our daily lives.
That is like clenching my fingers around sand that sifts through my fingers.
It can’t be done.
But the friction of the hard grains against my flesh is its own reward.
I have yielded to some realities. Some time ago, I bought her pants in a smaller size to recognize the weight she has lost, a purchase aided by the advice of my eldest daughter then visiting with her family from New York. Those pants now rest, neatly folded up in our bedroom. I no longer clothe her every day. Given her incontinence and inability to be easily transported to the bathroom, it just makes more sense, as my younger New York daughter suggested when she visited a little time after her sister, to keep Carol in night clothes. So, I bought her two new night garments, appropriate for fall weather, and will add to them a couple suitable for the cold winter approaching.
But, to this point, I have not given in to the suggestion of renting a hospital bed, which would make tending to her easier than her current residence on the living room sofa. I see that advantage, but it is insufficient to overcome the feel of a hospital room that the bed would impose on our living space.
Presently, we both sleep on our L-shaped sectional, and I savor the physical proximity, even though we are not side by side. I hear her breathing, and yes, I also hear her responding to auditory hallucinations, and sometimes, a frightened call prompted by a sense of falling even when she is lying flat on her back. In the morning, I bend myself around the corner of the L to get near enough to her to hold her hand, or stroke her cheek. And, yes, she sometimes rejects those gestures as an unwanted intrusion of the here and now into wherever her mind has carried her, but most times she is accepting, and I feel comforted.
For the most part, our lives follow the same dull routine. In this regard, I am reminded of an observation offered by Thoreau toward the end, I believe, of Walden concerning how easy it is to fall into a repetitive pattern. He notes, to his surprise, how quickly and beneath his conscious notice, his feet produced a path, or perhaps more to the point, a rut between his cabin and the pond as he traveled back and forth each day for his ablutions.
And so it is with our lives with very little variation from day to day. But every once in a while something occurs to me that pushes its way through the dull routine and obliges me to deal with this vexing conflict between the past and the here and now. Such a moment was prompted by my seeing in my email inbox a notice presenting the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the local historical society.
Even before we moved here from New York, Carol’s father, a local historian invited us to come along to a meeting of the historical society. Although I was then still just beginning to learn how to navigate the culture shock caused by introducing my Brooklyn formed self into the wildly different mores of rural northern Michigan, I have always enjoyed learning about history wherever and whenever the opportunity presents itself. Carol, although she never said so, savored the chance to share her fathers’ interests and join them to her own.
Once we became resident here, we quite naturally continued attending the society’s meetings. We were, in fact, the only members of Carol’s extended family who did so, and continued our participation in the society after Carol’s father lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. And then, not for the first time, in fact in another instance of a familiar pattern in my life according to which I, without any obvious ambition, wind up in a position of leadership, found myself president of the society.
All of which is preamble to the moment when I saw the meeting announcement. I decided I would like to go, mingle again with the folks I had not seen for some time, and just get out of the house for a while and leave my caregiver responsibilities for a couple of hours. None of that gave me any pause. There was, of course, the issue of finding someone to stay with Carol. That, in itself, did not raise my conflict.
What did cause the conflict to raise its troublesome head was what should I tell Carol. Deep into our rut, I never go out in the evening. And I always tell her where I am going, even if it is to walk across the road to our mailbox. She would love to go, I thought, and would be seriously disappointed if she were to stay home while I attended a meeting of the society her father had helped found, and which she had served as co-editor with me of the organization’s newsletter, and had, in short, been more strongly invested in the society than I had been.
I was trapped in the past, and unable to see myself in the here and now. My concern about her feelings was based on the woman she used to be. The woman she is now hardly remembers the society, and even if she were upset at my going, as unlikely as that would be, she would in all likelihood not remain unhappy for more than a few minutes as this incident like all others simply would not find a foothold in her memory.
When I did tell her where I was going, she offered a glimmer of a smile and nodded.
Unaware, she too, was so deep in the rut she could not see over its top.