the healing muse

Volume 8, 2008

Mediation on Caregiving

Marilyn Kanter

I sleep with a ghost—my new roommate—a specter who is now impersonating my husband. My loneliness envelops me most when I’m home with my ghost. He wants us to huddle together, to curl up in our matrimonial cocoon, to keep me all for himself. He can’t get enough of me, but I’m lonely as hell in that cocoon—that collapsing parachute of dementia where he’s sucking up all the air, and I can’t crawl out fast enough.

In his prime my husband was powerful, dynamic, and sexy—the guy with the corner office on the executive floor. Bold and abrasive he sometimes created professional enemies. While he mellowed with time, he was always a force—a man with driving ambition and an edge—a marketing problem-solver and troubleshooter for corporations in a global arena. That was then. Now his enemies have receded into memory, while his short-term memory has receded into God knows where. In the good years we were inseparable except when he was traveling, and then I had God on speed dial. “Just give me five more years. Don’t let him die in a plane crash. Keep him safe, God, and I’ll pay you back—you name it, community service—whatever it takes.”

He was safe for most of our marriage, but nothing lasts forever. His downhill trajectory began after he underwent complicated cardiac surgery including aortic valve replacement, coronary bypass, and septal myomectomy—a shaving down of the heart muscle. During five endless days and nights in intensive care, he exhibited symptoms of ICU psychosis. Chief among his delusions was the idea that he was still married to wife number one, despite our thirty-two years of marriage. He wasn’t sure what year it was and who was president, but his doctors said his disorientation would be short-lived—routine fallout from anesthesia and surgery. But I was worried.

So once again I negotiated with God and, to be fair, my pleas sort of worked. I still have my husband’s body—frail but all mine—and flashes of his spirit, but his mind is gradually deserting him. I yearn for him to be my soulmate, but he is increasingly just my sweet puppy dog, following directions and taking little initiative. And I’m back to chatting with God. “Hey, God, is this your idea of a cosmic joke? A celestial sleight of hand? You left me his body but for some reason you needed his mind? Was that fair—your idea of the Golden Rule?”

I’ve lost that part of him I treasured most—that wild, quick mind that could analyze and illuminate the most difficult issues. I have conversations with my ghost now, but mostly they lead into a dense thicket of confusion. He circles around ideas but can’t quite close in on anything. As a life partner and companion, he’s lost to me in every way that counts. In his nearness I feel alone and beyond lonely. I live on my memories, especially those evanescent moments of joy from our past. I study old photographs looking for clues to his inevitable decline. But I can detect none.

One day he was himself. And then he wasn’t. We both needed surgery, but he forgot to wait until I recovered. And suddenly we were on a collision course. That last day when he was still himself—or maybe his real self had already checked out—he left to follow his own surgical imperatives. We cried, clinging to each other to forestall the leaving. But leave he did. And I was alone with my disappointment and a delicate magenta orchid he sent me two days later for company on my birthday. A lovely but ultimately empty gesture. Those fragile blooms would wither and die just as my undying devotion would gradually come apart.

I treasure our many years of happiness and I’m committed to our marriage, but I am now the couple. I consult myself on everything of substance, except when I forget that he’s not him. Then I pick his brain but the yield is close to zero. Our marriage is like a chess game where I play both sides—an enervating and thankless task. And like chess, my life strategy is simple—strengthen my defenses and keep the king in the game.

I yearn for some enlightened conversation, some warm companionship, some marital comfort, but my husband has withdrawn to the privacy of his own entangled thoughts—a hidden palace I cannot enter. A quiet docile ghost is my partner now as we make our way to nowhere. Slowly and inexorably to nowhere. But we are still a couple ‘til death do us part, as it will one day. But not yet, please God. Not today. I am not ready.

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