Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Big A

I went to the doctor today to check on a few little things. He told me I am a very fit 73-year-old, that he sees 40-year-olds who aren't anywhere near as fit as me. That surprised me — but what excellent news.

I asked him about testing me for dementia. I have a family history on my Dad's side, but a scan done a year ago revealed that, while I do have the gene, I don't at this stage have it in the form that would result in Alzheimer's. It's something to keep an eye on, just in case.

I had a concern because, in the nine months since I became a widow, I have been more forgetful than I used to be. For a while there were memory blackouts of whole incidents! I would recall those things later, after some days or weeks, but I'll never know if I remembered them all. I bumped into the psychologist I used to see, and said, 'Quick question: is this normal in grief?' She assured me it was — as well as confusion, difficulty concentrating, etc. etc. 

My doctor today confirmed this, and added, 'There's another thing. Your mind was on alert 24/7. You were looking after someone who needed a very high degree of care. When that stops, your brain slows right down. It's not a pathological slowing, but it's like it needs a rest.' 

That made perfect sense to me. After Andrew died, I very soon noticed a physical slowing down. I realised I wasn't running on adrenaline any more. I remarked that I was a great deal slower and less efficient than I used to be. This has continued to be so, although I'm adjusting and find that I'm efficient enough. Either I've got used to the way I operate now, or my body is starting to recover from the stress, whereas the brain — where most of the stress was  — is lagging behind a little. (That's OK. Take the time you need, Brain. You've earned it.) 

I felt huge relief to hear him say that, about '24/7'and 'high degree of care'. It was very good to realise there was one other person in the world who understood exactly what I was coping with in those years — the unique combination of Andrew's (increasing) mental and physical dependency.

He suggested, too, that it's probably the less important things that are going out of my mind quickly. A moment's thought showed me that it is indeed so. Unfortunately, they can be things which other people do regard as important! Well, too bad.  a) I can't help it, and b) I'm due for a bit of self-indulgence.

'I can have a high level conversation with you,' said the doctor. 'I've got no doubts of your cognitive function. If it seems, later on, that you're deteriorating at all, then we can do some tests. And if you do get Alzheimer's ...' He hesitated. 

'Then I go out and cut my throat,' I said with sudden bitterness, surprising myself that those words in that tone came out of my mouth. He sat in silence a minute, then muttered, without meeting my eyes,

'Yes, I think that's what I'd do, too.'

We made wry faces, shrugged, and went on to the next topic. In that moment we'd both acknowledged the truth of that terrible disease. Andrew only had it mildly, for which I am ever thankful, but even that was bad enough. I used to think how much worse it was that he had so many physical ailments too. 'If it was just the Alzheimer's ...' I used to think. But it was diabetes and peripheral neuropathy as well, not to mention cardio-vascular disease and osteo-arthritis. 

Now I see it as a blessing in disguise that he had all that going on. It was much harder on both of us at the time, but it meant that his body wore out before his Alzheimer's became extreme. It was starting to get worse, but he never went into so much confusion that he didn't know me or his children and friends. I could already see, though, where it must lead. 

His mother had it. Andrew used to speak of visiting her in the nursing home. The last time he saw her alive, he found her under the bed, looking terrified, and barking like a dog! The horror of that haunted him the rest of his own life, even decades later. I am so glad he himself was spared such a fate.

A couple of weeks ago I visited a friend who asked about my bereavement, 'Does it get better with time?' I burst into tears and said, 'No, it gets worse.' Yet since then, as if that released something, I have been rather better most of the time. I have been better adjusted to being on my own (with the cats). I have quite enjoyed my home and my freedom, being absolutely my own boss. I have started to savour the relief of not having to be on full alert all the time, responsible for that high level of care he needed. 

Tonight I was anguished again. I see that it was to do with remembering how hard life got for him — and perhaps with remembering how hard it got for me too, as a consequence. 

Also it hit me earlier today that there is no-one else, and will never be anyone else, who was so interested in all the little things to do with me — no-one who cares so much if I get a sore foot or a pimple on my back, or decide to wear a blue dress instead of a green one. 

Tonight, as if to confirm that, I saw on DVD an old woman, widowed 23 years, being asked if it was hard living alone. She said, 'There's no-one else you can talk to like that person.' Then she added, 'Time heals' — but she looked so wistful when she said the first thing, I thought time hadn't healed her grief all that much.

Always, it comes back to my certainty that his timing was perfect, that he left at just the point where his quality of life would no longer have outweighed his distress and discomfort. That is the thing that makes it bearable — because it's true, and incontrovertible. I cling on to that. 

And I think of Hazel Hawke, the recently deceased, widely loved first wife of ex-Prime Minster Bob. Divorced after many years of marriage, she said angrily, when she was diagnosed with the Alzheimer's which eventually killed her, 'I was just starting to make a life for myself.'

I think it's unlikely I'll get the big A — though I also heard on TV tonight that 50% of 85-year-olds do. That shocked me. 50%!!! In any case, for me age 85 is still twelve years away. I don't have it now, and I too need to make a life for myself.


  1. Rosemary, how candidly and beautifully you write about this stage of your life.

    You don't shy away from any of the hard stuff either but lay it out the way it is ... how difficult it is to realize that there will probably be no other close person with whom you can share those moments of minor intimacies (clothing choices etc)but how wonderful it is to be on your own at times, answering to no-one, having not to be on "special alert".

    I can appreciate how missing Andrew and being grateful that he didn't live too long in pain and with ever-increasing Alzheimers must be an odd dichotomy, confusing and upsetting both.

    It is so good of you to write your feelings with such candour for the rest of us. I know I've said it before but it bears repeating; you are one courageous, classy woman and I'm so happy to count you as a friend.

  2. Dear Rosemary - The inclination after reading Sharon's post is to simply say "I second those thoughts" but you my dear lady deserve so much more. Perhaps you write and share your innermost thoughts with us as some sort of catharsis during this painful path. However, I hope you do realize what a huge inspiration you are in your essential humanness that touches me so very deeply. Whenever I read whatever moment you are sharing I feel as though we are standing together and I am being hugged and hugging you back. Hard. Your spirit knows no geography or physical boundaries - I feel you and hope you know how very much you are loved. Once again thank you so very much for sharing your self - you are mother, sister, poet, friend, connected spirit light sparkling in the darkest night - dancing on the brightest sunbeam. Thank you :)

  3. Bless you both! I hope you two lovely ladies know, in turn, how much I appreciate your loving support and understanding.

    I write this blog for both reasons — as a catharsis and also in the hope it may be helpful to others. The latter I cannot judge unless I get feedback — so thank you for telling me that it is indeed so. It always surprises me a little, that you (and others) regard it so highly ‚ and it pleases me very much that you find it useful.


  4. Wonderful post, Dear. Honest and accurate.

    I went through that too, what felt like whole blackouts after my life-partner died, ending years of her illness--and I was only 45. Like you, there was the sense that I had been on high-alert for so long, and then suddenly everything stopped. Post traumatic stress is a strong thing. It does mimic the big A, at whatever age.

    Add to it the loneliness. Not having the other person to talk to, as you shared. In my case, missing Pat's soulfulness and the tenderness and joy we shared, even while she was sick, when she would call me at work and I'd be alarmed, thinking "Paramedics!" But she'd only called to make me laugh. And I would laugh 'till my stomach ached with a mouth full of food at lunch, hoping scientists in the mall at the university wouldn't think I'd lost all my marbles. How I missed her.

    Still do, everyday, and will miss her the rest of my life. I have a new life partner, the love of my life, and Lisa is wonderful. I can't believe how blessed I am that lightning has struck twice in one spot. Still, I will miss Pat forever.

    The early days after she passed, I'd say, the first three years especially, yes, I did lose a few marbles, I must have. I'll bet it looked like the Big A to some of my very patient and loving co-workers. But it does pass...and in some ways it doesn't matter. You've lost the one who mattered more than all that. That kind of shattering, and surviving it, well, you learn to loosen the knots, you learn to relax.

    Hope some of this is helpful, as your post is so very helpful. Big hug.


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