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Monday, 09 November 2009

Old Letters, Old Friends

By Jeanne Waite Follett

Spring 2005
My husband doesn't know my name. After thirty years of love and companionship, he no longer knows what part I play in his life.

He comes up the stairs into the loft where I am working at the computer. Everything appears normal. He's a hale and healthy man of 75, though lately he has been losing more weight than is good for him.

"Say, gal," he says. "How about getting me a phone number so I can call my wife?"

He says "gal" because he doesn't know who I am. He speaks in a complete sentence and by that I know he is hallucinating. When I ask who he wants to call, he responds, "Betty." He dislikes Betty and would never talk to her.

"How about Carol?" I ask. "I don't have Betty's phone number." He agrees.

I call his first wife and Ken and Carol have a "conversation." Carol is very kind and talks to him at length. Ken tries to hold the phone to his ear and listen. Sometimes he gets a couple words out and I can tell some lucidity is returning because his speech becomes more difficult. The phone frequently slips to his neck and he looks puzzled.

My husband has been stolen from me by a disease called Alzheimer's. It has been almost five years since he was diagnosed with dementia; three since a neurological reaction to hernia surgery slammed us up against the wall with the dreaded "A" word.

I've kept him at home, caring for him by myself. The disease is insidious and has led me down a deep, dark path so craftily that I am in way over my head before I realize what has happened.

I had wanted to keep him at home until he no longer knew me, our home or the life we had together. That time has arrived. It has become far too dangerous for each of us for him to continue to live at home.

His particular type of Alzheimer's is characterized by its rapid progression, almost constant hallucinations, delirium and muscle contractions that cause him to fall frequently. He can no longer dress or groom himself. Incontinence is becoming a problem.

More and more often I have to hand feed him. He cannot be left alone even for a few minutes. He is often frightened, often worried. He says, in his more lucid moments, he wants "out," wants to stop taking "the pills," his six dementia medications.

September 2005
I take Ken to Arizona with the aid of his eldest daughter. We spend the night before the flight in a hotel in Anchorage hoping to minimize the negative impacts of travel. Ken wanders around the hotel room all night, talking to imaginary listeners. None of us sleeps.

During the flight, we sit on either side of him, each holding one of his hands trying to keep him from pulling on the seat in front of him. He becomes more and more agitated, less and less connected. I give him his evening medications early, trying to calm him.

That evening, I place my husband in an assisted living home. I turn his care over to strangers. The home is very nice, very clean, but I cannot bear to watch. Walking out of that home on the morning of my return flight is the single most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life.

I come home to Moose Pass and begin a winter of introspection. I sit and I wait. There is no closure. Instead, there are periodic emotional upheavals as various family members try to adjust to Ken's circumstances. I feel severely conflicted: I should be there to hold him and protect him from the things that frighten him nowadays; I should be at home, trying to heal.

I wait. I have no desire to socialize, but friends and neighbors watch out for me. They stop by to chat, invite me for dinner, make sure I am occupied at Christmas. Still I wait.

Long, endless days; even longer nights. I cannot get to sleep until four or five in the morning. I sleep until noon, hating myself for it, but unable to adjust to an earlier schedule. I wait some more.

February 2006
Ken's daughter calls to say that he has taken a turn for the worse, and we think it might signal the start of a terminal bout of dehydration that we have been expecting.

I get Ken's medical records out, working on a timeline of the progression of the disease, seeing it through his neurologist's eyes with her words. By late evening I must force myself to think of something else. Unfortunately I settle on my years just out of high school.

I think of mistakes I had made then, both in my work and in my personal relationships. I think of a first love, long before I met Ken: some ill-considered words I have rued for forty years and an apology I have wanted to tender all this time. Too late now, as he died a long time ago.

Tossing and turning at two in the morning, my brain doing really bad things to me. I am desperate to find anything else to think about other than those two troubles. I fear an emotional meltdown, recognizing the symptoms.

I recall a shoe box filled with old letters that I wrote forty years ago to a friend. She had returned them to me six years ago, and I have often thought of chucking the whole box of letters into the woodstove unread, fearing that they might contain some long forgotten embarrassment I wouldn't want known.

I get the box from the bottom drawer of my desk and pluck a letter out at random. All my troubles have set me up for the emotional tornado that rips through me as I read that first letter.

There it all is: a chance, late-night meeting with my first love, coffee at an all-night restaurant, apology offered. I'd been met with understanding, forgiveness, his own apologies and enduring affection. How could I have forgotten such a monumental event in my life?

I sit up all night reading those letters, laughing and crying. Long forgotten events come tumbling back into my memory. I am astounded at how much I've forgotten.

But the best part, the very best, is what lay between the lines in those old letters - unfailing, unquestioning friendship from many.

For days afterwards, I reread those letters, write dozens of emails to friends about my discovery. To a select few I speak of that old relationship, how it has formed me into the person I am today. I speak of the lessons I learned from it and how those lessons have helped make my marriage to Ken last thirty years.

I speak of wanting to make that apology for forty years, that I now know things need to be said while there is still time.

I begin contacting friends from those old days, telling them how much I have valued their friendship then and now. I tell my friends of today the same. I am looking back on that young woman that I used to be with understanding, tolerance and some fondness despite all her youthful mistakes, as I reconcile my first thirty years with my last thirty years. I am becoming a whole person.

I begin to see patterns in my life. I see that things do indeed happen for the best and that there seem to be reasons things happen as they do. May not have been what I wanted to have happen at the time; may not have seen any reason for it then.

I puzzle about what I may have done to deserve watching my husband's brain rot away these past five years and then it occurs to me that perhaps it had nothing to do with ME. Maybe Ken needed me there for HIM.

I sense the beginning of healing. This dreadful journey that I have been on with Ken is far from over and there can be no closure yet. I know there are some land mines waiting out there for me, but I can feel myself becoming stronger, less wounded, ready to face what this journey may bring.

And that box of old letters, unburned and unread all these years? Perhaps they were just waiting for the time when they would do me the most good.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:35 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Comfort found in old letters.
Thank you for writing your story.
I have returned letters, years later to those who wrote them.
Honoring them by keeping the letters, and have wondered if I did the right thing by returning them.
They do reveal to the writer a lot about who they are or were in those long ago days.
Some events are painful to review, but most are reminders of a state of living long forgotten, and hold much joy.
May your days be gentle and your nights peaceful.

Thank you for sharing what most of us only hear about thru tv shows or hearsay. Talking about those letters also reminds us that what we say to others, esp. loved ones can not just lift a sad, bad time, but becomes something to go back to again for comfort..this is a wonderful way to greet the day..I hope you take care of yourself now; keep writing..

An excellent and thought provoking post.

Thanks you for sharing such a painful experience.

Thank you for sharing this difficult journey. There are lessons there for all of us. May putting your thoughts into words give you healing.

'...it occurs to me that perhaps it had nothing to do with ME. Maybe Ken needed me there for HIM.'

That line alone, is one we should all take on board when faced with difficulties!

Jeanne - This was beautifully and thoughtfully written.

How times have changed. Tomorrow, there will be no box of 'unread and unburned letters' - just a collection of emotionally filled e-mails lost somewhere in cyberspace. - Sandy

I so enjoy your writing, and this is no less than just what I needed today. Though my journey is different with my husband, the disease is no less cruel and relentless. Thanks for sharing...always a special pleasure.

Thank you for sharing with us so beautifully. So sorry for your painful journey, but hope it helps you to write it. Sending virtual hugs for continued strength and courage.

Beautifully written and while painful to read, nevertheless it is encouraging to see you begin to heal and find yourself again after such a long, dark night. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you work your way through the final days of this journey.

The story held me spellbound.
The honesty impressed me.
Whatever it is ahead for you, I would guess you have the strength for it.


Such an excellent post. It held my attention from beginning to end.

Thank you for sharing your story with us.

I hope there is smooth sailing in your future.....

Such a tender and touching rendition. Thank-you for sharing this. It has given me so much to contemplate and mediatate upon.

Thank you, Jeanne. Thank you!

Jeanne, seeing the date as I posted the comment above made me realize that today is the 17th anniversary of my mother's death. Every year on this day I go back and re-read voluminous notes I wrote at that time -- very special notes. Who was I then? Who am I now? Your words evoke many memories and put them in new perspective. Thank you again.

Thank you so much for your honest and clear writing! Life is a journey in learning; the lessons are very important to pass on to others. I wish you all the best in your progress through these times, and thank you again for your gift to us.

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