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Marriage of true minds? No longer

Sometimes I feel that our marriage is over. Something else has replaced it although I can’t quite put my finger on what. Have I really morphed, in just a few months, into a Joyce Grenfell-style nursery manager cum hearty carer?

Take the night last week when My Loved One staggered off to the bathroom in the early hours as usual. When he opened the bedroom door on his way back, the room was flooded with light. “Can you just turn the bathroom light off please?” I said. “But there are people in the bathroom” he replied, glancing back anxiously over his shoulder. Well, I couldn’t help wondering just who these imaginary  2.00 am revellers occupying our bathroom might be in the fog of a demented mind but I needed to be practical. “No, there’s no one in the bathroom.  Turn the light off please” I said in my best grown up, kind ( I hope)  but no-nonsense voice. I could hear myself going straight into dispassionate, assertive classroom mode without an ounce of wifeliness. Yet another thing Ms Alzheimers has stolen.

In a long committed marriage when both partners are well and thinking straight, there is a lot of shorthand communication. A raised eyebrow, a joke shared a glance, a knowledge of each other which goes hundreds of miles beyond sex. That depth of integration which is what earlier forms of English (in the 1611 Bible for instance) really meant by “knowing”. It means you sense things about each other and understand things which may never have been discussed. It’s the marital dynamic which people who have serial relationships or who remain single or have part-time partners can never get their heads round. On a very trivial level I’ve never forgotten, some years ago,  a quasi daughter-in-law being astonished when I sent MLO off to settle the bill in a restaurant using my card. “But surely he doesn’t know your pin number?” she asked. Yes he did. And he knows almost everything else about me too. There are no secrets. It’s called trust.

Then along comes Ms Alzheimers, in her perniciously determined way, and puts her oar in. Of course, I still trust him implicitly but it’s no longer an even thing. He has no choice but to trust me more than ever – I even have Power of Attorney over his bank account, I make sure he takes the right pills and that the house is securely locked when we go to bed at night. Every day he arrives in my office with papers which have just come in the post, about, say, the burglar alarm or a magazine subscription, muttering “I’m worried about this” only for me to say tartly “Well you needn’t be. I’ve already dealt with it.”

We now have daily briefings – which takes me back to one school I taught at in which the head required all staff in the staff room for a few minutes before registration to be told what was what for the day. It’s very institutional and formal. I tell him, for instance, that the cleaner is coming at 10.00 and/or I am leaving to review a show at 4.30 and/or he has an optician’s appointment at noon – all of which is also on a large calendar in the kitchen. Retention is poor. Last Sunday we (or rather I had and delivered it as a fait accompli) planned to go to Ightham Mote, a National Trust property in Kent. We’d talked about it for several days. I reminded him at breakfast time, then raced about doing various domestic and professional jobs which needed to be done before we left. At 10.30 I said. “Right, let me just put some make up on. Ten minutes and I’ll be good to go.” In reply I got a very distracted “Are you going to tell me where you’re going and when you’ll be back?”

Well of course I know that he’s not going to go trying his luck with another woman or waltzing off to the Caribbean with our savings. That sort of trust is rock solid. But the day to day unreliability militates against trust at other levels and is hard to live with – the doors left unlocked, the forgotten bag in a coffee shop, the items on the shopping list he omits to buy and dozens more ordinary things which I took for granted for nearly half a century. In practice I have to issue constant reminders about where to put things, what to do and where to go. And I have to tell myself continually that I am not Joyce Grenfell and I am not running a nursery class although the similarities are hideous.

And one of the hardest things is coping with the decline of real, intuitive communication –  Shakespeare’s “marriage of true minds.” A friend who lives in Australia and is in very similar situation commented recently. “I feel so angry. This is not what I signed up for”. I know exactly what she means but I try very hard to be resigned, practical and loving rather than angry. If only I always succeeded.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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