Friday, November 16, 2007

Love and Memory

I don’t know if you have seen the reports in the news in the last few days about the female former Supreme Court Justice and her husband with Alzheimer’s. Apparently, the husband, who is in an assisted living facility due to advancing Alzheimer’s, has fallen in love with another woman. And it’s okay with the former justice.

When I first heard the headlines, I wondered if the media was being sensationalist for the sake of headlines, and I suppose they are. They didn’t have to report this story at all. It’s mostly a private family issue.

But I also was intrigued. I have met this justice, and she is such a dignified woman. I admired her. While I didn’t always agree with her court opinions, I felt she always looked hard at the issues and the law and not necessarily at political party lines. Also, she knew my father, and I recently came across a letter from her to him; it’s a lovely remembrance. So I read the media stories – and my admiration for her only increased.

The basic story is that the former justice’s husband as Alzheimer’s Disease, diagnosed over a decade ago. As his disease progressed, she resigned her position to devote more of her time and energy to his care. Her husband eventually had to be placed in a care situation outside of their home. At first, he was upset and depressed. Then he met this other woman, also a patient, and his whole manner changed. Apparently he is like a teenager in love – and he is happy with where he is.

As I read about the situation, I thought to myself, “That is true love.” This former justice is accepting her husband and his illness wholly, and all that it means. Not to say there probably isn’t a little fear around it, too, but to achieve that level of acceptance…I marvel at it and aspire to it.

In the early 90s, when my grandmother was in her last years, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I remember reading a bit about it – that those diagnosed had long term memory but no short term memory. I also saw a documentary on PBS that a woman made about her mother with Alzheimer’s – in the film, the woman, rather than fight her mother’s memory lapses went along with them, and learned much about who her mother was as a young woman, prior to marriage or motherhood. As her mother lived in her memories, the filmmaker went along for the ride. This was less disturbing for her mother and ended up being a mostly positive thing for the filmmaker, though I suspect bittersweet as well.

Once when we visited my grandmother in those last years, she was in a home-based care situation. My mother, husband and I visited around lunchtime. We sat out on the patio and tried to chat. My grandmother was in another world, but I thought about the documentary and wondered what I might learn about his formerly imposing woman. I was looking for a way to start down this path, but was impeded as my mother was trying to control the conversation.

Finally, my mother was quiet for a few moments, and my grandmother said, “Well, it’s getting late. I should get back to work soon.”

I said, “Tell me about where you work.”

My mother could not handle this at all. She was almost angry as she interrupted, strongly, “No, Mom. You don’t work. You are in a nursing home. You are 92 years old. You have no where to go.”

I could see some shock and confusion in my grandmother’s eyes. I felt between a rock and a hard place. We quickly organized ourselves to go. I kissed my grandmother good-bye. I think I saw her once or twice more before she died in 1997. I never did learn about where she worked as a younger woman.

Several days after that visit with my grandmother, I tried to talk to my mother about the documentary. She looked at me like I was crazy.

I think my mother and my grandmother loved each other, but I don’t think they ever managed to truly accept the other (a recurring theme in our family).

When I think about the former justice and her husband, I wonder if she feels pangs of jealousy for this other woman – this woman who is seeing the youthful side of her husband, possibly the side of the husband that the justice herself married so many years ago. I wonder if it’s hard amid the acceptance.

Regardless of the state of their marriage before all this (Still romantic? Devoted but mostly platonic? Some other combination? Does it matter? Not at all!), the former justice is putting her husband’s happiness and contentment within a devastating diagnosis above appearances, and in that, I think, sets an incredible example of love and commitment and acceptance.

1 comment:

Ruthie said...

I am a huge fan of Sandra Day O'Connor. I'm really in awe of her. I wish she still were on the court.

And it's a terrible shame that you never learned where your grandmother worked. It must have been awfully hard for your mother, but I suspect she just had a different perspective and a different relationship with her.