Strange Relation—A memoir of marriage, dementia, and poetry
- Perkins, Sam
- Date of entry: May-13-2019
- Last revised: May-13-2019
In Strange Relation, Rachel Hadas, poet, teacher and classicist, recounts the years just short of a decade of her husband’s descent – retreat is the word she’d prefer – into dementia. Although no definitive diagnosis emerges for George’s “spooky condition,” frontotemporal dementia possibly with Alzheimer’s disease in the frontal lobe seems the most likely. By Hadas’s reckoning, George’s symptoms began when he was in his late fifties—relatively young for dementia. Diagnosing any form of early onset dementia is extremely difficult, especially if memory loss is not among the symptoms, as was the case with George. Hadas noticed the symptoms — his silences and growing remoteness— and ascribed them to her husband’s loss of interest in life and their marriage. She writes, “Slowly and insidiously your partner changes from the person you married into someone else.”
The book opens in 2004, just before his diagnosis in 2005 at the age of 61. George Edwards was a successful and celebrated composer of symphonies, chamber works and art songs, as well as a professor of music at Columbia University. Through flash-backs, Hadas fills in a portrait of a happy, mutually supportive marriage of two engaged, successful artists, a life that slowly melted away as George’s disease tightened its grip. She ends with George in a long-term care residence in 2009, the year Strange Relation was published and two years before his death in 2011.
The core of the book, intertwined with the story of George’s dementia, is Hadas’s account of the comfort she sought and gained from reading and writing prose and poetry. “This ordeal has eloquently reminded me of the sustaining power of literature,” she writes. “These gifts of the imagination,” gave her strength. “They are not sufficient, but they are damn well necessary.”
Over seven decades of reading have given Hadas a vast store of literary references to draw on. George is Mr. Dick from David Copperfield, mentally scattered, shuffling his papers; he is King Lear, losing clarity and dignity and consumed with anger and humiliation as he feels his abilities fade. Like Penelope awaiting Ulysses’ return, Hadas sees herself living with George as “neither wife nor widow,” her husband a physical presence but spiritually gone. When she reads James Merrill’s “Days of 1964,” she identifies with the poet who “has gone so long without loving that I hardly knew what I was thinking.” The poem speaks to her as it captures, “The thirst, the loneliness, the habituation to emotional deprivation that marked the way I was living.”
A recurrent theme that many will relate to is the loneliness she feels caring for someone who, because of his condition, hardly speaks or expresses emotion. Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” reminds her how quickly friends will turn away from death and illness and “make their way back to life.” Sickness, says Flannery O’Connor, is a country “where there’s no company, where no one can follow.” She sees her life reflected in Philip Larkin’s wry poem about a couple’s estrangement, “Talking in Bed,” – the couple’s growing estrangement is “this unique distance from isolation.” Hadas finds the clarity and the company of these works a huge comfort.
There are moments of uplift, too. When her college-age son, Jonathan, and his friends propose to take George on a two-week getaway of very rustic living in Vermont, she reluctantly agrees, certain that disaster or injury will ensue. The reader is as relieved as Hadas is when all goes off without a hitch.
A recurrent theme of the book is the importance of the language used to describe a disease and its treatment. Metaphors and similes, of course, are staples of medical caregiving – “they help us see freshly,” says Hadas; they help her step outside the moment and understand George, whom she describes as retreating into a “walled garden” or behind a “frosted window”; his disease is a bath in which he’s immersed and can never escape; it is a malignant fluid his brain is stewing in.
Equally, using the wrong metaphors and similes can cause pain and guilt. A neurologist tells Hadas that she’s feeling depressed because Hadas has moved into a “new house” and is still living out of boxes, still in transition. “Make yourself at home,” the doctor advises, “I don’t think you’ve completely moved in yet.” This only makes Hadas feel inadequate and guilty. “Let’s at least find the right kind of house,” she writes. Caring for a person with dementia, as she sees it, is not a house but a prison in which the family caregiver is the voluntary inmate, “responsible for the daily care of a warden who has mysteriously changed into a ward.”
By the end of the memoir, George has declined to the point that Hadas can no longer care for him and has found him a residence, which raises a new host of concerns. He fails out of the first home and she finds another. She visits George regularly and experiences a new kind of tethered freedom. Her divided self, composed of the Drudge and the Poet, dusts off their apartment to reclaim it from the associations of George’s illness, hoping to rescue her memories of twenty years of happiness before his illness began to take him. “It became my home in a new and different way.”
Each phase of her journey is accompanied by poems, twenty-nine in all, that Hadas wrote to understand herself, clarify her feelings, cope with the loss of George. Never was Robert Frost’s dictum regarding the ingredient of a successful poem— “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” —more pertinent. Along with her reading, Hadas’s poems lead her to insights that comforted and sometimes surprised her—and will do the same for the reader.
The book ends with George’s birthday party in 2009 at the long-term care residence where he finally settled. He died shortly after the book was published in 2011.
Paul Dry Books