Publisher/Format: Paul Dry Books 2011, paperback, 240 pages
Subject: dementia, poetry, coping with loneliness
Source: review copy from publisher
Subtitled A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry, Strange Relation is a beautiful, profound, emotional, often painful story of a situation that is one many readers may face in the future. Rachel Hadas begins this heart-breaking story:
In early 2005, my husband, George Edwards, a composer and professor of music at Columbia University, was diagnosed with dementia. He was sixty-one years old. I was fifty-six. (pg. vii)
George's dementia manifested itself in a progressive, prolonged, irreversible slide into silence. He stopped talking, he stopped reading, he stopped playing music. Not abruptly, but gradually, so that only in retrospect could his family pinpoint the onset of the disease. But the diagnosis proved to be only the beginning. Rachel had to learn to live in a marriage that became a shell. George was physically present, but she could often not determine whether George was mentally present. His unresponsiveness became an increasing source of angst.
As his condition deteriorated, Rachel returned to her teaching (she is Professor of English at Rutgers University) and found solace in her poetry, Greek mythology, the writings of Dickens, James, and Wharton among other, and the poems of Dickinson, Frost, Milton, among others.
I'm a teacher, but first and foremost I am a poet. Since my father's death when I was seventeen years old, poetry has steadily helped m not only to express what I was feeling...but also to figure out what I was thinking. In the case of a situation as elusive and amorphous, but also as powerful and all-pervasive, as George's illness, poetry's gift of trope often shed crucial light on the prevailing gloom. (pg.x)It was the Greeks who gave her a grounding in assessing her life.
When it comes to no-win situations, mythology furnishes what it is no exaggeration to call classic examples of indigestible choices. Doctors don't like to use the word tragedy, but myths bring tragic concepts to life. (pg. 22).She slowly tiptoes through the next few years, re-reading favorite poetry and finding new meanings, writing new poems, several of which are included in the book. Among my favorites is Vertical and Horizontal quoted here with permission:
Vertical and Horizontal
Slowly you've been sinking out of sight.
You're losing the ability to speak.
I miss you, though, when I lie down at night,
No rage against the dying of the light.
The sun still shines. But something's sprung a leak.
Gradually you're vanishing from sight.
Your body hasn't changed. Yet though your height
is still 6'4", you are diminished; weak.
Slowly you are sinking out of sight.
No gods, no reasons, nothing to placate.
Habit's force, which keeps me on my track,
makes me miss you every single night.
You striding on, me panting, yelling "Wait!":
all those summers, that was how we'd walk.
Now you are slowly fading from my sight
I miss you, still, when I lie down at night. (pg. 173)
As his silence progressed, Rachel made the painful decision to move George to a facility where he would be able to be cared for 24/7. She had hired a series of care-givers who came in during the times she was not able to be at home, but finally decided that 'a placement' was best for everyone.
Before George left home--before, to mince no words, I moved him out-- I could work, but with the shadowy weight of his spectral presence on my mind, in my heart. Now I can work more easily in many ways, but with the shadowy weight of his spectral absence, and my undeniable responsibility for, ownership of, that absence, on my mind, in my heart.(pp 142-143).She discusses her anguish about this decision with members of several support groups she joins, and ultimately with her readers in the chapter "Tithonus":
We are far from being ageless, we wives of the residents. Most of us are over sixty, and it shows. Nevertheless, something about visiting our husbands, especially early in the day, when hours of daylight stretch emptily ahead, reminds of the myth of Eos and Tithonus. The goddess of the dawn (Eos..) fell in love with Tithonus, a handsome young man. She sought and was granted immortality for her lover, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth for him as well....We wives have not made Dawn's careless mistake; we didn't either ask for or forget to ask for eternal youth for our husbands. Nor are we immortal ourselves;...Nevertheless, when we visit, we seem young and beautiful and strong--if only by contrast and if only to ourselves. (pp.187, 193.)This is not a quick read. It needs to be slowly assimilated both on an intellectual and an emotional basis, each reaction requiring different skills, processing and levels of grappling and grasping meanings. It contains many literary allusions, some less familiar than others. For readers without that strong literature grounding, the book may be hard going. However, the poetry is another thing entirely. It is simple, elegant, extravagant, gut-wrenching, and speaks to the reader without the need for any formal education in the genre. Obviously, those who read, write and critique poetry for a living will certainly have different experiences of her poems, but those of us who are more casual consumers still have lots to appreciate. By explaining how she wrote the poems, and what she was thinking as she wrote them, she allows us to accompany her on this troubled, dark, and often depressing journey of loneliness.
Whether Hadas' approach to coping is one that will prove helpful to readers facing similar situations ultimately will depend on the the reader's affinity for poetry and literature, and on their comfort level with solitude. It is a beautifully written presentation of one woman's journey of isolation and love, worth reading for the poetry even if the story is not one to which the reader can personally relate.