HE WAS A NEIGHBOR, a composer, a taciturn man, but not unfriendly. So there was nothing terribly odd about seeing him lope silently about the neighborhood with only the barest of acknowledgments when we passed on the street or in the lobby. Later my husband and I found out, through his wife, that he had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. He was 61.
We who are over 60 joke casually about “having a senior moment” and “losing our minds.” It’s a preemptive strike, nervous laughter as we teeter on the brink of personal antiquity. You have to ask yourself: When does mental deterioration reach such a stage that your personality, spirit, soul (if you like) no longer exists? At which point do you lose your humanity?
I had hoped for reassurance from a recent column by Jane Brody in the New York Times (“When Lapses Are Not Just Signs of Aging,” September 6, 2011), to wit: how to tell whether a forgotten word or name or misplaced object is an early warning of a disorder called mild cognitive impairment (which can often be a precursor of Alzheimer’s or other such diseases), or whether it is just one of those minor cerebral glitches associated with growing older.
The piece didn’t help much. It did say that physical exercise may be important to mental health, but it also offered the dismaying statistics that mild cognitive impairment afflicts 10 to 20 percent of those over 65, and that only 1 in 100 people who “live long” have no cognitive loss.
What did help, in a sad and curious way, was a book called Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry by the poet Rachel Hadas (Paul Dry Books, 2011). It is her husband, George Edwards, to whom I referred in the first paragraph. Imagine living with a man who looks and to some extent behaves like your companion of many years (for some time George could take walks, buy the paper, play tennis, dress himself), but who no longer speaks or engages. A ghost. A dumb creature.
Hadas survived partly by applying her own ardent mind to learning everything she could about his illness. But more important, and less predictable, is her use of literature, both the reading and the writing of it (Strange Relation includes many of her own poems as well as excerpts from other writers’ work). The couple’s plight is the stuff of tragedy, and indeed, Hadas, the daughter of a famous classics scholar, refers often to this tradition: “When it comes to no-win situations,” she writes, “mythology furnishes what it is no exaggeration to call classic examples of indigestible choices.”
Hadas’s own unpalatable choice, as George’s condition worsened, was to place him in an institution. The decision triggered a collision of “warring impulses”—guilt, relief, dread, resignation—that was neither stable nor unambiguous. Sympathetic responses from others represented only a portion of what was whirling around her head. “No person could hold these strong feelings in suspension, give them a shape we can grasp, an articulation we can remember,” she writes. “No one person could. But sometimes poetry can.”
Ah, poetry, which distills enormous messy emotions into lucid images, which is not constrained by the laws or logic of ordinary speech and thought. It seems to me that Hadas has taken her pain and grief and transformed them into something both useful and beautiful that can give succor to anybody in extremis. By acknowledging the permanence of the burden, the absence of good choices, you may find—not comfort, exactly, but clarity, and the making of connections. You are better able to go on.     
I wish I’d had Strange Relation when my mother was dying in our apartment, because “unacceptable” and contradictory feelings raged within me every day. Like Hadas, I dreaded leaving work and going home, which was no longer a sanctuary. I considered, guiltily, shipping her off to a hospice facility. Failing that, I wished sometimes she would hurry up and die so that I could get my life back. And I was, simultaneously, desperate for her to survive because I couldn’t imagine living without her. There was no escape from this particular locked room. Even dead, my mother haunts me. Hadas’s book made me feel less like a failure.
Strange Relation—which is, among other things, a sensitive tribute to George and their former life together—also made me newly grateful for a marriage in which the other person talks, thinks, laughs, grumbles, responds. And for my own brain, which still, so far at least, comes when it is called, if not as rapidly as before.