I met my wife Joyce when I was in my early thirties. We’ve been married for over fifty years, and I don’t think we’ve ever spent more than a few days apart in those fifty years. We have children and grandchildren, a comfortable home, and we lead what most people would consider to be a life of privilege.
Joyce was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of months ago. I first started noticing that something was off because she was becoming uncharacteristically short tempered with me. She started forgetting where her things were, like her car keys, and she started misplacing things altogether. I remember once she had put the laundry detergent in the fridge. I spent hours trying to find it.
It wasn’t long after Joyce was formally diagnosed that the kids and I decided to move her to an assisted living facility. I am very torn about that decision, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t consider bringing her back home. But I can’t take care of both of us.
I visit her several times a week, and I think the people there treat her well. They take excellent care of her, but it’s not a good place for me to visit. I become very depressed. It’s not unusual to be greeted by a screaming or crying patient, for example. There’s a gentleman in his sixties there who has to have his food cut into tiny bits and fed to him by an occupational therapist because he can’t even do that himself anymore. I feel like I’ve abandoned her in hell, and I fear that in a moment of lucidity, she will recognize this.
When I went to see her last, one of her aides asked her whether she recognized me. She said—“yes, that's the garbage man. He's come to help me take care of the garbage.” Of course, I was not offended. But I was hurt. If I go to see her in the morning, she’s usually present; but in the afternoons, she starts sundowning—her symptoms get worse as the day wears on.
I am a very religious man, and I became a rabbi at the age of 17. I have always had faith in the hand of God, but I find myself arguing with him more and more. I argue with God about my wife, and why he took her beautiful mind away from her. Her illness has shaken my belief. But at the same time, I have to believe in Him. I have no choice--even though I cannot reconcile her illness with my faith.
Just about the worst thing you can experience at my age, when you’re getting ready to write the last chapter of your life, is a crisis of faith. I love my wife, but I haven’t always been a good husband to her. I’ve had affairs, and I think she either suspected or confirmed that throughout our marriage. Joyce wanted a romantic love—a love that you see in the movies—and I couldn’t give her that. I gave her the only love that made sense to me, a practical love. I provided for her, I was a good father, and for the most part, I was a good husband. I always took her with me when I traveled, we always went out to dinner, and she had free reign over spending.
I can’t help but think that I contributed to her disease, though. I know I didn’t, and my children tell me that I didn’t. But sometimes, what you think and what you feel are two very different things. When Joyce gets agitated, she sometimes becomes violent and kicks me or hits me. In those moments, I believe she knows me, she sees all the wrong that I’ve done, and she’s doling out punishment.
A few weeks ago, Joyce had an appointment with her neurologist. We went into the room together, and the doctor performed a few tests on her. I told her that Joyce has lost a lot of weight, and that I’m concerned about her—concerned that perhaps she doesn’t have long to live. The doctor continued with her assessment.
"Do you know who this is?" she asked, pointing to me.
"That's Frank," answered Joyce. "He's supposed to be my husband."
"Joyce," the doctor continued, "do you know the names of your children?" Joyce shook her head no.
"Do you know what month it is?"
"It's February." It was December.
"Do you know where you are?" the doctor persisted.
"I'm in Vienna," she said, visibly flustered by the barrage of questions.
"What is this?" asked her doctor, pulling a pen from her pocket and showing it to Joyce.
"That's a pen."
"And this?" she asked, pointing to one of the buttons in her white coat.
"I can't think of the word right now," Joyce said, looking down at the floor.
And so it is. Sometimes my wife doesn’t know who I am. Sometimes, she is convinced that our children are dead, and I have to wait for her to stop crying. And sometimes she looks at me with the love we had many years ago—when we sat together in a park bench in Vienna, she knew my name, and loved me in spite of myself.