ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN
In a drawer in his bedroom, inside his neat house, next to his wallet and his watch, lies the card. It is like any other card, a piece of folded, white cardboard. It is like any other birthday greeting, full of wishes from her and exclamations of love. Yet it is like no other card because he doesn’t know if this is her last love letter to him. Not because she is going anywhere but because her memory is. She isn’t falling out of love with him, it’s just that she just might forget how to love him.
This is not a Valentine’s Day- approved love story. It has no happy ending, but then love stories often have elegant beginnings, it is their conclusions which are rarely tidy. Relationships fray, romance fades, companionship grates, disease calls. It’s when you know love isn’t a one-off bunch of exquisite flowers, but a grittier and more persistent virtue. Love is cleaning diapers, it is hard work.
This love story is about two people: Raj, 67, a man built of chunks of muscle and wit and gentleness; and Bobbie, 63, an elegant woman whose beauty has not yet been sanded away by time. They met in 1978 in Kolkata, travelled to another land, had a son, then three grandchildren and live amidst movies and books in a corner of Melbourne.
It is a neat and familiar suburban picture, except for this: Raj loves Bobbie, and Bobbie has dementia. Every year he gives her a Valentine’s Day present. Now she doesn’t know what the day means.
Raj cannot precisely summon the day when the threads of his wife’s logical brain and memory began to fray. Was it summer when she began to repeat herself? Was it spring when she watched television and kept asking the same questions?
He can’t remember, he just knows that over seven years, like a slow, unfixable leak of reason and recall and feelings, Bobbie’s momentary lapses have turned into a dreadful pattern. She knows the way back home from the shops but cannot recognise friends. She has forgotten familiar tastes – she relished curries, now she abhors them – yet rises in delight when her son steps through her door.
The death of neurons turns the brain into an erratic, clumsy machine which no potion can fix and no surgery can mend. Your wife is there before you and yet a terrible theft is under way, a hollowing out of her which you cannot stop. It imprisons you in a vice of confusion, helplessness, sadness, yet within this changed life Raj has not forgotten how to love Bobbie. He has just gently renegotiated the terms of this romance.
He is her listener. And so she will speak, and repeat, every day from a similar script, yet he will never silence her. He is her chef. He will wake at 5.30am to make her lunch and then return from work to put together her dinner, faithfully putting on a plate all that she likes. He is her compass and he is her detective. When she says her mouth is burning, he will investigate and find she has used detergent, not mouthwash.
He is her guide and he is her friend. He will take her shopping and stand mute as she gathers endless items and then pays the incorrect sum because prices and mathematics elude her. He just inclines his eyebrow at the shopgirls who are now his accomplices in a compassionate routine: surreptitiously they will put away items, yet never ruin her day.
In books, love is built of a scaffolding of shared words and sharp dialogue. In films, two characters meet, tenderness is expressed, feelings are returned and they bend for a kiss. Here, love is more silent and undemonstrative, here there is a limited exchange of the normal vocabulary of affection, for Bobbie cannot easily express emotion. So, on almost every day, nothing is taken by Raj, but only given.
It is as if he has embraced the idea embedded in the author Anne Morrow Lindberg’s words on changing love: “Relationships must be like islands, one must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits – islands, surrounded and interrupted by the sea, and continually visited and abandoned by the tides.”
But then sometimes, for no apparently scientific reason, the tide turns. Sometimes, from nowhere, Bobbie loves him back.
Last year, Raj comes home on his birthday to find a bottle of bluish liquid waiting for him. “It is what you like to put on your face,” she tells him. She has bought him mouthwash, but she thinks it is after-shave. It is what he used to like, now it’s only the colour that remains with her. She also gives him a tracksuit, but it is small enough to fit their grandson.
It doesn’t matter to Raj: He just thinks of her walking to the shops, he imagines her rummaging through her memory, he considers her gesture – and then he sits down, this friend of mine, and he weeps. Her buying this bottle, he knows, is a profound act, for it is as if love has transcended dementia, as if for this brief, wondrous moment it has defeated the disease.
Love – even if it is quick flashbacks, sudden shards of recollection, unconnected pieces from a past – is possibly among the last of Bobbie’s memories. Old memories of this greying, bespectacled man who has spent a life alongside her, memories so deeply imprinted they are still defying erasure. On a recent night when I visited, when he bid her good night, she took his hand and kissed it, once, twice, four times, seven times. She never did this before, but these days she does and he cannot explain it. Except to say that he is grateful.
It is when he tells me about the card, the one he now keeps in his drawer. On Jan 4 this year, as she always did, she gives it to him. It is his birthday but she has bought him a wedding card and it is a beautiful mistake.
Inside she scrawls a message in her altered handwriting, but this year, like last year, she signs off in a way she has never done before. She writes, “Your wife, Bobbie.” Is she reminding herself who she is to him? Or is she telling him, Raj, please, don’t ever forget who I am to you?
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on February 16, 2014. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.