One of the sticking points in our marriage has always been that I love to travel but Ralph doesn’t, unless it’s to go fishing. So I was incredibly excited last spring, just over a year ago, when a friend invited me to accompany her family on a cruise through Northern Europe. Two weeks all expenses paid! Even my airfare would be covered!
Aware this might be my last chance for an adventure, I was dying to go. Ralph had been given the neuropsychologist’s initial assessment of MCI by then and we had recently visited the Emory Memory Clinic for the first time. But except for repeating himself a lot, Ralph was pretty much the same self-sufficient guy he’d always been– working in the office every day, fishing with his pals, arguing about politics. I told myself he could certainly manage without me. Still good wife that I considered myself, I told my friend that I couldn’t commit until I spoke to Ralph.
I brought up the trip with trepidation, not sure how he’d react. He might not enjoy travel himself, but he didn’t much like being left behind either.
“No question, you’ve got to go.” Ralph’s enthusiasm surprised me. “This is an offer you can’t refuse.”
He seemed more relaxed than I was during the flurry of preparations. Over the next month I bought walking shoes, stocked the freezer with the frozen potpies Ralph loves, planned a long fishing weekend to keep him occupied at least part of the time while I was gone.
Then Ralph woke up one up one morning, five days before I was to fly to London, and announced angrily that if I went on this trip, I might as well not come back. I lashed back at him with resentment and plenty of anger of my own. How could he wait until the last minute? What would I tell my friend and her family? Why was he such a controlling bastard?
“It’s your decision,” he said before storming out of the house.
We headed to our shared office in separate cars. The cadre of supportive, well-meaning woman friends I called as I drove all agreed: Ralph was being ridiculous; he might have minor memory issues but he could function alone perfectly well.
I eventually called the Memory Clinic for professional back up; after all, I had heard our neurologist say that Ralph had ONLY MILD Cognitive Impairment.
Talk about a bucket of water in the face! Both the nurse practitioner and social worker explained what I should have realized—capacity to function aside, Ralph’s fear had to be respected.
I went to him and apologized. He said if I really wanted to, I should go after all. Then we talked with more honesty and intimacy than we’d shared for a long time. He acknowledged fears that his condition would suddenly get worse—“What if I get lost while walking in the woods by our house and you’re not here to find me?” “What if my mind just goes out all of a sudden?” It didn’t matter that neither scenario was likely; his anxiety was genuine and intense. And for this proud man to admit any fear was huge.
Which meant I had to admit my own fear: my own high anxiety about my new role as caretaker-spouse of a husband with memory loss. I had been in selfish denial about Ralph’s MCI while planning my trip, but part of me knew all along that going away for more than a couple of days would be a mistake. Once I said I wasn’t going, I was oddly relieved: What had I been thinking to plan such a trip?
My friend refused to let me feel guilty about cancelling. Her father refused to let me pay him back for the non-refundable tickets. The kindness of strangers is nothing compared to the kindness of friends.
As for the two weeks I didn’t travel to Europe, I have no regrets. In fact those two weeks were a gift because I ended up going with Ralph on that long fishing weekend I had organized for him, along with my daughter and her boyfriend, and while we were all together, they got engaged. Now if I’d missed that….