Sometimes I think Ralph is more like himself now than he was before the cognitive impairment, that some essential Ralphness that was covered up by ambition and testosterone has emerged—a more thoughtful, family centered, openly vulnerable Ralph. The Ralph I always wanted to believe was hidden under his tough exterior but almost never saw.
But sometimes I think some essential Ralphness has gone missing and that I am living with a stranger. A trivial example: A few days ago I was working out the seating arrangements for our Christmas dinner. How to organize folding tables of various sizes in order to fit 25 people around one table in a 12×14 foot dining room requires a lot of geometry. Geometry is not my strong suit, while Ralph has always been a genius at spatial thinking. So after struggling with small rectangles of graph paper for two hours, I begged him to help. He had absolutely no interest. Even when I warned him that I would be moving around tables, including his beloved handmade pine table, he stayed calm and passive. When I told him there might be a hole in the center of the “table” I was creating, he surprised me by sweetly offering to cut me a piece of plywood to cover with foil to use as a hot plate.
On one hand I was relieved. For most of our marriage I could not make a decision about where to hang a picture or place a chair without being second-guessed. And “second guess” was sometimes a euphemism for harsh criticism and/or barked orders. Now I have free reign; whatever I choose he embraces.
On the other hand, I used to argue back at Ralph’s second-guessing until we came to some kind of creative if anger-fueled consensus. His logical, practical mind balanced my intuitive, impulsive one. Now I have to pick up the practical, logical slack, and I don’t like it.
Well that’s not completely true (nothing in dementia, or life, ever being that black and white or clear-cut). I am proud of myself for mastering my new skills. But increasingly I also feel weighed down from carrying the weight for two of us—always having to consider what Ralph needs as well as what I want.
And then there is the emotional shift in our relationship. The shift actually began in the years before his diagnosis—our marriage went through a wonderful honeymoon period about five years ago, as he became a gently more loving husband. Now he is so overtly dependent and openly grateful that I find myself a little condescending. But again, no black and white here, because I always thought that Ralph was more dependent on me than he could admit just as I was more dependent on him than I could admit, so we balanced each other.
And here’s the rub. It’s not that our balance is off now—although it often is lopsided—but that it’s different. I find myself secretly missing what I used to hate and hating what I used to miss about Ralph. But what I love about the new Ralph is that the man who used to scrutinize every decision in even more minute detail than me now doesn’t bother over-analyzing the future or the past. Instead he is learning to embrace the good moments and let go of the bad, whether mountains or mole hills.
Post script: I began this post almost a week ago. A few days ago our numbers changed and the tables needed rearranging. Ralph was suddenly the enthusiast, helping open and folding tables, figuring and re-configuring. And when we all gathered at the table last night for Christmas Eve, Ralph commanded from his usual seat, first chair on left. And a few hours ago Ralph made his usual December 25th comment: “Best Christmas ever.”