Two years ago I cancelled a trip with another friend to Europe just days before I was scheduled to leave because Ralph had an anxiety attack. He had just been diagnosed with MCI and, I realize now, feeling scared about his situation. This time, our niece, who is a nurse, came to stay with her three daughters aged 11 to 21, another nurse friend and my 11-year-old granddaughter. In other words, I could be guilt free about leaving him behind since Ralph was in his idea of heaven: getting lots of attention from a harem of six charming females without having to leave home. (He did go out for one meal but mostly they brought him back take-out if he refused to accompany them places.)
Of course I did feel guilty anyway. As I walked down beautiful cobbled streets, bought the perfect silver earrings, spent leisurely morning hours reading over croissants and coffee, ate one wonderful meal after another, I could not help asking myself, “Why do I need a vacation anyway? Life with Ralph at this point is just not that hard, especially compared to what other people handle every day.”
Then halfway through the trip my niece texted, “I see why you need a vacation.” Ralph had been asking the same questions repeatedly the way he does when he gets on a jag, and he had been over-feeding the puppy with senior chow immediately after her puppy chow breakfast with predictably unpleasant doggy results. That my niece, a trained nurse, was finding Ralph exhausting was oddly reassuring and empowering. I realized that escaping the daily patience/impatience tension and being able to care for just myself was exactly the break I needed.
The relief I felt was bittersweet. But then I also had to admit another bittersweet reality: that I never much enjoyed travelling with Ralph even before his diagnosis. Our trips together were rarely successful because they brought out certain unavoidable differences in our approach to living. I like(d) to wander and explore. He liked a destination and goal. I enjoy(ed) the adventure of travel, the getting slightly lost, the disasters as well as serendipitous discoveries . He has always preferred to be in control. I even like(d) airports because they’re so divorced from daily life. Airports always made Ralph anxious even before Mild Cognitive Impairment made them overwhelmingly confusing. I used to force him to take trips with me to interesting places. Once we were there, I could seldom relax because I was working too hard to make the experience fun for him.
So much of what I write in my posts implies that I have lost something because of Ralph’s condition, implies a certain marital perfection that just wasn’t the case. I don’t want to idealize our relationship. Coming home I realize I need to face both the reality of the past and of the future. I want to recognize our past for what it was, not with phony nostalgia. Just as I need to recognize the reality of the changes, sometimes small and easy to miss, currently taking place in Ralph so I can prepare better for the future that is inevitably coming by learning how to work the HVAC, how to spend evenings in solitude, how to travel and enjoy myself in general without guilt. When I come to think of it, I should know how to do all these things anyway.