We talk to ourselves constantly, and most of the time what we’re doing is dictating the story of our lives: “I was that. I am this. I will be what I imagine for myself.” It’s a nice place to inhabit, as it gives us a comforting sense of continuity and hope and narrative flow. It’s as if the same faculty that lets us frame the past has given us the power to understand the present and the means to shape the future.
But as we get older the odds change, and the likelihood of surprise grows larger. The unexpected interrupts our story: unforeseen deaths, unwanted diagnoses, inexplicable failures — setbacks, however major or minor.
The most unsettling of these, perhaps, is when our story begins to be inhabited by someone else, by a stranger wearing the costume of someone we once knew or thought we knew.
Abigail Lewis’s wrenching story in the Sunday NYT tells of an accident, on an otherwise innocent night, when her husband, out walking the dog, was struck by a car and suffered irreversible brain damage.
Here she is taking him back to a residential care facility:
How do I live with myself? What kind of woman am I that I can leave my husband in this place? What about my wedding vows? Who am I that keeping hold of my own life is more important than taking care of my husband? But I can’t take care of him. The truth is that no single person, no two people could take care of a man in Rich’s condition.
Some of the residents are in the big dining room watching a movie starring Goldie Hawn, but I take Rich to his room, where I tell myself he will be comfortable. His single bed is neatly made, some of his clothes are folded on top — underwear, two sweatshirts. I gesture toward the chair. “Why don’t you sit down for a minute,” I suggest. “I will be back soon. I’m going to run a couple of errands.” I try not to register his bewildered expression. “I will be back soon.” I notice the plants need watering but I’ll do it next time.
You can read the painful rest here.