When Rebecca de Saintonge was 49, her husband was diagnosed with dementia. As his health declined steeply, she met a man by chance and embarked on a relationship that devoted her the strength to carry on caring for him
So now, my love, I know the worst. So wrote Rebecca de Saintonge in her publication on 19 June 1994. Her husband, Jack, 62, had just been diagnosed with Lewy Body illnes, a sort of Parkinsons. Rebecca, then 49, was unflinching about the path ahead. Your brain, she wrote, is shrinking inside your skull. You are going to disintegrate very slowly, intellect and body. You will know what is happening to you. You will see your shit on the floor, on your feet, but you wont know how it got there. You will see me distraught and distorted and know that you have built me so, and not know how to stop it or how to help. You will feel our loving in rags and your God absent and I will hold you to my breast and cradle the shell of your skull, for you will have gone, my love, my dear one. But not quite. But I am with you. IA am your wife. We will live through this together.
Jack had been ill for some years when the final, devastating diagnosis arrived. He was to live another two years; years that were desperately tough and that left Rebecca feeling bereft and alone and exhausted and isolated.
But in the darkness of those times, Rebecca determined a lifeline. It is this lifeline, and what it entail, that is at the heart of her powerful, eloquent memoir, published next week. She found a lover: Nick, a man in a loveless matrimony who shared with Rebecca the experience of coping with person with different and complex wants his son was severely autistic.
They satisfied while discussing special arrangements for the local bonfire party. It certainly wasnt love at first sight: Rebecca remembers him as instead small and brown, and wearing golfing trousers, which was a bad sign. But he took her out for lunch; and when it rained on the way back to the car he brushed her wet hair from her forehead. It was, remembers Rebecca, presumptuous and intrusive and inappropriate; but when she looked into his eyes and assured the tenderness there, she knew how profoundly she missed the intimate connects that are the fabric of a good matrimony, and that had been so cruelly stolen from her own relationship with Jack.
No part of Rebecca had expected to have an affair: Jack, an Anglican preacher, would never have countenanced it, even in the circumstances in which it happened. But Jack was out of it by then, she tells; the dementia into which he had at first dipped occasionally was now his almost constant country. If Jack had been mentally alert, she would have walked away from Nick there and then. What happened was because of the utter loneliness of living 24/7 with someone who could no longer connect, she says.
How do you keep your romantic love, your tender love, when your matrimony has changed out of all recognition? I disliked being called his carer: I was his wife, I was his lover till the day he died. But I was spending my period wiping his pee-pee off the floor and he wasnt there any more.
What Rebecca realised was that what Nick could devote her and she him, in his parallel life in which his intimate wants, too, were not being complied with was something of the joy and hope and tenderness that induces us responsive, loving human being. Because of Nick, she tells, she was able to claw back her sense of self-worth and this, in turn, devoted her the strength to stay with Jack through the darkest of times. Her tale has echoes of the paths taken by Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything and by DH Lawrences Constance Chatterley. For all three, it was a question of survival.
Rebecca preserves it is less about infidelity than fidelity; less about transgressing her matrimony vows and more about the durations to which some people must sometimes go to stay faithful on their own terms, in a way that induces life bearable for all those most closely affected.
As Jacks illness progressed, Rebecca experienced the painful realisation that, although he was not yet dead, she had nonetheless to let him go. And what that entailed because he was the love of their own lives, the second husband who had rescued her after a disastrous first matrimony was that she risked being pulled down with him.
There were so many contradictions, she tells. Your loved one is alive but dead; you are a wife, but you are not a wife. This person who had given me so much joy and built my life worth living was now sapping my joy and their own lives was destroying my life. In those circumstances, as your partner dies, you are dying yourself.
If it hadnt been for Nick, Rebecca believes she could not have carried on. Sometimes Nick and I would satisfy only for a couple of hours, for a walk or a barbecue, while someone else was looking after Jack. But those times were so intense and so filled with pleasure that they put me back in touch with the joy of life and with who I was. It meant that whenever I was with Jack, and when things were hard, there was another pair of arms beneath me, someone who knew what I was going through and who cared very much.
What Nick did, she tells, was release her for a brief spell from the enclosure where she now felt imprisoned much of the time with Jack. He was someone to talk to, somebody to laugh with, because Jack suffered from depression. Through him I had moments of freedom and that gave me the strength to carry on when I had to go back inside the cage.
Perhaps as extraordinary as her decision to get through Jacks illness on her own terms was her decision to remain a Christian she is now a Quaker but her volume is full of understandable fury. Jack had devoted their own lives to the church and Rebecca rails against the all-powerful, all-knowing God who does utterly fuck-all while my man lies alone on the floor for an hour covered in his own shit.
You bastard, God, tells Rebecca, You unbelievable bastard. But then she asks Jack in one of his lucid moments why he should suffer so much, and he looks at her with gentleness in his eyes, and asks back: Why should I not?
The truth at the heart of Rebeccas book is that life is ragged and complicated and heartbreaking and tough, and where the really big questions are concerned there is no black and white, only a grey it takes bravery to step into. Instead of trying to cover up the mess, to be stoical, to put up with it, to do her duty, as she tells she was always encouraged to do in her postwar childhood, she decided to embrace the messiness and work through it, rather than deny it. There are times in life, she believes, when we must not run away from being overwhelmed because by letting ourselves be overwhelmed in the short term, we will eventually find a way through.
Jack died in 1996. One of the saddest passages in the book describes an afternoon after that, when Rebecca was lying in bed with Nick. Nothing can separate we are currently, he told her. But Rebecca knew he would never leave his wife and son, and she did not want a relationship that would always be clandestine. They parted six months later. Looking back, she tells, I can see he was a gift. I am no longer in touch with him, but Im grateful to him every day because he saved me and in doing that, he saved Jack too.
She spent the next six years on her own getting a certain degree, embarking on a PhD, getting a new job, observing new friends, taking up new interests. Then she met a musician called Robin Hare his marriage had ended and he had two teenage sons. She tells she fell in love with the sons as much as with Robin; they married in 2005, and live in a delightful, sunny bungalow in East Sussex filled with books and arts and Robins doubled bass.
If Jack were here today, tells Rebecca, he wouldnt know her: so much about her is different. Her intimate relationships have moulded her, as they do all of us. She is, above all, grateful for them and for their legacy. All three, she tells, have had common threads. There has always been gentleness, she tells. And love. And there has always been laughter.
Jack and Nick are pseudonyms .
One Yellow Door: A memoir of love and loss, religion and infidelity by Rebecca de Saintonge, is published by Darton, Longman and Todd on 29 October, APS8. 99. To order a transcript for APS7. 19, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 A 333 6846
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