In Hawthorne’s classic American tale, “The Scarlet Letter,” Hester Prynne is forced to wear a scarlet “A” attached to the bodice of her dress — her punishment for an affair with the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. When I was 63, widowed and newly retired, I related to Hester’s plight. I had reconnected with an old boyfriend from the 1950s but our connection was flawed; not only was Herb married, but his wife had Alzheimer’s disease.
Like Hester, I felt burdened by the scarlet “A” I imagined pinned to my jersey as I walked the aisles of Stop & Shop or sat in church wondering what people might say. I wasn’t even sure of my own thoughts about this. My “A” also stood for Alzheimer’s.
Herb, his wife, Norma, and I had remained casual friends through the years. But 2002 was a crisis year for us. Norma was struggling with Alzheimer’s; my brother, who lived with me, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. I was his caregiver. Herb had made the devastating decision to have his wife of 40 years placed in an Alzheimer’s unit. My brother died.
There is much comfort in being with someone who is going through hell when you are, too. Herb and I shared many hours sitting with a cup of tea or glass of scotch. On the phone, we’d review the events, good and bad, that bound us during these dark times in our separate lives. From misery to comfort to finally being able to find laughter, from friendship to wanting more, our relationship deepened. Under normal circumstances this is when we would have shared our good news with family and friends. But we were conflicted. We felt guilty about what was happening, so we kept quiet and stayed apart examining options. Finally we sought professional advice.
Because he had been coming to terms with his wife’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis for a few years, Herb was seeing a psychologist and brought our story to him. I turned to my minister for her thoughts. Both agreed that what we were doing was good; our old lives were over, so we should start anew and make the most of whatever time we had. We set guidelines. He would continue to visit his wife daily. Her needs came first.
For us, there was some freedom from guilt. We acted more like enamored teenagers than seniors, enjoying long walks on the beach, football games, travel, visits with family and friends. He became an Episcopalian; I became a New York Giants groupie. The stove gathered dust while we dined out. During this time, I had a small business as a tour guide. At lunch on one of these tours, I sat with an older couple. They were friendly, happy to talk to me about their lives. The gentleman mentioned his wife was an Alzheimer’s patient at a local rest home. He had met his newfound lady friend there, where she was caring for her husband — also an Alzheimer’s patient.
I just stared at him, hardly believing what he had just said. Here they were, eating their egg salad sandwiches, one on rye, the other on toasted white bread — so normal, so everyday average. No big “A” on their shirts, only white labels with blue letters that began “Hello, my name is . . .” This was an epiphany for me. I pulled off my imaginary “A,” crumpled it into an imaginary ball and tossed it. I was going to be OK. Normal. Relieved to have talked with someone traveling the same path.
There are other couples on this path, juggling vows of loyalty with attempts to escape the loneliness that comes from having a spouse who is neither here nor there. Going through hell, we discover, is easier with a friend. Three years after Norma died, Herb and I were married. We had eight wonderful years together as husband and wife before he died in 2016. I am so glad we had the courage and support to go forward, hand in hand, into a new life.
Jackie Keech lives in Portland, Connecticut.