Some time last year, Vera believes, her husband was kidnapped and executed, his lifeless body now dwelling beneath the lawn outside her window — she could probably find the exact spot, she says, if only she weren’t so bedridden. Meanwhile, an impostor has taken her good husband’s place by her bedside, where he now sits patiently, day and night, in wait for her affections. She’s not sure if it’s this man who dispatched the love of her life, or whether others did the dirty work for him, but he is responsible, there’s no doubt of that, and he now waits to reap the benefits. Most days, she just lies there and says little — she’s polite, even cheery at times, so as not to betray her suspicions to him — but sometimes it has been all she can do to not shout at him to go away. Her husband was devoted to her.
Born in 1919, Vera had often seen Robert walking by her front gate, on his way to school. He was perhaps a year younger than her, but she had always found him interesting. It was not until she was in her late teens, out with a friend in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta, when a car pulled up to the curb and the driver asked the girls if they wanted a ride. Vera saw that Robert was in the back seat. She climbed in, nudging her friend into the front with the driver.
Vera and Robert courted for three years before Robert was called away to the war. He served in New Guinea, writing to Vera at every chance he could. Back home on leave for a week in 1941, Robert asked Vera to marry him, and she said she would. The next day, he bought her a dress and shoes, twisted the arm of a local priest, and sweet-talked an apartment in Manly from a man who allowed the honeymooners to have it for just a few days. When Robert went back to Port Moresby, he and Vera were husband and wife.
He returned at war’s end and the young couple settled down to make a home in Sydney’s west. They had two children — a boy and a girl — who Vera raised while Robert rode to work on a bicycle, his plumbing tools strapped to the back. He worked hard and, by 1960, he had his own business with several employees, Vera assisting as secretary and bookkeeper. They made a good team, invested wisely, and, by the end of the decade, they operated several small factories in Sydney’s west, had built their own house in a good suburb, and owned a few racehorses both Vera and Robert enjoyed to watch gallop at local meets.
Life wasn’t all gravy. Vera, headstrong and quick to temper (a redhead), never backed down in a fight, and of those there were many. But their marriage survived in part because of Robert’s unswerving devotion to her. One time, an argument with Robert’s brother over business matters saw Vera pursue him from the house with a kitchen knife. Robert dissolved the partnership with his brother the very next day. His fidelity to his wife was paramount to all bonds.
In 1988, Vera was hospitalised with a duodenal ulcer. After a lengthy recovery, she seemed to lose interest in life outside of the house they had built. Her children now married with kids of their own, her loyal and affectionate husband soon to retire, she saw little point in conversing with society when everything she wanted was so close to home. She withdrew from the world, her existence shrinking to a cosy monotony of television, books, music and meals, Robert waiting on her, as he’d always done. Her health suffered for it — her muscles atrophied, her bones became brittle, her joints arthritic. In 2005, she suffered a fall from which she never fully recovered. Proud and headstrong as ever, she rejected advice of those who argued she needed professional care, and the idea of a nursing home was unthinkable. While she had Robert, all was well.
But Robert was old now, too, and, try as he did, he just wasn’t physically capable of properly attending to Vera’s critical needs. What’s more, his memory was occasionally failing him — just little things at first, but increasing in frequency and importance. It was a dangerous combination. In the end, even Robert agreed that Vera would not survive unless she was removed to a place of full-time care — at least until she was strong enough to return and join him again in their home. Most reluctantly, Vera acquiesced, in part because she knew that Robert would visit her every day, as he did.
It was after Vera had moved away that Robert began to notice the men — strangers who seemed to take an unwelcome interest in the home he and Vera had shared. At nights, he’d hear them plotting, and though he was sure they were gaining access to the premises he couldn’t work out how they were doing it. He began calling family members in a panic, insisting the police be alerted at once. At first, of course, some wondered whether there wasn’t some truth to it. But when his son-in-law entered the home one day to find Robert conversing with a gallery of photographs — all the people from his life, lined up as an audience — it was clear Robert was suffering from dementia.
According to the most recent research, 46.8 million people worldwide were living with dementia in 2015, a number that will almost double every 20 years, reaching 74.7 million in 2030 and 131.5 million in 2050 — one in ten of us who reach such an age will surely suffer from it. Despite this, research into dementia does not attract the funding afforded those ‘sexier’ diseases that assault the young. Dementia, like death, is commonly viewed as something of an inevitable occurrence — a rite of passage for the old and silly. Little is known of it, in part because no sufferers have ever emerged to tell us of its loneliness.
In A Dark Mirror: Reflections on Dementia, Raymond Tallis supposed our personalities, our very identities, to be the products of memories daisy-chained in chronological sequence, each one informing the other and, like the little milestones in a love affair, making sense of the next. “All of this is eroded with dementia”, he wrote. “As new memories cease to be laid down, the ability to connect the current account of daily experience with the deposit account of the past is lost.” As memories fade, the sufferer descends “into an intolerable solitude, one which consists of disconnected moments”.
And he described the “terrible pathos in the way they try to make sense of a senseless discontinuity by accusing others of bringing about the endless muddle, by plotting against them, by putting them in a situation which, because they cannot understand it and have not chosen it, they assume has been imposed by those ‘others’ — those others usually their nearest and dearest, those who have done the most to assist and comfort them; they have now become the focus of anger and fear.”
This is undoubtedly what has happened to Robert and, consequently — tragically — Vera, too. It has now been four years since he joined her in the aged care home, and in that time his mind has deteriorated dramatically — he complains of the nurses abusing him, stealing his money, attempting to poison him through his meals. And yet he sits every day, in a single chair by the side of Vera’s bed, his single knowable task — his devotion to her — the only thing that makes sense to him. All around, on the walls and bedside tables, are Vera’s photographs: a hand-coloured portrait of Robert, handsome and in uniform; a photo of them on the day they were wed. As if she could no longer reconcile the memories of the man she once loved with this new confused entity, Vera, some time ago, decided this was not him, but an impostor in his place. The man who has cared for her all her life has become, for her, the very architect of their love’s ruin.
“Dementia,” concluded Tallis, “is an indirect reminder that to be human is to be explicitly extended in and across time; that the backbone of the self, the ground of personhood, is memory.”
Vera and Robert’s granddaughter now lives in the house they built together — she’s minding it for them, she tells them, until that mythical day when they will return and life will be as normal. All over the house is evidence of lives lived to the fullest: pictures on the walls of racehorses, scenes of significance and people who meant something, their smiles fading in old frames; country roses carpet underfoot, still blooming after decades of traffic; a garage out the back festooned with tools and nails for every possible purpose, and jars half emptied of contents, snapped closed for some handy use in the future — all left where it stood at a single moment in time, as if some air raid siren had chased the occupants from their lives, their memories left behind.
She visits them when she can, but sometimes she can scarcely bear the weight of it — the anxiety in Vera’s eyes, the unrequited devotion in Robert’s. One time, he asked who “this pretty young thing” was who was blessing them with her presence, and the answer — that she was his own granddaughter — seemed to stun him into silence. And there’s a song that comes on the radio once in a while that, somehow, makes her think of Robert singing it, and almost always makes her cry:
“Darling I’ll bathe your skin/I’ll even wash your clothes/Just give me some candy, before I go…”
Just last week, Robert took a turn for the worse, and, for the first day anyone can remember, was unable to drag himself from his bed for the journey down the hall to Vera’s room and the comfort of the chair that waits by her bedside. It was late in the morning when Vera asked after “that man”, and was told he was not well. She surprised everyone by insisting she be taken to him. When reminded of her belief that he was but an imposter, she didn’t deny it. But she’s become almost fond of him — he’s really not such a bad fellow.
If only he’d admit what he’s done, she says, he might have a chance with her after all.