Now, May I Shoot the Messenger?


Early in 2009, I wanted to write a novel. The plot was outlined in my head: A woman, unhappy in her marriage, would abandon her husband and run away to New York.

At the time, my imaginary plot mirrored my life. I fantasized about leaving a note for Tommy, telling him I’d get in touch when settled. I didn’t think he would care.

I never did write the novel, nor run away. Instead, I made an appointment with my therapist.

“My husband is a jerk,” I told Sarah. “When we first married, he’d write me love letters, hide post-it notes with ‘love you wifey’ in my gym bag. Now, nothing.”

Sarah sat across from me in her small office. I sank into the cushions of her couch, and into my own self-pity, as I had done in other sad, or puzzling times in my life.

“He doesn’t care about me,” I whined. “He never asks about my day. I'll say, ‘how was the Y? How was golf?’ But me? It’s like I don’t exist.”

I continued, “And he bursts out with these stupid comments. He shouts at the television set. ‘You’re an actor,’ he’ll say to a commercial. ‘You’re fat!’ he throws at Oprah.’ I’ve tried to reason with him, but it’s no use, he just repeats the same dumb thing the next time a housewife selling soap or Oprah appears on the screen.”

Sarah listened. She didn’t nod, pitying my plight. She didn't agree my husband was a jerk. She didn’t encourage my escape. “Do you want to live alone?” she asked.

I pictured Tommy on his own. He’d probably survive. Before we married in 1998, he’d been a bachelor for 15 years. He knew how to cook, clean, take care of himself. But I couldn’t stand being alone. After my first husband walked out of our 30-year marriage, all I wanted was to be part of a couple again.

Sarah questioned lingered. I thought about the early years of my marriage to Tommy. Our compatibility, our comfortable evenings at home -- my husband on the couch working on the crossword puzzle, me opposite reading a newspaper. We were happy together.

“No,” I told Sarah, as I reached for the box of Kleenex. “I don’t want to live alone.”

As my sessions with Sarah continued, something was happening with Tommy. He was having trouble speaking. I asked him if he saw the words in his head. He nodded. “But you can’t get them out of your mouth?” Another yes. He could start the crossword puzzle, but could not finish it. Some people thought his garbled language meant he was drunk.

“Perhaps he should see a neurologist,” Sarah said, when I described his latest behavior.

His internist agreed. Over several months late in 2009, Tommy had blood tests, an EEG, a neuropsychometric test, and a brain SPECT scan.

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” was how the neurologist put it. He turned to me, as if Tommy was already unable to understand what was coming. “I suspect your husband has Primary progressive aphasia. It’s a dementia that affects the frontal lobe, the brain’s language center. There is no cure and the experimental drugs can cause hallucinations or other side affects."

He went on talking, about follow-up visits for Tommy, a support group for me. We rose from our chairs and left the office, hand in hand. As we walked to the subway, I turned to Tommy and asked, “Are you okay?”

“I don’t have dementia,” he said. “I know, honey, I know,” I said, squeezing his hand.

As soon as we arrived home, I looked up the symptoms associated with the illness. They matched every complaint I had unleashed in Sarah's office, plus some I had never got around to disclosing. I learned it typically started early, often in one’s 60’s, and was slow moving. Tommy must have had it for years before the speech problems surfaced.

Once I knew the diagnosis and symptoms, my anger towards my husband evaporated. I no longer wanted to write the novel, or run away. I ended therapy. I understood my husband was not responsible for his behavior. He could do nothing to stop his actions. I became empathetic and compassionate.

Today, three years after the diagnosis, Tommy can barely speak. Primary progressive aphasia has completed its task. Post-it notes once holding sentiments of love, are now used for clues when I get stumped. I value these written words as much as I did the love notes.

Our marriage is happy and as companionable as his illness allows. Today, when we watch television together, on couches that face each other, my husband no longer yells at the commercials, or at Oprah.