Mist filters the moonlight like a fragrance through our open blinds, and we sleep together in the same bed again this night.
One week ago, both of us test positive for COVID. Both of us take the five-day regimen of the antiviral Paxlovid, and both of us now test negative for COVID. Our symptoms have improved so much that I strip the Murphy bed and move back to our bedroom, back to the gentle woosh woosh of his CPAP like a faraway ocean surf, to his 4 a.m. nightlight for reading, to the impertinent pulse of electronic massage from his side of the bed.
It feels disloyal to acknowledge that sleeping apart is more restorative than sharing our bed. My fallback response to quandaries like this is to keep doing the disturbing thing until it gets better, or at least normalizes. COVID leaves you fatigued in any case. I examine my self-effacement with curiosity.
Yet sleeping apart creates an emotional distance I am not willing to risk, other than temporarily for infectious disease. The physical distance is also significant at our ages—to be present if one of us can’t breathe, for example. He no longer touches me, even accidentally in sleep. But I am there, just in case.
I google mild cognitive impairment again and again, in case there’s a new piece to the puzzle.
I find his notes to himself throughout our condominium. The dining room, kitchen, and bedroom overflow with scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, and whole notebooks of reminders, both things to do and things he has done, so he can remember them. Everyone needs reminders, I tell myself. Maybe not so many duplicates, maybe not scattered in so many places. Maybe not mixed in with prescriptions, insurance papers and retirement documents.
Notebooks overflow his sock and underwear drawers. And the boxes. So many boxes of papers and notes fill the closets. I do not sort or disturb them; he loses them enough as it is. He searches somewhat frantically to locate the right one when he needs it. “I’ve lost it, I’ve lost it,” he exclaims, until he sorts through the stacks and eventually finds what he needs.
More notebooks are devoted entirely to “My weekly calendar 2021-2022” and previous years, many calendars. Designated notebooks detail every Webinar and podcast he’s seen, to jog his memory. Separate packets of diet-sheets chronicle everything he consumes daily, a compulsion. Another notebook is devoted to his scrawled medical notes from six different specialists—a good idea, if only the writing were legible.
If I say, “Remember to pick up the mail,” he writes it down. If he finds the note, he will retrieve the mail. If he visits a friend on the phone, he writes down the date and what they talked about. In person, he tracks conversations at a slower pace, gets lost in tangents, loses the thread. Conversation dries up. I tell myself, at least he doesn’t get physically lost. He doesn’t wander physically, only mentally. We used to have so much to say, so many ideas, we could talk for hours and hours.
I see how hard he works to function normally, and I admire his resolve. I admire his commitment to walking every day, though his gait is now a shuffle, often unsteady.
It is heartbreaking. He is not who he used to be.
No one can tell from the outside, can detect the long moment of dismay when he nods in a fog of comprehension. The neighbor knocks on our door and when I answer, there is no hint that I have been crying. We speak pleasantly as I agree to pick up her mail over the coming week, no whiff of this grief, this hiding—protecting him. I’m sure it’s not unique to us after fifty years of marriage, but it feels so lonely. I feel. How lucky for me, to find my feelings, to claim my disowned emotions just in time to fully experience my husband’s shifts in awareness. I miss my friend.
When he’s unable to perform tasks—folding laundry, brewing coffee, choosing which icon to click—and he does need assistance for formerly easy tasks, do I say nothing and do it for him? Do I hug him and then take over? Reminding him what he used to know is cruel. Instructing him in what he won’t remember is also cruel. How do I not cry?
We are back in bed with each other. It is not nothing. What a thing.
© Catherine Klatzker
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Catherine’s interview]