What the Heart Keeps When the Mind Goes: May Sarton on Loving a Loved One Through Dementia
By Maria Popova
One of the hardest things in life is watching a loved one’s mind slowly syphoned by cognitive illness — that haunting ambiguous loss of the familiar body remaining, but the person slowly fading into otherness, their very consciousness frayed and reconstituted into that of a stranger.
How to go on loving this growing stranger is the supreme challenge of accompanying a precious human being through the most disorienting experience in life — the great open question pocked with guilt but pulsating with possibility.
The poet and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores how to step into that possibility with uncommon sensitivity and tenderness in one of the diary entries collected in the altogether magnificent The House by the Sea (public library).
Sarton was thirty-three when she met Judith Matlack, twelve years her senior. May and Judy fell in love — a love consecrated in Sarton’s almost unbearably beautiful poetry collection Honey in the Hive. When they separated thirteen years later, they remained not only friends but nothing less than family to each other.
Judy was not yet seventy when dementia began fraying her mind. Uncoupled and childless, she moved into a nursing home. Sarton visited regularly. Once she settled into her house by the sea in Maine, she often had Judy stay with her for several days at a time — visits beautiful and bittersweet, for the familiar warmth between them was haunted by Judy’s fading mind. Sarton writes:
It makes me feel abandoned and desperately lonely, lonely partly because I believe no one can quite understand who has not experienced it what it is to lose through senility the person closest to you.
During one of these visits, with Judy particularly disoriented, unable to hold a conversation, wandering into the neighbors’ yards, Sarton offers a passage of tender consolation:
Death comes by installments but sometimes the first installments can be very steep, perhaps much more painful to those around them than to the person. I do cherish her so; can one maintain the image of love when so much has gone?” I guess the answer to that question is, yes, because when one has lived with someone for years, as I did with Judy, something quite intangible is there, as though in the bloodstream, that no change in her changes.
Couple with Mary Gaitskill on how to move through life when your parents are dying — some of the simplest, most beautiful and redemptive life-advice you’ll ever receive — then revisit Sarton on how to live with tenderness in a harsh world.
Published January 25, 2023