Wednesday, February 22, 2012


There are some stories that may be apocryphal, but they’re too good not to be true. For example, a friend of mine worked in a lab that used marmots as experimental models for sleep research. This makes sense, since marmots are champion hibernators. However, there were some difficulties adapting them for laboratory use; one issue that my friend told me about is that marmots are also champion monogamists. The laboratory kept their marmots in standard single-occupant rack cages, but did not reckon on the uxorious urges of the monogamous marmot. Marmots would regularly break out, wrecking a cage in the process, and break into the cage of their partner, wrecking a second cage. The researchers would come into the lab and find a rack of expensive scrap metal, and wide-open cages inhabited by two smug-looking marmots. Marmots don’t want freedom; they want each other.

I was reminded about these hi-fidelity marmots by what’s been happening with my parents over the last few weeks. My parents have been married for fifty-something years, and for most of this time they’ve been inseparable. I can recall a few trips that my dad took without my mom to scientific conferences, but these were short and infrequent. Pretty much, where one went, the other went. It’s old-fashioned, but a lot of my mom’s identity is that she is my dad’s wife.

However, my dad’s Alzheimer’s disease is prying my dad away from my mom, and this is not good for her. My brothers and I have seen it coming, and have been trying to ease her into it. We regarded it as a great success when she went for a week-long trip to a college club reunion without my father. Lately, however, things haven’t gone so well.

My dad has spent almost the last two months in hospital and skilled nursing facility. My Mom couldn’t drive to go see him, and her short-term memory has deteriorated enough that she couldn’t take the bus by herself. So, she’s stayed at home. I or one of my brothers have been there most of the time, and she’s been taken to see her husband every other day or more. She watches as he is fed, or led through physical therapy, and she just crumbles with sadness at her beloved’s condition. Once she gets home, she is lost; absent her husband, an oppressive mental fog descends. She doesn’t know where he is, why he’s away, how long he’s been gone, when he’s coming back, whether he’s safe or wandering the streets of Santa Monica, whether she’ll ever see him again. She gets more and more upset ‘til she dissolves in tears, despite having one of her sons telling her over and over exactly what is happening. It is awful to see.

My mom’s husband is home now, so things seem to be a little better for her. She is beginning to realize (but definitely not accept) that things will forever be different. There will always be a nurse present (and threatening her sole possession of her husband), and while her husband’s body is home, he will never completely return.

My mom’s identity used to be half made of her husband—a beautiful, lovely ideal for a marriage, and one that I ardently hope I can live up to in my own marriage. As that half of her identity crumbles and decays, we’re left watching the remainder of her psyche teetering. Out of devotion to her husband, she sometimes seems content to let everything go. Her children—and sometimes even she—know that she needs to recast herself, which is terrible hard work. The habits of fifty years are hard to break, and the marmotic urge that will move heaven and earth to be with one’s life partner is hard to resist. Too often what we know we ought to do, and what we actually end up doing, are diverging roads. My brothers and I are a bit on edge about which road my mom will steer us all down, and whether she’s even capable of steering at this point.

I know another story about monogamous animals, considerably less cute than the tale of the marmots, and I know this one is not apocryphal because I saw it with my own eyes. There was a pair of birds that had just plighted their troth and set up their nest near our house in Sacramento. One of them, alas, got hit by a car then run over. Let me succumb to the fallacy of attaching human emotions to the actions of animals, and say that its partner was grieving—it wouldn’t leave the feathery blotch of roadkill, and flitted around it, maybe wondering why it wasn’t responding as it had just a few minutes ago. I was about to shoo it away, maybe move the corpse, when the inevitable happened. A car sped up the street, radio blaring and driver texting. The two birds, so recently together in life, were now together in two-dimensional death.

But, you know, who’s to say that’s an unhappy ending?

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