In sickness and in mental health

By Mbalenhle Buthelezi

My grandmother has dementia and sometimes forgets who I am. It can be frustrating for her and everyone in the house, but no one is more patient and supportive than her husband, my grandfather. Through sickness and health, they continue living happily ever after.

My grandfather says there is no handbook on how to survive a partner’s psychiatric crisis. The person he has known for more than five decades has slowly been replaced by a stranger who is at most times aloof and unusual. Sometimes it is too hard for him. I have seen the depression in his eyes once and the weariness from not getting enough sleep because she is sometimes up packing in the middle of the night for ‘God knows where’. To keep himself sane, he hurls himself into being an excellent demented-person’s spouse. He keeps notes on what makes things better and what makes them worse.

My grandmother and grandfather fell in love effortlessly in their carefree teens. They now love each other desperately, through psychosis. From the stories I’ve heard, on their wedding day they promised to love each other and stick together in good times and in bad. Their love story did not end when she fell ill, in fact it began. For me at least and everyone else who sees them go through their daily lives as husband and wife. And how am I inspired? You may pick up the worry from his eyes, but you will never hear him complain, instead he will call her sweet names and tell her how beautiful she is. Before her sickness, they had already lived a long healthy life together. They have six children, many memories of happiness, tears and all else in between.

My grandfather saw many changes in my grandmother before she was diagnosed with idiopathic dementia a few years ago. Although they were hard to pinpoint because the illness began subtly, it was impossible not to recognise a change in the behaviour of the person he had spent most of his life with. These symptoms included misplacing things, an inability to retrace her steps, changes in her mood and personality and confusion with time and place.

My grandfather takes pride in taking care of her. Although he is also not fit enough physically, he is mentally strong and wouldn’t make any compromises for the love of his life. From the minute they get out of bed and go about their daily routine he is responsible for her. He runs her baths, ensures that she finishes her porridge, takes all her medication and has the appropriate clothing for the weather. Supporting her take her medication sometimes means watching her swallow. In his persistence, she often responds rudely with “leave me alone” or “go away”. This makes them less than equals, which for him is sometimes unsettling.

She has become very passive. She used to have an opinion about everything. She would tell us what appropriate clothing was, what to cook, how to cook it, and what kind of ‘boys’ to look out for. She now sits passively at family gatherings with no contribution except her beautiful smile and laughter. My grandfather encourages her to speak by constantly asking for her opinion. Now, out of character, he has become a stickler, the husband who nags and dwells on the nitty-gritty. For him, this is sometimes weird, but at least their roles still complement each other, and their marriage hums along.

For my grandfather, everything is centred around taking care of her. If they are invited to a function or have anywhere to go to, he has to start subtly talking about it a few days in advance to get her used to the idea. Talk about how important their attendance will be, what they should wear and when they should leave. If he is lucky enough she will get up and get ready without any hassles on the day. However, she never sits throughout the proceedings of any function. Thirty minutes is enough for her to want to go back to her house. If she decides not to go at all, then there will be no attendance from the Buthelezi family.

Wait, before you think this is a one-way street, she cares deeply for him too. If he is out of sight for even a minute, you will see her pace around the house and yard. If there is still no sign of him, she will swallow her pride and ask us ‘wezingane uphi umkhulu’? If we answer that he is out doing errands in town or in church, she will stand by the lounge window, which faces the main street, open the curtain and patiently wait for his car to drive in through the gate. Do not attempt to move her from there or derail her focus, even if it’s for 3 hours, she will wait.

At 26 I have attended my fair share of weddings. It’s not that I don’t believe in happily ever after’s, but I prefer it when the priest says ‘repeat after me’ rather than the couple exchanging their own. I always hear of and know people who have made promises but struggled to keep them. So, when I listen to people making these lifelong promises to each other on their wedding day I always wonder if they know what they are getting themselves into. Do they even know what a lifetime is? Maybe 10 years, 20 years or even 60 years?

I would have loved to hear what my grandparents said to each other many, many years ago. They met in 1962 and exchanged their vows six years later. Who says that only young lovers can spread the fragrance of love? They are the reason why I sometimes believe in happily ever after. They have nurtured their friendship through sickness and health as they had promised, at least I’d like to think that is one of the things they promised each other.

More stories in Issue 104

Contributors

Mbalenhle Buthelezi

Mbali is a Master’s student at Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. Her research focus lies within the field of mobile media, particularly its dynamics in relation to social capital and development within rural communities. She has worked in the realm of advocacy for access to information and the realisation of socio-economic rights […]

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