Love Story

NaBloPoMoNovember 14, 2007

The windmills whirl the winter in . . .
Some tea with whiskey keeps away the dew . . . 
Long ago, I used to be a young man,
And dear Margaret remembers that for me.
                     —  Michael Smith, b. 1941
                          American singer songwriter, “The Dutchman”

United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2005 because her husband of more than fifty years required her care. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when he was only sixty, John O’Connor had reached the point in the progression of his condition where he needed increasing supervision from someone who understood the ways his behavior and his perceptions were changing. Eventually the burden of his care became too much for any one person and the family, probably with great reluctance, placed him in an assisted living facility dedicated to the care of Alzheimer’s patients.

Mr. O’Connor has entered the phase of Alzheimer’s where he no longer recognizes his family. His son says that when family members visit him, he seems to know that he knows them but does not remember the nature of their relationships. The family has now come forward with the news that Mr. O’Connor has formed a romantic relationship with a woman who also lives in the facility. Rather than feeling jealous or bitter, Justice O’Connor feels happy for her husband because his adjustment to his situation seems improved. When she visits, the three of them — the wife, the husband, and the new woman in his life — sit together and enjoy themselves as friends. 

The story has touched a very tender spot in me. The song from which I take the epigraph depicts a day in the life of an elderly Dutchman who continues to meet his friends at the riverbank, sometimes confused about what season it is or even what river it is. He is cared for by his wife, Margaret, whose devotion smooths the difficulties of a life filled with increasing forgetfulness.

I knew it first in 1980, from a performance by Steve Goodman on Austin City Limits. I had been married for five years then to a man with whom I had little in common. Both of us had reasons for entering the marriage — a way to mitigate loneliness, an attempt to take on the qualities one found lacking, even a little rebelliousness. The song used my own name as that for the devoted wife. It was the line “sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes” that touched me the most deeply because that is not what I saw when I looked into the eyes of the man I was married to, and I knew then that I could not do for him what the Margaret in the song was doing for the Dutchman.

That realization was so monstrous that I put it out of my mind and went on with my life. But I wasn’t the only one bored and dissatisfied, and two years later the marriage ended. Not long after that I met someone I thought I could make tea and whiskey for. Twenty-four years later I still think that, but I don’t have to see any unborn children in his eyes. I have only to look at any of the pictures of the luminous child he gave me that dot my house to realize anew how graced my life has been.

Maybe it’s because I’m going away for a month, missing Thanksgiving with my husband and my daughter, that makes me especially engaged by the most recent chapter in Justice O’Connor’s love story. What a generous spirit she has. She has long been a role model to me for her intelligence and her leadership. Now I look to her as a role model of a devoted wife and a woman who can accept enormous challenges with grace and courage.

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margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)

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