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Spouse's Dementia Leaves Poet A 'Strange Relation'

When her husband was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, author and poet Rachel Hadas turned to literature. "Poetry has always been a way of coping for me," she says.
James Kriegsmann
When her husband was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, author and poet Rachel Hadas turned to literature. "Poetry has always been a way of coping for me," she says.

After 30 years of marriage, poet Rachel Hadas gradually found her husband George slipping into uncharacteristic silences. George, a professor of music at Columbia University, was soon diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 61.

Before 2004, Hadas didn't have a name for George's discomfiting behavior. But her subconscious knew something was wrong, she says — she had described it in a poem, "In Your Chair," at least two years before. In the poem, based on a dream, her husband sits silent in a chair, as she scurries around, "bringing the world to him," she tells NPR's Neal Conan.

"How amazing, that I knew all that?", she says. "My poems have always known much more than I know." She had forgotten she'd ever written the poem. "It didn't seem important," she says, but "then reading it again, I was struck with this kind of dread ... my subconscious appears to be smarter and much braver than the rest of me."

Cover of 'Strange Relation'
Paul Dry Books

As Hadas negotiated the years before George moved to an assisted living facility, reading and writing became Hadas' life line. Not so much to console, she says, but just to help her manage. "Poetry has always been a way of coping for me ... since my father died when I was 17, I've turned to poetry not only to express my feelings ... but consistently to figure out what I was feeling at a given time."

George's disease "presented an enormous cognitive challenge, not only for him but for me," with a very steep learning curve, she says. "Poetry helped me to be a little less stupid as I stumbled through the process."

Literature also helped Hadas manage the loneliness of losing a spouse to a disease known as frontotemporal dementia. It "is terribly lonely and confusing to live with," she says. "It's enormously reassuring to realize not necessarily that other people have coped with this disease, though they have, but that they have coped with things that are just as hard or harder.

"Having read and taught Greek tragedy since I was in my early 20s, I really should have known this," says Hadas. "But it takes a lot to make us pay attention."

Hadas also discovered entirely new insights into her experience while re-reading old favorites, from Greek classics to Charles Dickens. "It's not so much that I said, OK, I think I'm going to re-read David Copperfield now." But as her husband piled up pages of his essays in their apartment she says she was reminded of the pleasant but confused character of Mr. Dick.

Hadas believes that anything worth reading is worth re-reading. "You ... read it the first time and miss most of the point, and then you come back to it ... It's just startling when things come back and kind of hit you."

That's the transformative power of literature — the power to make it one's own — that Hadas, a professor of English at Rutgers University, tries to instill in her students.

"I like to say to my students that a really successful poem floats free of its occasion, and floats free of any intention," she says. Novels, she notes, can do the same — like "Hans Christian Anderson's creepy, wonderful story The Snow Queen." The protagonist's "cold, heartless behavior looks like the behavior of someone with frototemporal dementia," says Hadas. "But presumably, that's not what Anderson intended."

"The wonderful thing about literature is that literature helps us to live our lives, and life helps us to pay attention to literature," says Hadas. "It's a feedback loop."

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