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Only with the Heart: My Life with Alzheimer’s

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It is only with the heart that one can see rightly:
what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Little Prince

I learned about Alzheimer’s the way most people learn about the disease — involuntarily, when someone they are involved with gets the disease and they themselves are forced to become full-time Caregivers, as I was. My ex-boyfriend, Dick, whom I’d been dating off and on for several years, decided that he wanted us to move in together after I was purchasing a house. As roommates. Despite the fact that I’d broken up with him several months previously, and despite the fact that we were no longer involved in a relationship, I decided to share a house with him. I have no idea why I let him convince me to allow him to move in with me, but I did. I believe Dick had Alzheimer’s at that point, but, because I was completely unfamiliar with the disease and had never known anyone who had it, I didn’t recognize any of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia.

For instance, when we decided to move in together, we also agreed to buy Mortgage Insurance, which pays off the mortgage should one of the owners die. Afterward, however, Dick denied ever even having that conversation with me. I was hurt. It never occurred to me that he simply couldn’t remember having that conversation or agreeing to purchase that Insurance. I thought that, for some reason unknown to me, he was simply being spiteful.

Soon after we moved in together, Dick began having serious troubles at the University, where he taught Mathematics. Though students had been complaining for a few years already that he was difficult to understand when he lectured — and, conversely, he complained that they were inadequately prepared to take the Advanced Calculus classes that he was teaching — the complaints became more frequent and vociferous: to the point where the students walked out of his classes en masse, went directly to the Chairman, and insisted that Dick simply made no sense.

Dick was then assigned lower-level Algebra classes, which outraged him because it was, as he claimed, degrading for someone of his intelligence to be teaching such basic classes. Unfortunately, despite Dick’s “keen intelligence” the same scenario ensued in the lower level, basic classes. Dick had a drop-rate of 98% — the highest at the University. He blamed it on the students’ lack of preparation. Once again, the students blamed it on the fact that he made no sense, adding that whenever they asked him questions, he yelled at them or gave nonsensical answers. Dick was then assigned the Basic Arithmetic classes. The Chairman must have thought that anyone could teach those classes without difficulty.

Unfortunately, because the Chairman didn’t know Dick had Alzheimer’s — because nobody knew that Dick had Alzheimer’s — the Chairman was wrong in believing that Dick could teach the simplest classes. He couldn’t.

Dick was forced into early retirement in the middle of the quarter: a friend took over the classes. Dick was simply unable to teach any longer. In hindsight, I realize that the Alzheimer’s was beyond even the moderate-advanced stages by then, but no one knew it at the time. Not me, not his colleagues, not his family or friends, not even his physician.

Dick became depressed. Unbeknownst to me, he called his grown children, both of whom lived in other states, and told them that there was no food in the house and that I was forcing him to eat dirt. Imagine my shock and horror when, one evening, the police arrived at the house, telling me that Dick’s daughter had called them and said it was an emergency, that I was starving her father, “holding him prisoner,” and that Dick had called her “in fear of his life.”

As soon as the police came, they examined all the cupboards and the refrigerator, all of which were full of food. They also saw the partially eaten roast still in the pan on the top of the stove. They asked Dick if he’d eaten any of it. He said he didn’t remember. I told them I was a vegetarian and hadn’t eaten meat for over 10 years. While they were standing there, Dick went over to the pan and began tearing off pieces of meat, stuffing them into his mouth.

The police looked at each other. They looked at Dick again, who, at that point, was about 30-40 pounds overweight and had a huge belly. One of the policemen made the remark, to Dick, that he didn’t look like a man who was “starving to death”. Dick then pointed to me and said, “She forces me to eat dirt.” The officers asked him to show them the “dirt” I was forcing him to eat. He went over to the cupboard, opened it, and took out a dish of homemade, dark chocolate fudge with walnuts. He peeled back the foil. Over half the dish was gone: I’d just made it that morning. And I hadn’t eaten any.

Both officers, who knew us since we lived in a small village, went over to the pan of fudge. They asked if they could have some. “It’s dirt,” said Dick. “With rocks in it.” The officers ate some. “Damned good dirt,” said one, while the other asked for the recipe so his wife could make it.

They then asked Dick if he’d called his daughter and told her that I was starving him. He looked confused. They asked if he’d told her there was no food in the house, or that I was forcing him to eat dirt. He pointed to the fudge: “This is dirt,” he said. The officers apologized profusely and left. Dick asked me why the police had come to the house. After I explained it, he said, “But why did the police come over?”

Whenever his daughter called the police again, they refused to come to the house.

I thought Dick had “lost his mind”, but Alzheimer’s dementia never occurred to me. I knew nothing about it. All I knew was that ever since we’d moved in together, he seemed constantly to be lying, forgetting things, accusing me of being a liar over the most ridiculous things — like not doing the laundry, which was sitting, clean and folded, on his bed — having more car accidents, getting lost when he went to the grocery or to his daughter’s home for holidays.

Once, a Highway Patrolman found him by the side of the road in Illinois — two states west of where we lived, and nowhere near his daughter’s house in Georgia where he’d been traveling for Thanksgiving — confused, agitated, wringing his hands, crying. The officer only managed to reach me because after he contacted the local police, based on Dick’s driver’s license, which also happened to be expired, they’d given the Patrolman my name and my phone number at the house.

Dick’s daughter, who’d been desperately calling the Georgia Highway Patrol and all the hospitals when her father hadn’t arrived after five days, drove up to Illinois to get him and take him to her house. Her husband drove Dick’s car. Even then, she didn’t suspect Alzheimer’s, or, if she did, she never told me about it. Instead, she accused me of being selfish by not coming down to Thanksgiving with him and forcing him to drive alone (I hadn’t gone down to any holidays with him since before we’d moved in together, because I’d broken up with him, but I guess she didn’t remember that, or else he never told her that we weren’t in that type of relationship any longer).

Dick continued to deteriorate. Most important to my professional life was the fact that he seemed to “get increasingly sick” when I took out a loan to write my first novel — a loan for which he was in no way responsible since we were merely roommates sharing a house together: we were not married and had no finances in common. He constantly raged at me for taking out a bank loan to write “a stupid novel”, called me names, tore up what I was working on (no computers then — it was all handwritten) so that I was forced to hide my work, and stealing things: like my pens, paper, written drafts of the book, and research materials. I thought he was trying to punish me by keeping me from writing the novel by acting helpless. I did believe that he was really depressed — not because he had Alzheimer’s and was losing his memories — but because I was writing full-time, and he was jealous.

Dick often denounced my writing full-time, especially because, according to him, I’d been “stupid enough to take out a bank loan at 17 7/8% interest to write” since my own University would not allow me to take the year off with pay. Every day when I wrote, he’d literally break into my locked office where I was working, screaming things like, “Everybody has dreams and nobody gets to live theirs, so why should you?”

I admit that I began to hate him.

I very much regretted having moved in with him, especially since I’d broken up with him, once again, just before purchasing the house.

But since people like my parents and family had also always mocked me for wanting to be a writer, and had actually tried to prevent my doing so, I thought it was something all writers had to put up with. I still never suspected anything like Alzheimer’s.

I knew Dick was jealous, but didn’t understand why.

I was an English major/Professor who’d wanted to write since I was 6. He was a mathematician. What did he care if I took a year off work, took out a bank loan to live on, and wrote a novel? When he “calculated the odds” of my writing a novel that could actually get published as “less than 1 in a million, and by the way, closer to 0 than to 1”, I thought he was just cruel, and remembered why I’d broken up with him at least 10 times over the years we’d been dating, and wondered, furthermore, why I’d ever agreed to move in with him in the first place.

Dick’s condition worsened. He didn’t eat unless I cooked, but then called his daughter immediately after eating to complain that I was starving him. He didn’t go anywhere unless I forced him to leave the house, like when I took him to the Doctor’s office, but complained that I’d taken away his keys, locked him in the house (with me, I guess), and was holding him hostage. He didn’t even get out of bed. He never got dressed. He wore the same pair of mangy underwear even if someone came to the door and he answered it. He only talked to me to swear at me and call me by his ex-wife’s name. The only other person he talked to was his daughter: to complain that I was abusing him.

I thought Dick was doing everything in his power to keep me from writing and, determined not to let him control me, I continued writing even as I was taking care of him. I got pneumonia twice within 9 months. The second time, I got pneumonia with pleurisy, a very painful condition, and had to drive myself to an Urgent Care Center on Christmas Eve because Dick refused to do so, insisting that we were “divorced” and calling me by his first wife’s name. When I got angry that he kept calling me “Deborah”, he’d laugh and say it was just a joke.

Some joke, that Alzheimer’s.

His condition worsened when I returned to school, though his depression apparently lifted somewhat. He continued calling me “Deborah”, whom he’d divorced almost 30 years earlier. He accused me of having an affair with a previous boyfriend, one I hadn’t even seen or spoken to in over 15 years. He accused me of stealing money — how I could’ve done that, I do not recall. He accused me of trying to poison him. Probably by forcing him to eat dirt. The supposed adultery, theft, and poisoning he relayed to his children. Dick’s daughter drove up from Georgia to confront me, insisting that her father was ill and that I needed to take care of him better. I asked her to give me a break from taking care of him — I’d been doing it for almost 6 years — by taking him to Georgia to live with her, putting him in a Nursing Home or Hospital or Assisted Living Unit in Georgia, where she could be close to him. She was outraged. She claimed that she had enough to do with two small children, and that, besides, it was my responsibility as his “girlfriend.” When I told her we were only roommates, she just stared at me, her hands on her hips.

His son, in medical school in Michigan at the time, refused to take any more of his father’s phone calls, repeatedly calling Dick “crazy”.

Then came the physical violence.

My first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, had not only been published by HarperCollins and sold to publishers in 10 foreign countries, but had been reviewed extensively and well in most major, important publications, such as The New Yorker, Glamour, The San Francisco Chronicle, New York’s Newsday, and, most important, in The New York Times Book Review. One day, when an especially prestigious review came out, after Dick screamed at me and punched a few holes in the walls of the house, he got into fisticuffs in public with complete strangers at a local doughnut & coffee  shop. The police escorted him home with a warning that they would arrest him if he ever did anything like that again. As soon as the front door closed, Dick turned and screamed at me, “I’ve done more in the world of mathematics than you could ever dream of, and you’ve gotten more national and international attention than I ever have, and all you did was write a stupid little novel.”

I realized then that, no matter what was wrong with him — still, never suspecting Alzheimer’s — our arrangement as roommates was over. I had to move out.

Then he hit me. Punched me, really. Right in the face.

He threatened to kill me, and, indeed, raised scissors and stabbed them at me.

I left the house.

I found another place to live.

I began to see a therapist, who advised me never to be alone in the house with him while I was packing my things, and to begin sleeping at the new house I’d rented. I did. On the last day at the old house, when the movers came to get anything I couldn’t move myself, Dick, calling me “Deborah” over and over, beat me up right in front of the three burly, male movers. All of them were so terrified, they simply stood there. None of them came to my aid, and they refused to come back into the house until the police arrived and made Dick leave the premises until I was moved out.

We’d lived together as roommates almost 6 years, and I’d been his Caregiver the entire time. He’d attacked me physically, threatened to kill me, destroyed my personal property. Yet I felt guilty for leaving. I don’t know, in hindsight, if I would’ve felt less guilty had I known he had Alzheimer’s. Perhaps his children, especially his daughter, might have stepped in sooner to help care for him, I don’t know.

I only knew that I had to save myself, and save myself I did. From Dick and his violence, Dick and his jealousy over my professional success, Dick and his rages, Dick and his crippling depression, Dick and his incessant lying. Dick and his Alzheimer’s.

It was only afterward, when he kept coming over to my new house and asking me when I was coming home, stopping me in the street or at the grocery and asking why I never came home anymore, that I began to suspect that something was seriously wrong with Dick.

Something besides jealousy over the fact that I wrote a novel that actually got published. Something besides the fact that my novel got good reviews and won awards. Something other than my promotion to Professor and my being awarded tenure at the University. Something was wrong with his brain. When I told my therapist, who happened to be an expert on Alzheimer’s, her eyes widened. She was the first person who began questioning me in detail on some of Dick’s behaviors. It was she who suggested that Dick not only had Alzheimer’s, but that he was in the late-moderate to advanced stages, and that, furthermore, she suspected Dick had had Alzheimer’s when we first moved in together, if not several years before that.

I was stunned.

As I began to research Alzheimer’s, I saw more and more evidence that Dick did, indeed, have dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, and had had it for years. Certainly he had it all the 6 years we lived together, but he had also exhibited signs of it for several years before that.

For a long time, I was saddened and depressed myself.

Then, in an attempt to heal myself, I decided to write a novel about my experiences with Alzheimer’s dementia and as a full-time Caregiver: Only with the Heart. It helped me heal because I was honest about my feelings as a Caregiver. I also tried to understand what it must be like to be a victim of Alzheimer’s: to lose your memories, your life, your very self. Eleanor, the character in the novel who has Alzheimer’s, narrates the second part of the book, after she has Alzheimer’s. Many readers have thanked me for helping them understand what their own parents or spouses had been going through. Publishers Weekly wrote, “It is a testimony to Szeman’s skill and artistry that Eleanor, stricken with Alzheimer’s, is perhaps the most reliable narrator in the book.”

Irish folksinger Tommy Sands, who lost his own mother to Alzheimer’s and wrote a song to her called “Good-bye, Love, There’s No One Leaving”, graciously met with me while I was writing the book and told me that, every time he performed that song, he felt his mother’s spirit on the stage with him. He was honored that I wanted to include it in the novel — as a song that Sam plays for his mother Eleanor — and said that his mother would have liked me.

Here’s Tommy’s song, as well as his commentary about his mother’s Alzheimer’s and his guilt about putting her in a Home.

Good-Bye Love There’s No One Leaving
(Tommy Sands)

Now is the moment of parting,
I can feel all the fear in your hand

Leaving a home full of memories,
on the verge of a strange new land

It doesn’t seem so long since the last time,
the first day you took me to school

Searching for words that are gentle,
being brave so the tears don’t come through


Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

How swiftly the years seemed to follow,
but I never could see you grow old

We both turned the hay in the summer
and we sang when the winter was cold

And the stories I tell to my children
are the ones that you told me before

But the story now slowly unfolding
is the saddest story of all

Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving
Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

I don’t know how much you can hear me,
but you seem quite content on your own

Are you drifting away to the summer
of the days of your childhood at home

And just when I feel I’ve betrayed you,
I am lost and I don’t know what to do

You smile and you whisper, My darling,
you must go and take your wee ones to school

Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving
Good-bye love, there’s no one leaving

And Tommy’s comments, which he also told me when my boyfriend and I had lunch with him during an Irish folk-song festival, where he sang this song. (By the time we met Tommy and he graciously gave me permission to use his song lyrics in the novel, his mother had already died.)

[1995:] I couldn’t help but feel a sense of betrayal as I led my mother out through the door of the family home for the last time. She had Alzheimer’s disease and we weren’t able to look after her anymore. I could feel the fear in her hand, just as she must have felt the fear of uncertainty in mine the first day she led me out to school. Early the next morning in the unfamiliar surroundings of the residential home I sat with her, not wanting to, or knowing how to, leave. She was the one who came to the rescue as usual. “You must go and take your wee ones to school,” she whispered suddenly. She had done her duty, now I must do mine. We still wave good-bye nearly every day as she drifts with dignity further and further away from the pains of the earth towards the perfection of the heavens. My thanks to the great people in Kennedy’s Home, Rostrevor, for being so good to her.
(Notes, Tommy Sands, ‘The Heart’s A Wonder’)

My novel Only with the Heart was published to critical acclaim, and is on the recommended reading list of most Alzheimer’s Chapters across the country. After writing it, I did feel that part of my own pain had healed. I also thought my experiences with Alzheimer’s were over.

I was wrong.

About 13 years after I’d left Dick, just before I was to move out of state, he appeared at my front door. My boyfriend opened the door, realized who it was and, locking the screen door, called to me. When I came to the door, Dick asked when I was coming home.

Without saying anything, I closed and locked the door (my therapist and the police had advised me to do this, for my own safety, whenever Dick showed up). Dick wouldn’t leave. He kept standing on the front porch, wringing his hands, crying, shouting, “Just tell me when you’re coming home.”

I phoned the police, who had been there many times before to escort Dick back to his house, trying always to explain to him that I didn’t live with him any longer, that I hadn’t lived with him for 13 years, and that he had to stop bothering me.

That was the last time I saw him: one of the officers was trying to convince Dick that he had to go home, the other was phoning Dick’s daughter and telling her that someone would have to drive up from Georgia to deal with this ongoing situation, Dick was swinging at the officers while trying to persuade them to get me to come home with him. He left the premises in the back of one of the squad cars, and one of the officers drove Dick’s truck home. The officers later returned to make sure that I was all right. They were always very good about that: protecting me from someone who, through Alzheimer’s, had unfortunately not only lost his memory but become physically violent.

Only with the Heart was born out of my unwilling experiences with Alzheimer’s and with being a Caregiver 24/7/365 for almost 6 years. My “patient” did not die and release me from being his Caregiver. Instead, he became violent, threatened repeatedly to kill me, and attacked me. A part of me died, many times over, because of Alzheimer’s. The part of me that survived left Dick and his disease so that I could live. Dick has 2 grown children and an ex-wife who, I imagine, have taken good care of him. If they put him in a Home, then he was well taken care of by the staff. I don’t know whether he’s still alive. If he is, I know that he doesn’t remember anything about me or most of his life by now.

That is the saddest part of Alzheimer’s dementia: it steals lives — the victims’ and the Caregivers’ — long before it ever kills the victims.

And, so far, there is absolutely nothing we can do to even slow it down, let alone cure or prevent it.

Related Posts
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Pathetique: Struck by Alzheimer’s Again

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My Dinner with Patrick (Stewart)

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The meeting of two personalities is like
the contact of two chemical substances:
if there is any reaction,
both are transformed.
Carl Jung, Swiss psychologist (1875 – 1961)

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“Patrick Stewart called,” said my Hollywood agent one day after I got home from University. “He wants to know if you can swing by Los Angeles on your book tour so that he can have dinner with you.”

I was flabbergasted. Though Patrick and his production company, Flying Freehold, had held the option on my first novel — The Kommandant’s Mistress — for a few years, and though we had often spoken for long periods on the phone — about all sorts of topics, including my novel — I never dreamed that I would meet him, let alone have dinner with him.

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I was also stressed. Not being a famous author, my New York publishers had always asked me to pay for my book tours: I had saved a long time on my English Professor’s salary to do the tour for my second novel; all the flights, hotels, and bookstores had already been set up.

How could I add another city at the last minute?

The expense would be tremendous.

After I explained the situation frankly to my Hollywood agent, Lisa, requesting that she not ask Patrick for the money, she called my New York agent, who called my publisher, who called the publicist. Three hours later, Lisa informed me that the publisher would pay for the Los Angeles part of the tour — flight, driver, and hotel — if I would be sure to promote both books — The Kommandant’s Mistress as well as Only with the Heart — while I was in Los Angeles.

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Especially at the reading that Patrick and his (then) wife Wendy would be attending.
“Patrick’s coming to the reading?”
“How else is he going to meet you?”
“At dinner.”
“He’ll take you to dinner after the reading. But he said he’ll meet you at the bookstore cafe beforehand.”
“Before the reading?”
“It’s in his neighborhood,” said Lisa. “So, I’ll be there, too.”

I was more nervous than I’d been at my very first public reading several years before, in New York. You see, I don’t just “read”: I perform. Like an actor. Except that I’m a writer.

Patrick Stewart is the actor. A fine actor. Now he was going to be at my reading? How could I possibly perform in front of him? I already couldn’t eat anything before a performance (neither can he, as I discovered). How would I be able to eat anything afterward? I had no idea.

Somehow, I got through the reading/performance, with Patrick sitting right in front of me, so close that our knees touched, with the all-female audience visibly swooning each time anyone looked at him or he asked me a question in that magnificent voice of his. While I signed books afterward, Patrick and Wendy went to the restaurant to get a table. My agent Lisa waited at the back of the bookstore to take me over to dinner.

The driver who’d been assigned to me was very annoyed. She wanted to know what she was supposed to do. Her job was to take me to the bookstore readings and back to the hotel afterward. Was she supposed to just sit in the car the entire time I had dinner, or was she also invited to dinner? I signed books, chatted with my fans, and anxiously sought any sign of Lisa, who had disappeared. 45 minutes later, I’d signed the last book, thanked the bookstore owners and employees for sponsoring the reading, and discovered that the driver was gone.

“She said to tell you she’ll pick you up at the hotel tomorrow morning at 10 to take you to your four readings,” said my agent Lisa, who had returned. “Patrick will take you back to the hotel after dinner.”
“Patrick?” I said. “Not you?”
“No, I have to leave dinner early. I’m going to New Orleans tomorrow and I haven’t packed yet. Don’t worry. Patrick knows where the Holiday Inn is. He drove instead of walking in case you needed a ride back afterward.”

My nerves, already jangled, were now stretched even tauter. As we walked across the street to the restaurant, I asked Lisa if Patrick and his wife had been pleased with the reading. She told me she hadn’t been paying attention to them, but, rather, to me, and that she had been very impressed. Instead of being reassured, my feeling of foreboding increased.

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At the crowded restaurant, Friday night diners packed the lobby and bar. We struggled through the group until someone grabbed my shoulder from behind: Patrick. Before my glass of wine had even arrived, the maitre d’ sidled up to Patrick to quietly inquire if his entire party had now arrived. He informed him that it had. Before all the others, we were taken to a table which had been reserved — empty — for at least the last hour since no one had known how long my reading would last and thus had not known what time to make the reservation. My cheeks turned redder than my hair as people openly stared while we were seated at the table in the center of the over-full restaurant.

The table was unbelievably small. It reminded me of those tiny, outdoor tables in Paris at the sidewalk cafes. When I wasn’t bumping my knees against Patrick, on my left, I was banging them into his wife Wendy, on my right. I suddenly wished I’d ordered something stronger than a glass of wine. Before I had another sip, however, Patrick began his “performance.” Charming and gracious, he began telling me a story.

Clearly, he meant to entertain me.
It wasn’t just dinner: it was a dinner party.
For the first time that evening, I was relieved and began to relax: I do “dinner party” well.

“Did you know,” said Patrick as he speared a forkful of Caesar salad, “that when Joseph Conrad was dying, he spoke aloud to his characters as if they were in the room?”
“Really?” I said. “In what language?”

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Everyone at the table except me froze.
Patrick’s fork was mid-air, dangling salad.
My agent’s eyes were wider than an owl’s.
Wendy’s mouth was hanging open, literally.
My first faux pas.

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“What language?” said Patrick, who is extremely well read, and not just in Shakespeare.
“Polish or English?” I said, though my agent was shaking her head at me for some reason. “Did he speak any others?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Patrick, his fork still poised between his plate and his mouth.
“So, in which language did he speak to his characters?” I said, eating some of my own salad and taking a sip of my wine while awaiting his answer.

Patrick’s wife Wendy began to laugh.
He put down his fork.
My agent closed her eyes momentarily.
I bashed my knees against both Patrick’s and Wendy’s, apologizing repeatedly.
Patrick gazed at me.
I returned his look.
He leaned slightly toward me.

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“You know, in all the years I’ve told that story,” he said, “no one’s ever asked me that question.”
“You’ve told that story a lot?”
“Only about a hundred-million times,” said Wendy, “and that’s just in the ten years we’ve been together.”
“You’ve told that story a hundred-million times and no one’s ever asked you what language Conrad spoke in?” I said, completely forgetting my manners and whom I was addressing.
“Not a hundred-million times,” said Patrick.
“Close enough,” said his wife.
“And no one’s ever asked you that question?”
“Not once.”
“It’s probably not important,” said my agent, Lisa, smiling pointedly at me.
“It’s not the most important question, no,” I said. “I was just curious.”
“It’s not the most important question?” said Patrick.
“Not to me,” I said.
“What is?”
“First I have to know what language he spoke in.”
“What language do you think he spoke in?” said Patrick, moving closer.
“Polish.”
“Why?”
“Because he was dying.”

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Patrick looked around the table.
His wife and my agent both busied themselves with their food and drinks.

“Studies have shown that people have the accent of the area in which they lived when they’re 5-7 years old,” I said. “Other studies have shown that no matter how many languages they become fluent in, people always count in their native language. Unless they grow up bi-lingual. Nobody knows why. They just know that they do. So, if Conrad was dying, he’d be speaking in his native language. Not in English.”

“Now, what’s the important question?” said Patrick.
“If he was speaking in Polish, and we know none of his characters spoke Polish, even the ones who were bi-lingual,” I said, not even noticing my agent’s deliberate coughing, “was it like God speaking to His creations, who were unable to understand Him?”

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Patrick swallowed and put down his fork. Everyone at the table stared at me. I blundered on, wanting to know the opinion of an artist I respected so much.

“Even if his characters could hear him, did they realize who he was? Did they know he’d created them, given them the lives they’d led, forced those difficult moral dilemmas on them, let them suffer, killed them? Did they try to answer him, like humans praying to God, not understanding anything He said back to them? Did he feel abandoned? Betrayed? Did they feel the same way?”

Patrick immediately turned to my agent, saying, “Lisa, what do you think?”
“I think I would have to be really drunk,” she said, pouring more wine into her glass, “to even begin to understand what she just said.”
Patrick looked across the table at his wife.
“Wendy, darling, what about you?”
“I think there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me to participate in this conversation,” she said, waving her hand at us. “Why don’t you two talk about the things you like, while Lisa and I discuss the things we like?”

Wendy and Lisa began talking about Patrick and Wendy’s wedding (three months previous) and the honeymoon (on Fiji). Wendy had brought photographs. I looked at Patrick. He looked at me. He raised his eyebrows and waited.

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“Sometimes,” I said, horrified to hear my voice begin to crack and to feel tears in my eyes, “I feel monstrously guilty.”
“About what?” said Patrick.
“Because the only life I gave Rachel [in The Kommandant’s Mistress] was as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, being raped by Max [the Kommandant], just so I could try to answer the moral and ethical question, ‘What would you do to survive an inescapable situation?’ ”

Patrick was silent for a moment.
“What was the answer to that question?”
“That you never know what you’re capable of until you do it.”
Suddenly Patrick gripped my hand, squeezing it hard, his voice and eyes intense.
“Rachel’s forgiven you,” he said. “Trust me. I know she has.”
When he released my hand, I realized that Wendy and Lisa were staring at us.
So was almost everyone else in the restaurant, including the waiter standing slightly behind Patrick with another bottle of wine.

“Is she always like this?” Wendy said to Lisa.
“You read the book,” said Lisa, shrugging. “What do you think?”

Patrick moved his chair closer, obviously happy with me. I felt a strange sense of peace.
Did Patrick grant me Rachel’s absolution or his own? I don’t know.

I do know that we spent almost 5 delightful, intellectually stimulating hours over that dinner, discussing everything from Moby-Dick to Shakespeare’s plays (both of us prefer the tragedies), from my accent to his homeland (whose dialect/accent he hides), from acting to writing, from novels to films. Patrick was gracious, intuitive, charming, intelligent, incredibly well-read (unlike some actors, who only read scripts, screenplays, or “treatments” and never the actual books they’re based on), insightful, and funny. I knew that he would make a wonderful Max, just as he had made a marvelous Ahab.

Unfortunately, though the film was funded, it was never made (Hollywood politics). Patrick released the option, and we haven’t spoken in over seven years. That’s simply how it works in Hollywood: if you don’t have a project together, you don’t have contact with each other. And in Hollywood, authors are not very well respected unless they’re bestsellers. Most authors who have books optioned never talk to or meet the actors/directors who acquire the rights to make their books into films; most books that are optioned never even make it to the first day of “principal photography,” as it’s called, when the author gets paid.

I got to talk to Patrick the first time on the phone because he wanted to talk to me about my novel. I got to talk to him after that because he’d just finished filming Moby-Dick and I’ve read the novel at least a dozen times, even writing a poem called “Ahab’s Wife”: he wanted to know my take on his Ahab. I got to talk to him many times afterward because I’m a Shakespeare scholar: we could discuss some of the works closest to his heart.

I got to meet him and have dinner with him in Los Angeles simply because he wanted to meet me and discuss what he wanted to do with The Kommandant’s Mistress, the film. My life partner Tom and I then got to spend the weekend with Patrick and his wife when he was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because it was being staged only an hour’s flight from where we then lived, because Patrick liked me, and so he invited us up as his guests.

My situation with Patrick Stewart was not customary. Patrick’s desire to have contact with authors whose books he optioned is not the norm in Hollywood. Most of the actors I’ve met since then are gracious, kind, intelligent, charming, talented, and clever, but understandably wary around strangers, even if they’ve optioned their books.

Of course, I was disappointed that Patrick didn’t get to make my novel into a film, and I still believe he would have been a wonderful Max. The fact that Hollywood politics prevented its being made, however, can never take away my first dinner with Patrick. Nor can anything take away our first face-to-face conversation about Joseph Conrad, authors, their characters, moral and ethical choices in unbearable situations, as well as the existence of God, forgiveness, and hope in art.

Me & Patrick
(No, I don’t look anything like this now since I lost over 278 pounds and the dorky haircut — I look like this:
ACS 12 Feb 2016 copy

but I swear, that is me with Patrick Stewart, and, yes, he has his arm around me. Though we discussed many things over the years that Patrick held the option to my first novel, we never discussed Star Trek: TNG or his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard: sorry.)

 

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