Alone at Christmas
edited: Sunday, November 18, 2007
By Ami Amara
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2007
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It's Christmas time and Jason's wife has been readmitted to hospital. He is at home trying to understand what went wrong; drowning his sorrows. At this time of togetherness they are togetheralone and very much alonetogether.
Alone at Christmas
Jason was depressed; he was lonely and sad. He picked up from the table Bernie's enormous Christmas card (too large for the mantelpiece). She always chose giant-sized cards for every occasion - the bigger the better she must have thought. It was addressed 'To A Wonderful Husband' and inside there were lots of kisses and her name written in uneven and barely legible letters. For reasons unknown it made Jason angry. He threw it on the table.
He opened his Xmas present and found the scarf Bernie had worked so hard on - it was lengthy - even for a giraffe's neck. He saw that she knitted as well as she wrote - uncoordinated and intermittently. It was a mess. Jason threw it aside then as if he could not bear to have it near him threw it in the bucket. As it lay there he noticed a tag – it said 'to keep you warm when I'm not there'.
His anger turned to sadness as he considered the pathos of her thoughtfulness. He thought of her kindness and her goodness - both genuine and deep - and alongside those were her craziness, her religious obsessions and her madness. How deep did they go? Were they built into her nature, part of it in fact, in the same way goodness was? As he began to feel, experience a little sadness, he knew that he needed a drink. Before drinking a large whisky he toasted his own health cynically 'Merry Xmas, Jason.’
He prepared a very small meal even though he had more than enough for two people, never having given up hope that Bernie would be with him that day. He was not prepared to eat alone, celebrate alone. He wondered what sort of day Bernie was having, though not for long, as he didn't like the thought of her being with other sick people. What a fiasco! He wondered why they bothered having a party at all, better to let the day pass by as an ordinary day. After all, the mentally ill didn't know which day (or even year) it was, most of the time anyway.
What a miserable year it's been, he thought. Work and worry, worry and work. He drank a little more, looking at his glass of whisky as if it were his best friend - his only friend in the world. Thank God for alcohol - these days drink was the only thing that made him feel good. It made him forget everything as well as giving him warmth and comfort.
He turned on the TV to find the usual festive programmes. All the happy faces sickened him. He switched over to another channel only to find virtually the same thing. He was lonely and low, the last thing he needed was a reminder of this happy season. That was torture for him. When the TV failed to offer him the right sort of company he eventually switched it off. He didn't want to eat turkey, he didn't want the Christmas pudding, and he didn't want Christmas to be happening then, not in those circumstances. His appetite had gone and with it the will to go on. Jason felt exhausted, older than he had ever felt. He was left without energy, weak and filled with doubts about the future, about Bernie, even about himself.
Was there something wrong with him? Why had he not noticed her illness? Why did he marry her? This train of thought took him nowhere at all. Bernie had not shown any signs of illness when he first met her. She was completely 'normal'. He tried to remember what she was like then, whether she sometimes behaved oddly. He couldn't remember anything strange or abnormal about her. Or, was his memory perhaps deceiving him? He didn't think so.
Holidays had become difficult times for Jason – he no longer looked forward to them. Instead of enjoying them as he used to he now endured them. He needed the distraction that work gave him, its structure and routine. He needed to escape from the loneliness and deep sorrow within. Jason now felt so alone in his marriage. What sort of marriage was it? It was no marriage at all. He honestly didn't know whether he loved her any more. Pity, yes, but love? She no longer nourished him. When did they last share laughter? He couldn't remember. Everything was highly serious and intense - mental illness could not be viewed lightly, Bernie's illness dominated their life when they were together, it dominated his thoughts when he was alone.
Why Bernie, why did she become ill?’ he asked himself and God, though his faith was practically non-existent. And why me? He didn't have the strength required to support her. He doubted God's goodness. Why, if God exists, should he wish to curse them both, cause them pain, destroy the love that was once so precious? He felt angry with his lot in life. He was angry because there was no fairness, angry because there was nothing wrong with him yet he was expected to look after his sick wife. He was angry with Bernie, too. Sometimes he even thought that she enjoyed being ill, that she didn't try hard enough to shake it off. He blamed her for being ill even though he knew that he shouldn't. He had to blame someone and she was the cause of his misery. At times he believed she had more control than she was prepared to admit, yet at other times, she was obviously controlled by her unconscious mind. He could not imagine her enjoying an experience over which she had little control. And then he remembered her lying curled up like a baby - frozen and lifeless in Ward 13. Once again his anger turned to compassion. Poor Bernie, how much he wanted to help her yet how little he felt able to cope with her.
He was torn between his love for her and his hatred of her illness, an illness that overshadowed everything. As long as he could focus on the Bernadette he once knew he was able to keep on loving her. Her illness had affected her personality, neutralising if not depersonalising her completely. The more she changed, the harder it was for Jason to perceive Bernie. Instead of a person, she seemed now to be made up of a mixture of strange expressions and mannerisms. She was often vacant-looking and had slowed down - both mentally and physically. Jason hated that slowness which seemed to add ten years to her appearance. He hated the absence of intelligent conversations - at times she seemed almost stupid - unable to think for herself.
The real Bernie had gone, she was lost, hidden behind clashing thoughts and senseless images that now seemed to monopolise her. She had no identity, no opinions of her own about anything any more. He was unsure whether the illness had retarded her, making her unable to use her mind or whether her mental sluggishness was due to the potent anti-psychotic medication, which she had been taking for some time now. He was even ashamed of her; she had become an embarrassment to him.
Since Bernie was spending more time in hospital than at home, his social life had become almost non-existent. Mutual friends had deserted them, he felt, because they were embarrassed about Bernie's condition, afraid of her, in fact. Jason remembered Jonathan, his closest friend who, noticing Jason's depression and expressing his concern, had once asked him what he was going to do if Bernie didn't improve? Would he divorce her? Jason was stunned by the question and annoyed at the intrusion. 'She's my wife,' he had said in response to his friend's comments: 'You don't want to spend your life with a crazy woman, do you? You're still young; you've got to put yourself first.' Now Jason realised that his friend was not intruding but on the contrary he cared about Jason and his situation.
As he considered his future he grew nostalgic for his past and brought out a couple of photograph albums. Slowly he turned the pages, one by one, concentrating on Bernie's face, looking for signs of her 'craziness'. There were none. All he could see was a carefree woman smiling radiantly - a reflection of happiness that now caused him pain - pain because of the changes that had taken place, pain because her beauty was no longer. Pain because once they were so happy together and so well suited. As he looked at the wedding pictures he relived his excitement and briefly re-captured the fresh hopes they then shared. He even recalled her laughter - an expression of deep and genuine contentment so unlike the superficial inane giggling which was now habitual - an aspect he despised.
As he contemplated the photographs and wondered whether he should divorce her, he recalled the marriage vows: 'in sickness and in health, till death do us part'. He had taken those vows seriously though at the time he had no idea that Bernie might develop a mental illness. No matter! The vows were general, all-inclusive, if not stipulated. He felt trapped as he considered the rest of his life with Bernie.
He felt he had no choice in the matter. Bernie, he knew, was very dependent on him. She needed him, often telling him how secure he made her feel. She had even said many times how grateful she was to have him as a husband. And when she felt really down she used to ask him to make a promise: 'You won't ever leave me Jason, will you? Promise me.' And he had replied: 'Don't worry Bernie, I will never leave you, I promise.' His reassurances comforted her; he could see the relief she felt - as if she had one less worry to absorb her.
No, Jason could not leave her - she had already gone through so much, suffered too much to the extent that he believed a rejection would destroy her. She would feel totally unloved and worthless - and, on her own, she probably wouldn't survive. She might even want to kill herself if he left her. No, no, he couldn't take that risk. He didn't want to be made to feel responsible neither did he want any guilt. He was unfree; he had no choice. He was trapped and trapped he would remain. What kind of a choice was it - if he walked away - and the effect of that caused her death? No choice at all.
As he consumed more alcohol Jason settled comfortably into his doomed role as martyr. He had to put her before himself whatever the price. He was unwilling to see that his own life was as important as Bernie's. The only way he could look after her was by sacrificing himself. The possible consequences of abandoning her were frightening - more frightening than the consequences of staying with her. He could not see that he was, at the end of the day, in actual fact choosing to destroy himself first, rather than destroy her.
Jason still convinced himself he would manage and cope - that his life would be tolerable. This was an easy stance to take at a time when others were doing the caring for her. How difficult reality was to theory and how fragile were such resolutions when put to the test.
He had decided to stay - for Bernie's sake not for his own. She didn't give him anything – or, did she? He thought he wasn't benefiting at all and could not see that caring for her fulfilled some of his needs. Neither could he admit to himself that he was afraid to begin a new life, pick up the shattered pieces and start again. He had lost his confidence and - perish the thought - what if he did meet someone else, he wouldn't want to go through hell all over again, would he? His relationship with Bernie had falsely taught him that all relationships were hellishly difficult. He was no longer able to see the crucial difference between relating to a person who is mentally healthy as opposed to a schizophrenic. Why was it so easy for him to place Bernie first? Maybe he lacked self-worth, and maybe caring for her gave him worth and value, though he would not admit it.
At the end of the day having had the space to assess his position and renew his commitments and his strength, he felt better - glad that Christmas was over, relieved that he had rationalised his feelings.
The phone rang, it was Bernie:
'I didn't think I'd find you at home. I thought you'd be out enjoying yourself. Merry Xmas, Jason. I love you.'
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|Reviewed by Joanna Leone
|Your writing made me feel as though I wanted to jump into the story myself, and be a friend to Jason. I admire the way you have written this story. It triggered emotions of sympathy, empathy and compassion with me. I enjoyed this piece.
Stop into my authorsden sometime, when you have a moment.