Excerpt from The Present Heart

The following excerpt is from Polly’s new memoir, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery (Rodale Books), out on October 7, 2014.

You can pre-order from Amazon.com , Barnesandnoble.com , or Indiebound.com .

Feeling loved by Ed meant he took delight in our daily contact, wanting to see and accept me just as I was. He wanted to hear the details. Every day he held up a mirror and helped me see myself through his eyes. I did the same for him. The reciprocal sharing of our lives enhanced the colors and tones of daily life. Our love offered a way to transcend our individual separateness and step out of our self-enclosure and it was mutual/circular/reciprocal. Our love required empathy, mindfulness, equanimity, emotional maturity, open communication, and truth-telling. Those skills are eroded and eventually erased in people with Alzheimer’s disease. When I look back over the long road I have traveled in learning how to love and in helping others love, I have learned most through the tragedy of loving someone with premature dementia. Ed’s capacity to know me as a particular person and keep me in mind was scrubbed away in the endless storms of neurons dying. We do not usually include “knowledge” as a component of love, but I can say definitively from my experience that knowing your beloved as a particular person and holding him or her in mind is a requirement. Otherwise, that individual seems only to fill a role and feels used or disregarded.

Many aspects of Ed’s warm demeanor remain even now and encourage others’ understandable, but painful, remarks about how much he “loves and adores” me. That is what people tend to say when they feel a warm affection between two people who have spent their lives together. For years now, though, I have come to see what is wrong with these ideas because Alzheimer’s has eroded Ed’s capacity to keep me in mind in my particularity. Looking from the outside at the two of us walking hand in hand down a country road near his residential care center, with our old dog hobbling along next to us, you might think, “I hope I can share a love like that when I am in the final years of my life.” But now I know that much more than affection and care are required for love to be sustained and sustaining.

Though I minister to Ed’s needs on an ongoing basis, bear witness to his changing life, and see him for extended visits at least twice a week, we have—of course—no partnership. Ed has a heartfelt connection to me, but he cannot ask me a personal question. He reaches out sweetly and tenderly for hugs and kisses and wants to caress me, but he cannot picture me driving home, he does not know if I am ill, and he cannot imagine anything about me that is separate from him.

Loving Ed has moved me to ask about love itself: What is it? Why is it so easy to idealize or sentimentalize or conflate it with romance, attachment bonds, and needs? Why is true love so hard to find, to practice, and to trust? True love requires being deeply and precisely known and then accepted—with our flaws. Known first and then accepted. But that acceptance must include an ongoing desire to see and know your beloved again and again, moment to moment, as she or he changes with the impermanence of life itself. Just as we come to know the world by trying to see it as it is, rather than how we want it to be, love invites us to discover the truth about another as a way of coming to know that person, ourselves, and ultimately the world.

But why do we look for a mirror in another’s eyes where we can relax and study our own perplexity, pain, and confusion? Why is this relaxation always contingent on being certain that we are not simply being used to meet the other’s needs or subtly controlled by the other’s demands? Stretched out across three seats on the flight to London, I fade into a soft sleep and wake within the feverish grasp of a question: What is love, anyway?