I repeat things over and over in the hope they’ll stay with him

In Sickness and In Health: Things that I have told him tens of times sometimes stick, and sometimes slip away

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Last year Rebecca’s husband, Nick, was hit by a car and seriously injured. Here, in one of a series of columns, she writes about the aftermath of his accident

Whenever I feel as though things might just turn out OK, when Nick uses new words (“premonition” or “theoretically”) in the right context in conversation, when he tells me how determined he is to walk again, when he wants to set a date for us to renew our vows, that’s when something he says takes my legs out from under me.

“I need to go to Liverpool to get my stuff,” he’ll insist. Except that he’s talking about clearing his university room of his belongings, and he finished college 25 years ago. “My car’s been stolen –  we should call the police. It’s a gold Datsun Cherry.” A car that drove off into the sunset around the same time.

He asks me to take photographs of all of his things at home – for things, read myriad boxes of untouched Lego, limited-edition bottles of Coca-Cola, outmoded technology, unboxed sci-fi toys – as I’ve said that I need to have a clearout and he wants to vet what’s there. Except that when I show him the pictures, he doesn’t remember the flat that we’ve lived in for 10 years, the place that I’m agonising over selling. One minute he cares desperately about his precious things, the next he can’t remember them.

Just before Christmas, I had to tell Nick that I was his wife. And show him pictures of our wedding. And tell him why I was crying. And listen to him cry as he said how much he wanted to remember our big day. He also forgot that he had seen his daughter that afternoon.

It’s hard for me to remember what he’s forgotten. Things that I have told him tens of times sometimes stick, and sometimes slip away. I’ll find myself halfway through a conversation with him and realise that he’s staring at me in tears. “I’m in shock,” he’ll tell me, after I’ve been talking about something we’ve discussed before. “Why hasn’t anyone told me that before?” First thing in the morning and last thing at night are difficult, as he can’t grasp where he is, or why. Worst is the middle of the night when his carers come in, flicking on the lights, to see how he is. Confused and frightened, suddenly awake in a newly bright room, shouting usually ensues.

It’s time like this, when I stare into the abyss of his memory loss, peer into the gaping holes in his mind, that I stumble. And if I find it so hard to get my head round, how on earth must he feel, spending each day fumbling for the facts. He looks at me, terrified. “Why am I so confused? Why can’t I remember? It’s all screwed up,” he says, pointing to his head.

What can I say to him? I repeat things over and over, in the hope that they’ll begin to stay with him. They’re like well-worn pebbles now. “I didn’t know if you’d remember me when you woke up and you do – I’m so proud of you. When people have a head injury like yours, their short-term memory is usually effected, but it will get better. This is a safe place to stay while your mind heals.” I take his hand and tell him to try not to worry. “Think of me as your external memory drive, my darling. I’m here to remember for you when you can’t.”