The titles of my essays are quotations from something Dick said or wrote after the onset of his dementia. But these words are mine: My husband has dementia. How many times had I said those words over the decade before his death? And in the seven years prior to his diagnosis, how often had I avoided saying them, or even thinking them?
Now, I want to parse that phrase. To parse a sentence is to pull it apart, scrutinizing each word. One can even create something called a parse tree, a diagram of the sentence parts. I told my composition students that when I’d diagramed sentences in eighth grade, I realized how the pieces, the words and phrases, could be moved about. It gave me a sense of control over them.
My husband has dementia. How can I wrest control over such a sentence?
My is a possessive. It tells the reader whose husband is under consideration. Notice that I’m not using the other possible possessive, Her husband. Or an article, such as The husband or A husband. It would make it easier if I could hold the sentence at arm’s length. But there’s no escaping the fact that he was my husband of more than forty-two years.
The subject of my sentence is husband. The word derives from the Old Norse and can be translated as “tiller of the soil.” When I met Dick, he’d put down roots. He lived in an old farmhouse on a half-acre of land in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. He was the father of three children. And he was a gardener.
When a person suffers from an illness, we use the verb has: he has the flu, she has the measles. In this sense, Dick had dementia. But did he have dementia, or did dementia have him?
I use the noun dementia to describe my husband’s decline. Beneath that umbrella term several specific neurocognitive disorders huddle, such as Alzheimer’s, as well as Lewy body and vascular dementias. All of the dementias involve damage to the brain that leads to a decline in cognitive abilities, such as memory, judgment, comprehension, logic, and language.
Period. End of sentence. But this sentence, My husband has dementia, often ends up defining the spouse, too.
Featured image: My Husband, the Gardener, 1985. (Photo by Anne-Marie Erickson)
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