Poet’s plight with fading husband poignant
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/11/2021 (333 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The pain experienced as a loving relationship is forced to transform is at the core of Jane Munro’s memoir, Open Every Window. With an honest and generous spirit, Munro shares her personal journey of caring for her husband, Bob, after he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Munro is a poet, writer and educator who won the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize. She has lived on Canada’s West Coast for most of her life, and the B.C. coastal landscape figures prominently in Open Every Window. Munro draws strength from the natural beauty of her surroundings, including the Point No Point property on Vancouver Island where she and Bob built their dream house.
She also uses the moon’s cycles as a common thread, tying the story of her life together from childhood to learning to live as a widow. Addressing the moon, she says, “But you cycle on through our days and nights. It’s only how we see you that changes.”
When Munro first met Bob, he was filled with adventurous spirit even though he was 20 years her senior. In 2008, he was diagnosed with a combination of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Together, the couple faced the progression of Bob’s disease and the stress it placed on their relationship.
Munro’s lyrical writing depicts Bob’s gradual changes. “[H]is synapses were like strings of wonky Christmas tree lights — the kind we had when I was a child. If a bulb was loose or burnt out, the whole string would shut down. We had to test each one in turn. When we tightened or replaced the problem bulb, all the others lit up.”
Although she needs time to work on her poetry, and is looking forward to a trip to the Iyengar Yoga Institute in India that she’s planned for years, Munro discovers the medical staff treating her husband assume her only job is to care for Bob. Her own personal goals and dreams don’t matter.
She agonizes over her decision to travel to India, recalling her mother’s advice that good girls put others first, but realizes she must go for the sake of her own mental and physical health. “To give up my spot at the institute felt self-destructive — almost like committing suicide.” A friend tells Munro that there’s a knife edge between her duty to herself and duty to others.
In addition to writing about her evolving relationship with Bob, Munro also describes her rather unconventional childhood, her first marriage and role as mother to three children. She’s able to adapt to life as a single parent but fears that pursuing her own goals will hurt her children. “I wanted to do valuable work — more than taking care of our family and our home, I wanted to write: to grow and learn and develop. I wanted to make the best art I could make, for the highest good and happiness of all.”
In the chapter named Bob Log, Munro uses a diary style to outline the progression of Bob’s dementia over 11 months, a period in which he moves from their home into a respite facility. She details the frustration arising from her efforts to secure an extended care bed for him. When he is offered a space, it’s at a facility other than the one Munro had hoped would accept Bob. About to leave on another yoga retreat, she’s told that Bob might settle into the facility more easily if she doesn’t visit him regularly.
The joys and tears of caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s has been the theme of a number of other memoirs. What Munro presents in Open Every Window is her unique story as a poet, wife, mother and daughter — told in a skilful and insightful way.
Andrea Geary is a freelance writer in Winnipeg.