I am not very sure where to begin. Probably the best point in time would be the growing awareness of my impotence. This is a difficult story to tell, so please forgive me if I labour in some areas which come close to my heart and touch my inner sadness.
Helen was a career girl. She adored her work as head of the languages department at a large nearby comprehensive school. Despite the love of her work and her very ambitious career path, she also wanted to include a family of at least two children. At that time, in nineteen sixty three, I was also growing into my role as a research chemist at the water board. I was working long hours, heavily immerged in the complexities of river water pollution, caused by air quality variations throughout Europe.
When viewed from the outside we were the perfect couple. We appeared as two highly professional people, who could boast a PhD in chemistry and a Masters in French culture. Our house had recently been extended to include a fourth and fifth bedroom, which was to allow our friends to stay overnight during their frequent visits, and also hopefully later, for our children.
However when viewed from the inside we were not quite the happy couple that we appeared to be.
Once we had decided to start our family the downturn came. At first we thought that it was due to overwork or stress. We even considered that maybe we were trying too hard. After a few years of trying in vain we made an appointment with the local doctor. Following many tests it turned out that the problem was all mine. I had two problems in fact. I had a damaged nerve in my groin, probably the result of an accident as a teenager when I fell out of a tree onto a lower branch. This was the cause of the worsening impotency. The second problem was much more shocking to us. I was infertile. We would never have children together naturally.
The following three decades were oriented around our careers. We had discussed on numerous occasions the possibility of using a donor or adopting children. Both options seemed to be a poor second best, so we decided to follow a different path in life. We planned to work hard and build up our financial stability such that we could both retire at fifty, and then live well, travel the world. It seemed like a realistic and exciting plan at the time.
Through those years our relationship was sound, or so we thought. It was a life of work during the day, socializing evenings and weekends. Parties were often taking place at our large home. Still, we were the ‘perfect’ couple to all around us.
But passion failed. We were occupying ourselves with people, parties, work and career, but there was little love. Somehow it had gradually drained away from us, as water flows out of a bath, until all that is left is an empty tub. We were the empty tub.
The emptiness was never spoken, never discussed, but just lingered between us. We even kept to our early retirement plan, both afraid to speak the unmentionable.
During the final few years before my fiftieth birthday I worked, during the week, in Brussels. I was leading a European initiative into environmental pollution. I would be at home in England only for weekends. There was little time to brood over our marriage.
Almost as if it had been planned for us, the project was due to end just three months after my fiftieth birthday. I resigned as planned, hopeful that I could re-build our marriage. All we needed was to have more time together, or so I thought.
I am a year older than Helen, which meant that I retired first. She was to follow me the following year in Autumn.
For some months I had been noticing that my grip was becoming weaker. It was something that I had felt but never fully registered. I had put it down to age and lack of physical training. After beginning my retirement it became much more noticeable and developed further such that my fingers often had pins and needles and seemed to tremble slightly.
I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease only six months after beginning my retirement.
Helen changed instantly. She had loved me, I was sure, but that was years ago. Now, with the realisation that she had not only missed out on a family because of my infertility, she was also likely to miss out on a happy retirement by living out her old age with an invalid.
I felt so sorry for her. She was torn between her feelings of responsibility for me and her need for a fuller life. I knew that she had sacrificed so much to be with me. She hadn’t felt the sensation of deep love, the hardness, the excitement of sexual passion for many years. And now, she couldn’t look forward to her old age with a loving husband to travel with. We both knew that I had ten good years left, maybe fifteen if I was one of the lucky ones.
Things happened fast after that. She didn’t retire as we had planned. She didn’t feel safe to do that, but said that she needed her work more than before. I dutifully nodded and accepted that things were not going to be as we had planned.
Then came Brian; the bastard. Helen was in such a vulnerable position. I can’t find it in my heart to blame her or hate her for the affair. Brian was divorced and made every effort to see her on her own.
After she told me about the affair, through tears and guilt, I forgave her instantly. How could I have acted differently? I loved her. She was hurting.
I visited Brian at his home. We had known each other for years. I became so angry that I threatened him, but he just laughed.
“Roger, don’t be ridiculous“, he said. “In your condition you couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding. Now go home, there’s a good chap.”
I was so upset that I raised my trembling fist, but we both knew that it was futile. My thin half clenched hand was a joke.
“You can’t blame Helen for wanting a real man,” he said provokingly with a pathetic grin on his face.
I turned in shame and shuffled back to my car. I never felt more alone or useless in my life.
Helen became nervous, irritable and began to treat me like a child. It was as though she saw my illness as something intellectual. She would tell me when to clean, wash up, do the laundry etc. If I opened the wrong bottle of wine with our meal I would be berated for my stupidity. I never had the energy to fight. My medication was playing hell with me.
So I began acting like a child. I watched TV from morning till night. Helen would come in from work and begin the complaining. Gradually she didn’t come in from work. Where she was I never knew.
Then came the bombshell. She wanted out. After dinner one evening she just spurted it out. “Roger, now don’t go getting upset again, but I can’t continue like this. I need a life. I need some fun again. I’m sorry, but I don’t see why I should give up the rest of my life for a…a…well you know.”
Yes, I knew. An invalid. An impotent invalid. An impotent wimp of an invalid.
“But things will be different when you retire. We will have more time together and can travel and see all of those places we have talked about for so many years. All we need is time.”
I could see in her eyes that I was talking in vain.
“No, Roger. I have decided. I am leaving you. We will sell the house and buy two apartments, one for each of us. I need to have a life of my own, but I want you to know that I will always be there for you. As your symptoms worsen I will care for you but not as your wife. I have thought about this for months, and although family and friends will probably hate me for it, I have to do it this way. My mind is made up.”
I began to cry. I was so empty that I couldn’t speak for a moment until somehow I pulled myself together enough to say, “Perhaps it’s for the best. Helen, I still love you, I always have and always will. You need a real man. I know that. You can go, without any malice from me. I understand and am willing to release you from any obligations, but you will not care for me like a nurse. When you go, I want no more to do with you. You lead your life and I will lead mine.”
I said this with such intensity that I saw the fear on her face. She had made this decision and now had to carry it through.
The house went on the market the following week. Nineteen eighty-eight was not the best time to sell. The market was stagnant and we dropped the price three times before anyone even came to look at the place.
After two years we still had not sold it and were living as separate people under one roof. While Helen was still working it was manageable. She was out all day and most evenings. She had boyfriends, she went to parties, and she lived in the fast lane. It was as though she was trying to catch up on all she had missed over the last twenty or thirty years.
My condition worsened. The medication was given in ever increasing doses until the limit was reached. I began having one of the dreaded side effects of hallucination. I would be sitting in my room at home, when faces would come onto the walls and ceilings. They were always unidentifiable faces, but ever there. Where did these faces come from?
During this time I became fully depressed. I had nothing to live for. My condition would only get worse. The woman I loved saw me as a useless invalid. I would live out my days in a two bedroom apartment alone and childless. I considered many times to take my life, but didn’t even have the courage for that.
After two more years two major events happened. Firstly Helen finally retired, and secondly we found a buyer for the house.
After her retirement Helen took pleasure in long lie-ins, walks in the park, much reading. I had expected that she would have been attending even more parties, had more boyfriends, painted the town red, but the opposite happened. It was as though she had become tranquil in herself. She slowly started to appear to me as the woman that I married.
Sometimes I would accompany her on her walks. We began to talk about all sorts of things again. This was one of the first attractions between us when we met as students. We would sit up for hours discussing some current affairs, or some scientific phenomenon. She also taught me rudimentary French during that time.
It was becoming just like old times, except for the physical side.
But the house was sold. We would separate forever within the next few months.
We had found two apartments. One, mine, was a fully modernized, renovated, Victorian two bedroom flat in the centre of town. It would enable me to reach most shops and facilities without too much difficulty. It was on the ground floor, with good access for a wheelchair, which I knew would one day be needed.
Helen found a flat in the country in a surrounding village, which was in dire need of renovation, but which she wanted to take as a personal project. It seemed as though her plan was near to fruition. She should have been pleased.
But to me, something was wrong. Helen never talked about the house sale. She didn’t seem very interested in the new flat or the move. On the other hand, I was quite looking forward to finally making the break and ending the difficulty of seeing her trapped in her marriage to me.
What on Earth was going on? I should be the sad one regarding our separation and she should be looking forward to it. I was totally puzzled by her reaction after so many years of wanting to get out.
One morning we had a phone call from the estate agent. The sale of our house was in jeopardy. A buyer at the lower end of the chain had failed to get the financing and the whole chain was held up. I called the estate agent of our apartments to inform him and he gave me some more bad news. The owner of my apartment had another buyer and therefore would not wait. The owner of Helen’s wanted to increase the price if he agrees to wait for the chain to clear.
I was devastated. We had already invested over two thousand pounds in search fees and other costs, and it now seemed as though we were going back to square one.
When Helen came in from her morning walk I gave her the news. It was apparent that she was not as disappointed as I had expected. In fact she had a slight smile on her face as though she knew something that I didn’t.
This time, I didn’t hold back. I just spurted it out after weeks of wondering what she was up to, without having the nerve to address it.
“Helen, this is terrible news for us you know. We have been trying to sell this house for over four years, have invested thousands of pounds in costs, not to mention all of the time and anguish. And now you are smiling. What the hell is going on?”
Helen looked startled. She looked at me and giggled and almost as quickly burst into tears. At that moment her heart was breaking. She was hurting so much that she couldn’t catch her breath. She couldn’t speak, but choked on her tears. The sudden transformation was stark. It was as though the last decade of pain and upset was pouring out in one hard long breath.
Eventually she sat silent. Her face was raw; her eyes were red and swollen. She looked like a beaten puppy. I didn’t know what to say and as always, just stood there like a fool, waiting for something to happen.
“Roger. I have something to tell you. I have no idea how, but I need to. Since you announced your illness I have been with men, I have met with friends; I even was involved in a number of sexual encounters.” As she said this her lips began to tremble again, but she kept control.
“I have said things and done things that I can never be forgiven for. I only saw my life deteriorating and wanted to get it back at any cost. I am not worthy of you or your love, and yet you stand there with only concern and love for me in your eyes. You are such a good man, and I am nothing.”
“That’s not true Helen. Don’t say that. You had just lost your way. Life dealt us some bad cards and you didn’t know how to handle them. Important is that you are now ba…”
I stopped, not daring to say those words.
“Yes, I’m back, if you will have me. These last few weeks I have come to realise that the things I was chasing are not real. They are temporary worthless pleasures, whereas what I had with you since I retired is so wonderful. I want to have a Golden Retriever and go on long walks with you for as long as you still can. I want to see roses and flowers in the garden. And most of all I want to love you and look after you for as long as I can. Your illness was never the problem. I know that now. It was me. Can you really ever forgive me Roger?”
I placed my arms around her and held her long and close for an eternity, before I whispered, “Thank goodness the house sale didn’t go through. Had we sold four years ago, when we put it on the market, we would never have lived this moment.”
I am now seventy eight years old, going on ninety five. My time is nearly over. The illness has almost run it’s course.
I am sitting in my armchair looking out of the window on this fine sunny afternoon. Helen is snipping at the roses. She also limps with the bad hip that I keep telling her to have operated, but she is stubborn. She will not go into hospital and leave me unless she has to.
In the twenty years since she retired she has been the most wonderful wife to me. There is never a day when she doesn’t smile and tell me she loves me. She is now very contented, as am I.
I still have some sadness at having no children, but most of all for not having been a better husband. However, despite this sadness I will die a happy man in the knowledge that I got my Helen back. She was worth waiting for.
Thank God the sale never went through.