Living with a brain-damaged ex-husband

Can a marriage be big enough, asks Susan Baer, to make room for a former spouse who is mentally impaired?

ON ITS DESTRUCTIVE path up the East Coast in September 2003, Hurricane Isabel ripped through central Virginia, downing trees and leaving thousands without power for days, including the Meltons. From his office near the Capitol, Robert, a reporter for The Washington Post, was writing story after story about the devastation. He had spent days clearing out his own backyard and was surprised at how tired the work made him.

He was working at his office on Saturday, Sept. 20, when his chest started to hurt. He thought perhaps he had eaten bad salami for lunch, but since he'd had a heart scare before, he walked across the street to the emergency room at the Medical College of Virginia, now Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. He was having a heart attack.

On Monday, doctors implanted a stent in one of his coronary arteries. Two days later, on his 46th birthday, he was allowed to go home. A day later, the power finally came back on in their Richmond home. Robert and Page were in the kitchen when Robert pulled his wife into his arms and reassured her: "Everything's going to be okay now. We got the power back, and I'm home."

But the next day, Friday, Sept. 26, at about 4 p.m., the life they had known ended. Page was making dinner. Nell, 18 months at the time, was in a high chair at the dining room table with Hope, who was 3. Robert bent over to scoot the high chair in and suddenly dropped to the floor.

The children started screaming. Page called 911. Robert was barely breathing — then stopped. Page tried CPR. Neighbors came. Power crews in the area came in and tried to help. Page remembers a big burly man holding her 18-month-old. Still no ambulance. A sheriff's deputy came in and tried to revive Robert.

"He was gone," Page says.

After three days, Robert woke up. He was talking, mumbling, whispering, but none of it made sense. He didn't know who anyone was. Still, nurses told Page stories of miracles, people who came all the way back. She clung to those.

Robert spent several weeks at Henrico Doctors, where he had a defibrillator put in, then was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. He'd had little physical impairment, but his cognitive loss was profound. He had severe language problems, couldn't sit still, was confused and frustrated to the point of violence. And he had no memory — short- or long-term.

By January 2004, he had made enough progress to go home, but after about five months at home, the progress slowed. He could speak and read and write, but he couldn't hold onto the meaning behind words. He had little judgment or control over his behavior and was increasingly frustrated. "He didn't remember his former life," says Page, "but he knew it was something more than he had at the time."

Doctors told Page that Robert would benefit from someplace with regular activities and a set schedule — a routine that was difficult at home with two small children — as well as caregivers to manage his medications. So Robert was moved into Brighton Gardens in Richmond, an assisted-living facility, and later to a similar place called Sunrise.

Today, he looks healthy and fit, and walks with confidence. Page makes sure he dresses well, and glasses at the end of his nose still give him a professorial look. But within seconds of meeting him, it's clear his mind is impaired. It's hard to know how much he comprehends, even when he answers a question.

The most striking thing about Robert is his personality. Once reserved and a bit aloof, Robert today is talkative and exuberant. He seems to spill over with wide-eyed joy and gratitude. He calls everyone "darlin'" or "babe" or "bro.'"

"Mabel, I cannot thank you enough for that toilet tissue," he'd say to the short Colombian woman who cleaned his room at Sunrise.

PAGE, A JOURNALIST and political speechwriter, had made her peace with her life. She had lost her taste for politics — half the fun had been discussing it with Robert, she says — but she worked full-time as a government-affairs consultant. On the side, she became an advocate for brain-injury and caregiver groups. "I had made up my mind: 'This is what our life is going to be, and I'm okay with that,'" she says.

She didn't go out much socially, but in June 2008 she attended her 25th college reunion in Charlottesville. At a cocktail party, she reconnected with Allan D. Ivie IV, a University of Virginia classmate she'd known since kindergarten who was now a banker and father of four sons living in St. Louis.

They had been good friends as kids, co-editors of the high school newspaper. He vowed to contact her the next time he was in Richmond to visit his mother. Six months later, he did. And soon after, with Allan in the midst of a divorce, they began talking regularly. It was nice to have an adult to talk to, Page says, and she began to wrestle with feelings that they could be more than friends. "It had never occurred to me at that point to be in a relationship," she says. "It felt disloyal to Robert."

Allan realized that the only way their relationship could develop was if it included Robert. As he started falling in love with Page, he said to her: "I see this responsibility that you have, and I want to help you with it. I understand this is a package deal."

"That's what triggered the relationship," Page says. "He understood that Robert was central to our lives, that we needed to take care of him."

Page eventually introduced Allan to Robert, and Allan worked to forge his own relationship with Robert, writing him an e-mail every day and taking him to breakfast at IHOP, Robert's favorite, whenever he was in town. Allan felt uneasy at first, guilty about befriending a man with limited cognition while starting up a romance with his wife.

Page tiptoed into the subject of dating with Robert, telling him that she and Allan were beginning to be more than just friends, and asking if he understood and was comfortable with that. Robert told her it was fine. "He's a really nice guy," Page says he told her.

In March 2010, Allan and Page and the girls went skiing at the Homestead Resort in southwestern Virginia. Page watched from behind as Allan helped her daughters navigate the slopes, skiing with one girl on either side of him. "It hit me like a thunderbolt," she says. "I'm watching him with these two girls, and I thought, 'Here's an unusual man, and a patient man, and a kind man, and a very loving man' — and I felt my heart just lift."

They started having whimsical talks about marriage, but merging families seemed too complicated. Allan, now divorced, couldn't leave St. Louis, where he had joint custody of his three youngest sons and was about to become president of Reliance Bank. And Page's support system — her parents, sister, and brother — were all in Richmond.

And there was Robert. Marriage would require divorce. Page couldn't imagine that. But another thought eased her mind: "I knew if something happened to me, Allan would take care of Robert, and the girls, of course."

In June, Allan proposed. Page said yes, though she still couldn't wrap her head around how it would work. Eventually, they came up with a plan. Page and the girls would move to St. Louis. And Robert would come with them.

PAGE SAYS SHE was a nervous wreck on the June 2010 morning when Robert's brother Will brought him to the house. She'd gone over the conversation dozens of times in her head but still couldn't imagine saying the words out loud.

Finally, she started: "I'll always love you, and we'll always take care of you."

"I know that," Robert said.

She took a sip of coffee. "You know that Allan and I have been seeing each other, and we have a relationship and we love each other, and he's asked me to marry him."

Robert responded immediately: "You should marry him. He's a good guy." Then he asked what would happen to him.

Page explained that they would all move to St. Louis, where she'd already found a Sunrise facility close to their home. Their family would be the same, she told him, only bigger.

Page and Robert's divorce was final in early 2011. She wanted to remain Robert's legal guardian, as she had been since his injury, and no one objected. Will signed for Robert.

On the morning of March 26 last year, Allan and his youngest son, Charles, took Robert to breakfast at IHOP. That evening, Page and Allan married in a small 19th-century chapel at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Richmond in front of about 100 people. As Allan held Page's hands, he promised to always love her and her daughters. He turned to Hope and Nell, who were their mom's attendants, and smiled. Then he looked back at Page: "And I promise to always help you provide compassionate care for Robert."

In June of last year, Page and the girls moved into the five-bedroom ranch house she and Allan had bought in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur. They outfitted Robert's room at Sunrise to look exactly like his room in Richmond: same layout, same photos, same bulletin board with "No. 1 Dad" sign.

EVERYONE SEEMS TO be adapting, but Robert seems to be adapting best of all, Page and Allan both say. He takes part in everything from the walking club to the puzzle group at Sunrise. "I've got the calendar of today's activities, and I have done the whole nine yards," he tells Page one afternoon. "Aren't you proud of me, darlin'?"

Page still sees him several times a week, taking him out or to the house, bringing him iced tea for his refrigerator or books of word searches. Allan writes him e-mails every day and takes him to breakfast every Wednesday.

For years after Robert's injury, Page was sustained by the notion that she would see him again after she died, the man who turned her head in the press room and loved poetry and handed her their newborn babies. "We'd be able to talk through all this stuff, and I'd be able to say, 'Well, I hope it worked out okay, that the decisions were the right ones, and that you were happy.'"

She's comforted that Robert seems content. That's what has made her own happiness possible.

Friends used to assume that the holidays were the hardest times for her. But it was really the motions of everyday life. Now that's what brings her the greatest joy: making breakfast, setting the table — the long oak table from her dining room in Virginia that now sits in the sunny kitchen. There they all clasp hands to say grace before dinner. The table is big enough to accommodate all of them.

©2012 by The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.


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