Childhood sweethearts Bridget and Zander Wedderburn enjoyed a full and happy life together. But now Bridget is stricken by Alzheimer’s and her grieving husband of more than 50 years has been moved to write an ‘obituary’ for his true love
THEY met as children, they courted – not even a kiss until they were engaged – and married on a fine June day when she, lovely in white, blushed as he told risqué jokes at their wedding reception.
They wrapped their four children in love, they walked together, skied together, argued and nipped and teased each other, and then they kissed, made up and laughed together.
She taught him to dive, to overcome his natural instinct to lift up his head and instead to face down and trust the chilly water, she cooked him roast chicken on a Sunday and picked wild flowers to decorate their family home.
Throughout it all, Zander Wedderburn watched his wife in quiet amazement at her tender ways and her kind heart. He marvelled at the ease with which she juggled children, home and work, how she could effortlessly cook and make clothes. Above all else, he adored her pretty smile, her neat waist and her quirky spirit.
For 52 years – their anniversary was this week – they shared married life together, the good times and the bad. Now, as her once dazzling light slowly fades and Alzheimer’s steals Bridget Wedderburn away, he has captured their lives together in a poignant and moving “love letter” account, a short but provocative book that paints a vivid picture of an ordinary family’s life and the remarkable woman at its helm.
Sadly, the main character in B: A Life of Love, will, of course, never sit down to read it. The lively girl who caught Zander’s eye while he was still at Edinburgh Academy and she a pupil at St George’s School for Girls now spends her days and nights in a nursing home bed, the relentless gnawing progress of her condition chewing away at what few precious memories remain.
When Zander, who recalls their first kiss and nervy fumblings of their honeymoon night as if they were yesterday, comes to visit, it’s to talk to a woman who, he admits sadly, he considers is already gone.
“In some ways I think of her as already dead,” he says quietly. “The lively, active person I knew is certainly dead. Now I just want her to be happy and comfortable.
“She is physically fit but she only weighs six stones, she is bedridden but she is OK. At one point I didn’t think she would last as long, but she is lasting very well.
“In fact,” he adds with a tired sigh, “she shows no signs of weakening.”
He has been watching her slip away for seven years. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2005, Bridget, 70, has slowly drifted off, each multi-faceted layer that made her the woman he fell deeply in love with being shed until hardly anything remains.
As he mourned the life they had, the Heriot-Watt professor emeritus decided to write it down, asking relatives and friends for anecdotes and recalling the big events in their lives together – the births of their children, their busy homes and their lifelong romance – to little things like her favourite flowers, the food she loved to cook and her gentle ways.
The result – a true labour of love – echoes the 2004 film The Notebook, starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, in which an elderly man reads their real life love story to his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife in her nursing home bed.
Released to coincide with Dementia Awareness Week, the book is intended as a monument to Bridget to be cherished mainly by family, friends, workmates and associates. But it is also a poignant reminder to us all how even the strongest partnerships must one day be severed, leaving one to soldier on alone with just their grief for company.
“It is like an obituary,” nods Zander, 77, who suddenly found himself having to cook, clean and care for his wife. “I think writing it was partly for me, to get things off my chest and for something to do now she’s not here.
“It doesn’t take long for me to look after myself,” he adds. “I used to sit with her but it’s hard to talk to her now – she sleeps a lot and can’t speak a whole sentence. It’s not easy to visit.”
Different to the days he tells of in the book, when he and the young and vivacious Bridget – in looks, a cross between Audrey Hepburn and a young Princess Margaret – spent hours together, first as little more than children, then as young adults, with Zander attempting to impress her sometimes more successfully than others.
There’s the awkward moment he proposed while punting on a Cambridge river, his attempts to steal a kiss to seal their future thwarted by her prim insistence he ask her father’s permission for her hand.
“I asked her for a kiss and she said ‘After you’ve asked my father’. We took the punt back late, found a phone box and phoned him. She was a beautiful kisser, always, and that was the first of millions.”
There are memories of the unconventional stag night he shared with her, walking up Arthur’s Seat to gaze at Prestonfield House and the marquee in its grounds where next day they would stand as man and wife at their wedding reception.
Then there’s their honeymoon in Ireland, him politely leaving the room to allow her to undress only to return, both of them innocent and young, unsure of quite what to do next.
There are happy memories in the book of joyous family occasions at the sprawling home they bought in Charlestown, Fife, and darker ones too, as Bridget, a midwife, battled depression and Zander, a lecturer in industrial psychology at Heriot-Watt University, fretted over her health.
Perhaps the most charming moments are when he reflects on Bridget’s free spirit, the days she sunbathed topless in their garden and, top off, pulled the weeds and picked flowers. Or the way she’d buzz off in her little Citroen 2CV, her unbridled excitement at the first signs of spring and the hours she’d spend handmaking her daughters’ dresses and then creating tiny replica ones for their Tiny Tears dolls.
While his memories are vivid and fresh, Bridget’s began to waiver in 2005. Soon she was a danger to herself, prone to walking out of the family home in Lennox Street, falling over and leaving the cooker on. Zander tried to cook and clean, often not quite to her exact standards, and the slow process of separation began.
Writing it all down, he says, has been both a comfort and an emotional challenge. His hope is that the relatives and friends who read it will have something to remember her by, while others might just pause for a moment to consider the lingering grief Alzheimer’s can bring.
“There is so little known about it,” he sighs. “We need to find out as much as possible about it, we don’t know why it happens or what to do about it other than slow it down a little bit. It’s frustrating.
“It affects everyone differently – some people get angry and aggressive, some are wandered and lost, and others seem very normal.”
The book ends with Zander’s poignant reflection of life as it is today for Bridget. “Today her bed is electrically adjustable using a handset control,” he writes. “A very nice bed but a horrible life really, needing to be spoon fed and given drinks with a straw.”
He adds: “She always took pride in her appearance. She still has a certain aura of greatness about her.”
• B: A Life of Love is published by Fledgling Press, £6.99, with £1 from each copy sold going to Alzheimer Scotland. Visit www.fledglingpress.co.uk