Monday 25 March 2019

Portrait of the artist - losing a partner to early-onset Alzheimer's

Julia Kelly's account of losing her partner, the artist Charlie Whisker, to Alzheimer's heaves with warmth and humanity

Julia Kelly. Photo: Kip Carroll
Julia Kelly. Photo: Kip Carroll
Charlie Whisker and writer Julia Kelly. Photo: Martina Devlin
Matchstick Men

John Spain

Julia Kelly's book starts in dramatic fashion when her partner, the artist Charlie Whisker, who has Alzheimer's, does a runner from a family get-together at Christmas 2014. Upset by their young daughter's loud playing, he flees out the front door, running away into the darkness.

Julia takes off after him but can't keep up as he dodges between parked cars and lopes away on his long legs. It takes the extended family and two garda cars to find him. No harm has been done, but the trauma for everyone is exhausting.

The event will be familiar for relatives of anyone with Alzheimer's, as is Charlie's continual losing of things, his flare-ups when he's unable to complete simple tasks like dressing, his 'frozen' moments when he forgets what he is trying to do.

There are a number of good books written by partners coping with a loved one with Alzheimer's. The difference with Julia's book is that it is by a writer of extraordinary talent. This may be one of the most heartbreaking books you will ever read. Yet somehow, at the same time, it is uplifting and life-affirming, and at times even funny.

Julia's 2008 debut novel (more a creative memoir), With My Lazy Eye, was acclaimed by critics, the story of an awkward little girl growing up in a privileged home in Dublin in the 1970s (Julia's father was the late John Kelly, a Fine Gael Minister). "The freshest voice in Irish fiction since the wonderful early novels of Edna O'Brien," John Banville said at the time.

In the decade since then, Julia has produced just one other novel, The Playground, and this, her third book, reveals why. She has been distracted for half of that time looking after Charlie.

But this book is not just an account of Charlie's descent into Alzheimer's. It's as much Julia's own story and that of her relationship with Charlie, who she met in 2004 when the two of them spent time in the writers and artists centre at Annaghmakerrig. For Julia, then 35, this was another attempt to make a start as a writer, having failed at everything else.

She arrives full of nerves and feeling like a fraud. At the communal dinner on her first night, Charlie appears with his six-foot-long iguana under his arm (even though pets are not allowed). A well-known artist who is part of the 'Bono set', he has spent some years in America and even worked with Bob Dylan. He's an exotic creature (like his iguana) who she finds fascinating despite the 20-year age gap between them.

He brings her on long walks around the lake during which the intensity of his vision enthrals her. He quotes Shelley and Keats, teaches her about art and, although he's a visual artist, even edits what she is writing. "Unlikely mentor and misguided muse - this was how Charlie and I began," she writes.

After their idyll, it's back to reality in Dublin where they are both at the end of relationships (Charlie has separated from his family). They spend more time together and end up buying a period house in Bray, where he paints upstairs and she writes downstairs. A few years later, their daughter is born and life seems perfect.

But all is not well. Julia struggles with her second book, Charlie's paintings don't sell enough, and money problems mean that a couple of years later they have to put the house in Bray up for sale. And that is not the worst of it: their relationship is sundering as Charlie becomes increasingly difficult and dependent.

Given that he was an artist and somewhat eccentric, what was probably the start of his Alzheimer's was not immediately recognised. But his deteriorating behaviour already made Julia feel that she and her daughter needed to escape.

On a trip to America for one of his exhibitions, Charlie can't cope with the hotel, is unable to work the drinks dispenser at breakfast, or the buttons on the lift panel, and gets lost on the way back to their room.

Back in Bray, his decline continues apace, he is hospitalised for a time, he stops painting and finds life ever more confusing. He attacks the ATM when it won't give him money, tries to put his seatbelt buckle into the CD slot and, more seriously, tries to wash his daughter in scalding water. And that's only a glimpse of what goes wrong.

Julia does her best to continue life as normal, but the strain is destroying her and affecting their daughter. Charlie has now been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and a social worker strongly advises her to put him in care before she cracks up.

But she can't do it, even though she feels trapped. The solution is to put him in an apartment, while she goes to live nearby with her sister. She visits him twice a day and Charlie's ex-wife Mariad and grown-up daughter Domino also become part of the group who look after him. The final section of the book is harrowing, with Charlie threatening suicide as he despairs at what is happening to him.

What makes this book so exceptional is that it is full of warmth and humanity, despite the tragedy that unfolds. It is also completely candid. Every page is full of empathy but totally honest, often at Julia's own expense.

Writing such a book requires ruthlessness. It could be seen as a form of self-defence - she, after all, left him, despite providing continuing support. It could also be seen as a betrayal of Charlie, although she did read early sections to him and he wanted her to continue. As an artist he would have understood that ruthless candour was essential.

Julia has that ruthlessness - but she also writes beautifully and with great humanity.

Memoir: Matchstick Man, Julia Kelly, Head of Zeus, ­hardback, 288 pages, €20.49

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