The Sea of Forgetfulness

A Bethesda woman is cast adrift in unfamiliar waters as she struggles to care for a husband with Alzheimer's.

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The living room of Sabina and Mark Shalom’s Bethesda condominium on Pooks Hill Road is bright, spacious and filled with mementos of a 59-year marriage: souvenirs of the couple’s years in South America, photos of family gatherings and meetings with British royals. On a dining room wall is an oil portrait of Sabina—commissioned by Mark from a photograph while his wife was on a solo, six-month backpacking trip around the world.

Now 84, Sabina walks gingerly due to chronic back pain, though she still has the large, deep-set eyes and delicate features of the beautiful young woman in the painting. But the meaning of six decades’ worth of memorabilia is gradually becoming lost to Mark, who is 88. Two years ago he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Watching him forget their shared past, Sabina says, “is like being in a sea that has no shore.”

On a cool fall afternoon, Mark strides into the living room and greets a visitor courteously. Tall, thin and dapper, he sets out for a stroll around the enclosed condominium grounds. Though he is still in the early stages of the illness, the building staff has been informed of his condition. So far, Mark has been able to follow his daily route without getting lost. After he leaves, his wife says, “You’d think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him—that he’s just a splendid fellow.” But if you were to be with him for any length of time, she says, you’d notice that something’s wrong.

Mark, a textile manufacturer fluent in Spanish and Arabic and given to reciting long passages of Shakespeare from memory, began showing signs of the disease three or four years ago: He would ask Sabina the same question several times over, or insist he’d given her something when she was certain he hadn’t. He also would do odd things, such as putting dishwashing liquid in the refrigerator. When she remarked on it, he’d become irritated, telling her, “Never mind—don’t make a big deal of it.” His moodiness distressed her even more than his forgetfulness. “He’d take a remark of mine as a slight, when none was intended, and it got very hurtful,” she says. “Before, he was much more matter-of-fact. We had a very good relationship.”

That relationship was, for its era, also somewhat unconventional. In 1977, at age 52, Sabina traveled alone around the world with Mark’s blessing. During her six-month marriage sabbatical, she was stranded in Tehran during Iran’s pre-revolutionary chaos and rescued by a flight attendant she had befriended on the plane. Sabina also charmed her way into audiences with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India and King Tauf’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga while visiting those countries. On Chile’s Easter Island, having run short of money, she bartered her raincoat and pantyhose for lodgings. Once home, she asked her husband if he had worried she might choose not to return. “Never,” he told her. “Our marriage has been made of the strongest of bonds, but there have never been any chains.”

The British-born Shaloms first met in London in November 1949, at a benefit ball for World War II refugees. Sabina had recently returned to England from France, where she had worked with concentration camp survivors at the Maison des Enfants des Déportées; one of her charges was future Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. While in Paris, she had bought a length of black velvet—fabric that couldn’t be obtained in postwar Britain—which became the gown she wore to the ball. She was smitten with the handsome electrical engineering graduate from Manchester, who, like her, had been raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. After three dates, he proposed marriage and took her to meet 26 members of his Arabic-speaking Sephardic clan. The couple married six months later.

Despite having lived their whole lives in England, Sabina says she and Mark felt like outsiders in their country. The war, she says, “did not erase the anti-Semitism I encountered in my school days, and later…, it was a wounding anti-Semitic remark made by a prospective employer to my husband that triggered our desire to emigrate.” In 1955, the Shaloms moved to Toronto with their two young sons, Tony and Michael. During their first Jewish New Year in Canada, Sabina was amazed to hear radio and television announcements “wishing ‘all our Jewish friends a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.’ Never in all my life had the Jewish holidays been mentioned in England…. Our welcome in Canada, and later in the USA, made us feel proud to be Jewish.” 

In 1959, Mark was hired to run a textile plant in Colombia. In Bogotá, Sabina found outlets for her energy in volunteer projects, including establishing a free clinic for unwed mothers and writing a newspaper column, “Dear Sabby,” for the local English-language newspaper. But as political and drug-related violence increased in Colombia during the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Shaloms felt their lives were in danger, and they resettled in Miami.

With Tony and Michael away at college and Mark engrossed in setting up a stateside business, Sabina found herself bored, overeating and sinking into depression. “I had empty-nest syndrome, menopause, the lot,” she says. Since marrying, she had not held a paying job, believing—like most women of her generation, she says—that being a wife and mother was a full-time career. She approached her husband with a proposal: that he give her four years of vacation time and $50,000 back pay for her nearly 30 years of domestic service. Mark laughed. Later he agreed to a compromise: a year off, a round-the-world airline ticket and $1,500.

Sabina returned six months later and 30 pounds lighter. “I got homesick and hungry,” she explains. She eventually parlayed her adventure into a book: A Marriage Sabbatical (Dodd, Mead & Co., Inc., 1984). Subtitled “A housewife backpacks around the world alone and saves her marriage,” the book generated enthusiastic reviews from The Washington Post to The Jerusalem Post to the Los Angeles Times, as well as interviews with TV talk show hosts Merv Griffin and Phil Donahue. Part travelogue and part meditation on love, family and commitment, the book concludes with the author’s resolution to preserve her hard-won autonomy within a devoted marriage.

After Mark retired in 1991, the Shaloms moved from Miami to Bethesda. The green of suburban Washington, D.C., reminded them of England, and Sabina says it was “near, but not on the doorstep” of son Michael and his young family in Gaithersburg. In 2001, A Marriage Sabbatical was reprinted in paperback, and in 2002 Sabina was the keynote speaker at the Gaithersburg International Book Festival.

Sabina began work on a sequel from the perspective of two decades later, but the irony was that everything she had learned and resolved about autonomy in marriage was becoming subverted by her husband’s puzzling behavior. Normally meticulous with money, he began to leave bills unpaid, or to overpay them, as well as to donate to obvious scams. When she tried to take charge of their finances, he became upset and accused her of emasculating him. 

Increasingly, Sabina feared something was very wrong with Mark. But when she mentioned her worries to their sons, they told her it was natural for a man their father’s age to be a bit confused and forgetful. Friends, too, were dismissive. “It maddened me,” Sabina says, “when people said, ‘Oh, I’m just the same—I don’t know where I’ve put my keys.’ Because I knew it wasn’t the same. So I kept quiet, but suffered terribly inside to see this slow erosion of our harmony taking place.”

For Sabina, the stress of keeping quiet was nearly fatal. In the spring of 2007 she was hospitalized with high blood pressure (something she’d never had) and angina. An angiogram revealed 90 percent blockage in one artery and 70 percent in the other. Her cardiologist placed stents in her arteries and urged her to take Mark to a neurologist—for her survival, as well as his. The neurologist’s preliminary conclusion, after a brief oral exam that tested arithmetic, memory and orientation, was cognitive memory impairment. Mark underwent additional tests, including an MRI and an EEG (electroencephalogram), and was given more in-depth oral and written examinations. The neurologist diagnosed early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

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