When the acclaimed British writer Iris Murdoch died last week in Oxford, England, she left an impressive literary legacy. In a career spanning more than four decades, she produced 27 novels and several plays, along with books on philosophy and critical writings. She also accumulated awards and honorary doctorates and became a Dame of the British Empire.
Ms. Murdoch's private life merits equal admiration. Her 43-year marriage to John Bayley, a distinguished critic and one-time literature professor at Oxford, was, by all accounts, a union marked by closeness and equality. As the couple pursued their separate careers, they settled into a satisfying partnership of shared solitude and "separate togetherness."
But that separate togetherness began taking a different form five years ago when Murdoch experienced what she initially described to an interviewer as "severe writer's block." Eventually she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Mr. Bayley became her full-time caregiver.
As Murdoch's mental condition declined, equality gave way to a new dependency. Patiently and tirelessly, Bayley attended to her needs, still finding comfort in her presence, still loving the wife who, deprived of memory, was reduced to watching the Teletubbies on TV.
Out of these experiences Bayley has written a love story, "Elegy for Iris," his poignant memoir of their life together and of Murdoch's final years. It is a paean to a long marriage, a testimonial to devotion, an honest account of the challenges and rewards of caregiving.
Caregiving remains a largely unexplored subject, hidden behind closed doors in homes and shrouded in a conspiracy of silence. Undiscussed except among close friends or co-workers, it involves unsung heroes and heroines who go about their tasks with love, sometimes struggling with fatigue and fear.
In the United States, an estimated 22 million households provide some form of unpaid care to a relative or friend age 50 or older. A quarter of those caregivers are men. But because caregiving is still largely regarded as "woman's work," male caregivers like Bayley remain even more invisible than women.
Bayley, for all his endless patience and kindness, was no saint. Sometimes his patience wore thin, and he responded sharply to his wife's repetitive questions. "Violent irritation possesses me," he writes. Occasionally he felt "a wild wish to shout in her ear: 'It's worse for me - much worse!' " Still, he stopped short of telling friends, "You should see how things are at home."
But these dark moods quickly passed, and when Murdoch needed help he hurried to comfort her. "We kiss and embrace much more than we used to," he says.
If anything, their marriage grew even stronger. Bayley quotes an Australian poet, A.D. Hope, who describes a process in marriage by which a couple can "move closer and closer apart." The apartness, Bayley says, "is a part of the closeness."
He adds, "There is a certain comic irony - happily not darkly comic - that after more than 40 years of taking marriage for granted, marriage has decided it is tired of this and is taking a new hand in the game. Purposefully, persistently, involuntarily, our marriage is getting somewhere. It is giving us no choice: I am glad of that."
One critic has taken a "What-would-Iris-think?" view of the book, chastising Bayley for exposing private details of Murdoch's condition to public scrutiny. But in an age of divorce, his portrait of their marriage gives new meaning to the vow "Till death do us part."
For Bayley, ministering to the needs of his adored Iris was a solitary act of love. So greatly did she fear his absence that he could not bear to leave her with anyone else. But for legions of other caregivers on both sides of the Atlantic, respite care - a few hours of richly deserved time off - remains an urgent need.
Bayley's account of caregiving is his last great gift to Murdoch. It is also a gift to caregivers everywhere. By offering insight into the ways in which such aid affects a relationship, he brings reassurance that love still prevails in the midst of illness or infirmity.
His reflections also serve as a fitting tribute to a woman whose own fictional subjects revolved around what she termed the "dramas of the human heart."
As the population ages and lifespans increase, caregiving is one such "drama of the human heart" that will be reprised again and again. By opening a window on the subject and illustrating its importance, Bayley has set a standard for future discussions. These deserve the same dignity and respect he has shown.