I went over to see my mother for lunch today. She and my stepfather are both 83, have been married for over forty years and they live in a small neat house in a Sussex village. Despite him having macular degeneration in his left eye and her having problems walking, they are amazingly fit and lively. She was particularly perky because she has been on a diet and lost two stone – this is, in truth, mainly because he devotedly logs the calorie intake of everything she eats and politely tells her when to stop. She joins in his morning exercise with him – for five of his fifteen minutes routine anyhow – to keep him company, although swinging her arms up and down isn’t on her list of fab things to do. They are inseparable. What I found so moving as I watched them discussing this, that and the other at the table over lunch, is that they really look into each others eyes when they are speaking. Even when they are discussing a contentious issue, they put their point firmly to each other but with such adoration in their eyes – even a slightly barbed comment ends with a genuine smile. It is quite wonderful to watch because I am pretty sure they are part of a very exclusive club – ie couples that still really, really love each other after many years of marriage. We should be so lucky.
Coincidentally, on the drive home I listened to Radio 4’s The Film Programme and they reviewed Amour, Michael Haneke’s new film which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. It’s a moving, uncompromising drama about an elderly couple who face the end together in their Paris apartment. Veteran actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, give breathtaking performances as Georges and Anne, retired music teachers in their 80s, living in a handsomely furnished, book-lined Paris apartment. They are happy, affectionate, loving; active and content. But one day, Anne suffers the first of a series of strokes which paralyse one arm, making playing the piano impossible, accompanied by progressive dementia. Perhaps the most horrifying parts of the film are the first, tiny indications that something is wrong. Not easy stuff to watch, but you’ll be missing out on a masterpiece if you don’t.
And a final thought from Iris Murdoch: “There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly taken-for granted relationship.”