Tony Ward with his wife Sheila

Kept away from care homes during coronavirus: ‘I am losing some of the “good days” left to us.’

Tony's wife, Sheila, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2017 and currently lives in a care home. Following their enforced separation because of coronavirus, Tony shares how the lockdown has affected them, and a new poem.

After 53 years of marriage, separation is very hard.

My phone calls are a bit one-sided but very welcome for us both. Sheila doesn't talk much now. She can't initiate a conversation as she has no short-term memory and gets frustrated at not being able to find the words she wants.  

I make a list of 'news' to tell her beforehand and she does comment or laugh. I am delighted when she suddenly comes out with a perceptive or witty response - the old Sheila!

Our Facebook Messenger video sessions are on similar lines. The staff always ensure that Sheila is smartly dressed and one of them stays (off camera) to contribute as necessary.

At first there was only an occasional smile, but generally her face was rather expressionless. I found this upsetting as she was always a cheerful outgoing person with a smile for everybody. However, as she has become used to the video sessions, more of her personality is coming across.

Before the coronavirus lockdown, I would make daily visits to the care home. Sheila always greeted me with a big smile, a kiss and a hug. I miss this very much. Blowing kisses via a video link is not the same. 

Caring for a pet to help with loneliness

About a year ago, I could see Sheila's admission to a care home coming. I set about finding a dog as company.

Rino, a rescue dog from Romania, arrived at the end of January and is now very loyal and loving.  

Previously, I was able to take him to visit Sheila and the other residents. She is very attached to him and so I provide her with regular updates on his activities.  

Rino eases my loneliness and his walks keep me fit. I talk to him, but of course he is no substitute for Sheila.  

Early on though one of his walks was an occasion for more tears as I decided to do part of one of Sheila's favourite walks. It suddenly hit me that this would never be possible again, lockdown or not, as Sheila now has trouble walking. 

When we are able to go out again it may just be for a wheelchair push along the seafront. I am losing some of the 'good days' left to us.

Tony and Sheila with their dog, Rino

Tony and Sheila with their dog, Rino, in February 2020

As our garden was also important for us, I regularly create and post to Sheila postcards of the flowers in our garden.

In Easter, I made a photo brochure to provide a tour of the garden. One of the carers talked about it with her. I will do more brochures as the seasons change. I do miss her sharing our gardening. 

Last September I was sitting at my writing table in the garden, amid a cloud of butterflies, when I suddenly burst into tears.

A comfort came from a most unexpected source.

I was inspired to write the poem, a sonnet, Painted Lady Summer. This can be interpreted in different ways by different readers. You may even find something of yourself within it. 

In writing this poem, I researched different cultural beliefs in butterflies as ‘souls’ and re-visited Shakespeare’s works. (You may spot a line that I lifted, slightly altered, from Hamlet).

Although I wished to reflect the anguish of those, like myself, who are now unable to visit loved ones, I wanted the poem to be uplifting rather than depressing. We get enough bad news from the media. 

Painted Lady Summer 

By Tony Ward 

Between May and September 2019, over 10 million Painted Lady butterflies migrated from North Africa to Northern Europe – a once in a decade phenomenon. 

September tears pockmark the page, my pen 
afraid to crystallize my fears. And yet 
you, Lady, psyche on my sleeve, again 
awakes my muse, procures a poet’s debt. 
So, spirit painted by the Sun, I write 
for you, but not for you alone. 
No plaques, no tangles, fog your brain. No fight 
to call to mind lost worlds, a life unknown. 

   Oh, what a sorry scene you paint. Your wife
   goes gentle from your sight, no rage. Why sinks 
   your heart? Her spirit soars – new world, new life. 
   This poet doth protest too much, methinks. 

But will we meet again? Dare I believe? 

   Look down, she waits already on your sleeve. 

The stories behind the poem

As a diversion from the ever-depressing newscasts, you might like to know the facts behind the poem. I certainly found the research fascinating.

The Painted Ladies’ migration

Painted Lady butterflies are nomads. They carry out a 7.500-mile round trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle every year. They cover up to 100 miles per day at an altitude of up to 3,000 feet and a maximum speed of 30mph. They are the most widely distributed butterfly in the world.

It is usually the children of the original migrants that arrive in the UK in May, having been born on route, in Spain, and then it is a third generation that return South in September.

In the record-breaking heat, the National Trust attributed the butterfly boom, one of the nature highlights of the year, to climate change. Painted Lady butterflies were among many migrants and plants that enjoyed a bumper year.

A group of visiting Painted Lady butterflies (Credit; Veronica Bosley, from Pixabay)

A group of visiting Painted Lady butterflies.
Image: Veronica Bosley via Pixabay

Butterflies as souls

Many different cultures share beliefs about butterflies as spirits.

Blackfeet Native Americans thought that the butterfly spirit brings us our dreams and the Navaho regarded butterflies as an emblem of happiness and, along with other cultures, a symbol of rebirth.

In ancient Egypt and Rome butterflies were believed to be the souls of the dead, and in ancient Greek the word for butterfly is ‘psyche’ which means ‘soul’.

The Aztecs believed that the happy dead in the form of butterflies would visit their relatives to assure them that all was well, and in Mexico, on the holiday known as the Day of the Dead, butterflies are seen as their returned souls.

In the 17th Century, in Ireland, it was even against the law to kill a white butterfly because of the belief that it bore a dead child’s spirit, similarly in Germany.

In Japan there is a belief that white butterflies are the personification of a person’s soul whether they be living, dying or already dead, and the butterfly-souls of your ancestors are regarded as guardian angels to help you, or warn you against danger.

Philip Pullman’s ‘daemons’

This idea of a creature embodying a living person’s soul was used by Philip Pullman in his trilogy, His Dark Materials (brilliantly dramatized on BBC TV).

Pullman’s ‘daemons’ though were always close to their soulmates and died when they died, whereas the Japanese butterfly souls are true ‘free spirits’, free to roam, and continuing life after death.

The butterfly on my sleeve

It is Red Admiral butterflies that are generally found to be unafraid of human beings and calmly sit on them. They are not long-distance migrants, hibernating during the winter.

September, when there is most nectar, is a great time to spot them as their numbers are boosted by further migrants from across the channel.

Because of their affinity with us, more than most they are the species often regarded in myth as those symbolising our souls, and in view of their life cycle, the transformation of the soul through resurrection.

A Red Admiral butterfly - the 'psyche on my sleeve' (Credit: Emphyrio, from Pixabay)

A Red Admiral butterfly - the 'psyche on my sleeve'.
Image: Emphyrio via Pixabay

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare wrote 154 Sonnets, 14-line poems which follow a strict rhyme-scheme and metre (rhythm when spoken).

They are widely regarded as some of the finest love poems ever written. However, Shakespeare was fully aware that where there is love, there is grief.

His only son, Hamnet, born to his wife Anne (Hathaway), died at the age of eleven. Hamnet’s non-identical twin, a girl, and their other daughter survived. The cause of Hamnet’s death is not known, but it was possibly from the bubonic plague, rife at the time.

In London, where Shakespeare was then working, the plague claimed one quarter of the population. In the outbreak of 1592-93 the Crown ordered the complete closure of all London theatres.

Shakespeare was in the middle of a run of his King Henry VI History plays at the Rose theatre, a financial disaster. He would likely also have lost some of his friends to the epidemic. Sound familiar?

Sonnet 30 deals with the pain of grief, the fact that we never really get over the loss of a loved one. In the final two lines though Shakespeare holds out some hope of closure.

I will leave the last words to the Bard: 

'But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.'

Read more poems by Tony

In retirement Tony has enjoyed success as a poet and writer. Here are two more articles from Tony that include his poems - 'Farewell Tour' is about music, while 'The Homecoming' was written with Tony's mother in mind.

Farewell Tour The Homecoming

4 comments

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Tony there are somany folks in the same boat. Im 75 and my wife Marleta in an altzheimers frail care. I have written 5 poem books mostly Afrikaans but in my deepest hurt i wrote THE LONGEST GOODBYE and. I THE CARER
I am in confinement and have seen my wife once since lockdown. THE LORD IS MY SHEPERD.

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beautiful poem Tony, so pleased the writing is helping you in such a difficult situation, hopefully you may be able to visit Sheila in the not too distant future X Sandra

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A beautiful and poignant poem that expresses Tony's deep and continuing love for Sheila, as well as the pain of their situation exacerbated during lockdown, but also the hope of new life together in a world without suffering. I love the symbolism of the butterfly and all the explanations add colour and depth to one's understanding of the poem. I can imagine Sheila painting illustrations to the poem and delighting in the butterflies in their beloved garden.

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Another meaningful poem by this talented man, also a friend. Like many others who have close friends in care homes I feel cheated of the time we might share. Going for a walk and stopping for tea and cake is no longer possible. I miss Sheila too but it is reassuring to see her smile on WhatsApp. Tony's words are a powerful testimony to his love.

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