Ruth Leon gives a brave account of her marriage to critic, then stroke victim, Sheridan Morley
But What Comes After…
by Ruth Leon
Constable, 256pp, 16.99
One day in November 2002, Ruth Leon got a call to say her husband, the theatre critic Sheridan Morley, had suffered a stroke. She flew from New York, where she was working temporarily, to his hospital bedside in London, where the diagnosis was confirmed. But it took several years for specialists to realise the full impact Morley's stroke had had on him. Several years, Leon admits with remarkable honesty, that were little short of hell - for both of them.
Those who suffer debilitating strokes (and anyone who has ever seen a loved one struck down by one will acknowledge what an inappropriately soft-sounding word "stroke" is for its viciousness and severity) are dependent on those closest to them, most often a partner. But Sheridan Morley had been dependent on Ruth Leon long before the stroke that made him much worse. Morley suffered from manic depression.
It meant that in front of a group of people he could be the great raconteur of fabulous tales; on TV and radio, the word-perfect host and presenter; in his reviews, sharp, knowledgeable and witty, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject.
But in private, he couldn't hold it together. When a depressive phase struck him ("depression arrives from nowhere and leaves for nowhere" he writes, at the end of Leon's book), he would regularly dissolve into tears, be unable to get out of bed or wash himself, eat properly or cope with the slightest difficulty. How he was able to keep working through those times was a minor miracle - until the stroke happened. It occurred on the left side of his brain, which meant that a few days afterwards he regained his speech and movement. But unbeknownst to his doctors, it had also affected the emotional centre of his brain, plunging him into a deeper depression than ever before.
Leon is not, by her own admission, a woman with the "Mother Teresa" gene. Every man or woman who has struggled to cope with a partner after a stroke should read this heart-breaking and awe-inspiring book and take her wise and candid words to heart. Leon "wasn't a very good carer but I was what he had and that was, just about, enough." She undersells herself, still blaming herself "for being such a bitch, for snapping at him and manipulating and ignoring him. I did the best I could. It still seems to me that it wasn't good enough, he deserved better, but I was there when nobody else was." It's a reminder of words spoken in the marriage ceremony - "in sickness and in health"- that few really think about deeply at the time, but matter so much later on. For Leon's account of Morley's illness isn't just a portrait of a generous, flamboyant, clever, lovable, often dreadful man who would spend all their money on CDs and books he didn't need without paying the mortgage and who didn't even know how to change a light-bulb, it's also a portrait of a marriage put under the most tremendous strain and how it coped.
Morley and Sheridan first met when she was a keen young amateur dramatist and he was a student. They went their separate ways, marrying other people, but always staying in touch. One day, well into his first marriage which had produced three children, Morley turned up in New York, where Leon was working, and proposed to her, telling her he had always loved her. She didn't respond immediately, but Morley duly left his wife, and Leon her husband. "Our marriage was the best thing that ever happened to either of us," she writes. They were soul-mates in many ways; both adored the theatre and after Morley's stroke Leon would secretly write up his reviews for him, often having to review the same show twice, to keep his work and his reputation going. That nobody spotted the difference suggests how alike they had become in their thinking - indeed, one of the many memories Leon cherishes is of them working in the same room at the same time on one of their jointly authored biographies.
Leon shows the immense difficulty of coping with intermittent illness when one has no fixed income, no sick pay or holiday pay, and no savings or pension provision. It might shock some who assume that figures like Morley must be rich, but she was dependent on the kindness of doctors like Guy Goodwin and Tipu Aziz sorting out the financial side of the operation that gave Morley some respite in the last few months of his life. After Goodwin diagnosed Morley's worsening depression as organic not affective - ie it had been caused by brain damage during the stroke - he admitted him for an experimental new procedure in 2005 called deep brain stimulation. A "pacemaker for the brain" would be implanted, to regulate the emotional and mood centre of his brain.
Leon's description of the exhausting procedure, along with all the to-ing and fro-ing that had to be done, is eye-opening, but, frightening as it was, it did help Morley eventually return to something like his old self, before his death in February 2007. For five years, Leon had coped with a man who needed almost everything done for him; the years before that were a see-saw of great times and terrible times. Morley himself sums up the effect of his illness on him: "loss of work, loss of pride, loss of cash, loss of friends, above all loss of nerve and marriage and identity, are all what depression is really about" (he had been replaced as theatre critic on the Spectator by Toby Young, appointed by Boris Johnson, only one of the many things Johnson should be ashamed of). But the effect of his illness on those closest to him? It was probably the greatest challenge Ruth Leon, a not easily defeated woman, ever faced. Few could have stayed with him, I suspect. But she did. This book is for those who stay.