Chinlund tells the story of her marriage, husband’s passing in artful way

The subtitle of Phyllis Chinlund’s memoir, “Looking back from the Gate,” accurately describes what she has composed. This is, indeed, “A Story of Love, Art, and Dementia.”

Ms. Chinlund worked as a documentary filmmaker, and that experience is evident in the montages, cuts and different points of view she uses to tell her story. Chinlund’s second career, as a geriatric social worker, provided her with an understanding of the center of the story, her husband Ray Witlin’s Alzheimer’s disease. The disease surfaced in 1995, and in January 1998 Chinlund began a journal to detail the life she lived with her failing husband. Almost five years later, in December 2002, her husband passed away.

In fact, that journal is one of four sources Chinlund used to create “Looking Back.” There is Chinlund’s 1950s childhood diary, the basis for a film she later made, called “Good Girl.” Then, in 1977, Chinlund and Ray – separated because she was working in New York and he in India – both kept journals. These three works, especially the ’77 journals, allow the reader to see the author and her husband as they were before Ray’s dementia debilitated him, and they moved from New York City to Portland, Maine.

“Looking Back” is a compelling description of the last couple of years of Ray’s life. But it is the other two pieces of the subtitle, the “Love and Art,” that make this book especially rich, for this is a love story of two artists.

Phyllis Chinlund met Ray Witlin in 1965. She was working for an independent filmmaker in New York City. Brooklyn-born Ray Witlin was coming home after 15 years in Columbia’s mountainous area, where he had made a film. They were both married at the time, but there was some connection, and Ray’s reluctance to leave the office made Phyllis think to herself, “He’s like a symphony that doesn’t want to end.”

When their marriages disintegrated, Chinlund and Witlin began their journey together, in 1970. We sense the energy of that marriage by Phyllis’s description of what is gone towards the end of Ray’s life. She wrote to a friend, after Ray’s Alzheimer’s was apparent, about the change in him and their love: “Ray at 77 has become frail in a way I never expected and I am grieving for big lost parts of our relationship. Love and attachment are still there, but my constant partner in conversation, exploration, and questioning is pretty much missing.”

Phyllis’s journal of caring for Ray begun in 1998, as he intermittently but inexorably slides away from her, mostly chronicles their lifein Portland, Maine. Why did this New York City woman move north when her husband needed more care? Unsurprisingly, they left Manhattan mostly for financial, cost of living, reasons. And Portland, after a somewhat cursory inspection, looked like a place they could not only afford, but would also allow them to “maintain enough of what mattered to us – my passion for my work and Ray for his creativity, our love for each other and for life itself.”

In fact, Portland turns out to be a good choice, and soon they have a home, Phyllis has a place to work, and aides are hired to care for Ray. With their dog, Abel, they canoe the Maine waterways, and some of their difficulties (who hasn’t had the dog jump out of the canoe?) echo the metaphor Phyllis used for her life with Ray: “I said we were in this rocking boat together and we had each other to hang onto.”

The “art” of this love story includes Ray’s photographs and writing. A professional photographer, his early pictures of children in Ecuador and Ethiopia remind the reader of his gift (to us) that was lost to Alzheimer’s. But even later, the pictures he took in Maine are careful and practiced.

The photographs, and his thoughts about his art, reveal Ray to the reader. Once, discussing pictures of vulnerable children, women and elderly in the Third World, Phyllis asked him why he so often chose them for his photographs.

“They are what they are. Sometimes one of them gives you the feeling of who you are,” Ray told her. So, they helped him see himself.

Ray was also an interesting writer. In his 1977 journal, he wrote of his time in India:”Calcutta is more like the insides of the human head than any city I have ever seen. Calcutta is a mind which exploded while working hard on every level: dream, myth and the racial unconsciousness are strewn all over the landscape.”

And, of course, the art is also the book we read, the pieces of lives, the conversations and explorations within a marriage, the scenes Phyllis Chinlund gathered to tell this story. I especially appreciated Phyllis’s dialogues with Ray. While she has lost her “constant partner in conversation, exploration, and questioning,” the talks she recounted are rich and sometimes surprising.

Trying to discover what Ray thinks about one of his aides, Phyllis says, “But something made you sad for a while.” Ray answered, “You are me. I’ll always be with you.” It’s not a bad description of love.

I am impressed with what Phyllis Chinlund has given us. She recorded the last and difficult years of her husband’s life as they lived it. And she gave us the back-story?-?self-revelations; their work and lives together; what brought them to each other, to Portland, and finally to Ray’s passing. In the process, her art does what Ray said of his photographs – they can “give you the feeling of who you are.”


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