In 2007, “I’d Love You to Want Me,” written by Viet Thanh Nguyen was published in Gulf Coast Magazine. Within this short story, Nguyen details the changing lives of a married couple as the husband’s progression of Alzheimer’s furthers. The story is told in a past tense, third-person-limited narrative by the wife, Sa. Nguyen starts the story at a wedding where the Professor first calls Sa by another woman’s name, Yen. As the story progresses, Mrs. Khahn finds it harder and harder to hide her emotions surrounding this mysterious woman. Eventually, the Alzheimer’s worsens to the point that their lives change so drastically through their now coupled delusion of their past together that Sa questions her knowledge of love at all. Throughout this short story Nguyen utilizes syntax, flashbacks, and gestures of love in order to help the readers get a better understanding of the everyday struggles that come along with living with a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and detail how love fuels the heart while also hoping to provide comfort to others struggling with this illness.
Nguyen starts his short story with a sort of ironic underlaying which sets the tone and foreshadows the rest of the story. The first place that the Professor called Sa by another woman’s name was at a wedding. This is sort of ironic due to the fact that their marriage is arranged, and they only go to weddings “out of obligation” (Nguyen 99). A wedding is a symbol of love and commitment; and while Sa goes on to question her knowledge of love, it is love that fuels her to continuously commit to her husband even though he may have truly loved another this whole time.
Though the dynamics and intimacy of their relationship have changed, it is important to remember that “Alzheimer’s disease does not change a person’s need for love and affection” (Alzheimer Society). One partner might have to pick up some of the roles that their partner played in the relationship, which ultimately lead Sa to quit her job. It may have been hard for her to adjust to caring full time for someone who does not even remember her name, but “remembering the long history” they have together “and strong emotional bonds” (Alzheimer Society) between them fueled her to keep caring for him in the long run.
Throughout the story, flashbacks are used to detail the history of the couple together. Some of the stories become reminders of the plans that they made to travel the world together once they retired, something they can no longer do because of the Professor’s Alzheimer progression. As Sa hears his stories more and more, she begins to “fear that her own memory was faltering” (Nguyen 115). One of the stories that the professor mentioned one day while the two were getting ice cream was of a memory that Sa did not even think that they had together. She immediately thought that her husband was recalling memories with Yen, especially when he said, “You loved those brown sugar cones, Yen” (Nguyen 119). At this point she had had enough of her husband calling her by another woman’s name and at the end of his story she blatantly said to him, “‘That’s not my name. I am not that woman, whoever she is, if she even exists’” Nguyen 119). Throughout the story, Sa is being forgotten and rewritten within her husband’s head. The symbolism surrounding this phenomenon can be seen in the changing of their Vietnamese street name by the Communists. Even Saigon itself has been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. While it is evident through her agitation of the mental struggles that Sa is dealing with through this process, she continues to care for him despite being rewritten as though she were a book within her husband’s mind.
Even before she quit her day job at the library, Sa helped care for her husband as much as possible. Throughout their relationship, the Professor was not one to show his love for her in grand ways so instead he bought her “enduring presents, like the books he gave her” (Nguyen 109). When her husband came home one day with a rose for Yen, Sa had a hard time “trying to fight the urge to snap the head off the rose” (Nguyen 110). She felt strongly that “going to work every day and never once complaining about teaching Vietnamese to so-called heritage learners” (Nguyen 113) was true love, not giving roses. This ideal is evident through the back-wrenching chores that she does daily for her husband, chores that he is too senile to realize she does for him. Nguyen also highlights this ideal through the symbolism of a “rose.” While roses are beautiful and represent love, they also have thorns and die after their growth has ceased. In the end of the Professor’s life, the couple’s love has depleted as their struggles began to become harder to overlook. Despite the hopelessness she felt for their relationship she continued to care for him out of love and even began to “read out loud every day to him. She would read with measured breath, to the very end. She would read as if every letter counted, page by page and word by word” (Nguyen 124).
Another element Nguyen uses to showcase how love fuels the heart and the mental struggles that accompany the hardships is syntax. When referencing and thinking of Yen, the sentences are much longer and use a lot of commas. This could relate to her constant worry and wonder of the mysterious woman. As the constant “question of who this woman was consumed her days” (Nguyen 113), by the end of the story Sa began to feel as though the woman was “looking over her shoulder at her name, written in [her husband’s] precise hand under that of the author” (Nguyen 124). The long sentences connect the worrisome, consumed thoughts of Sa to the altered, fading thoughts of her husband. Both of them are going through a major mental strain within this life change. The care that Sa puts into reading for the Professor as a form of love is shown within this last passage, “she would read with measured breath, to the very end. She would read as if every letter counted, page by page and word by word” (Nguyen 124). This connects to the close reading that Nguyen wants his readers to perform. In order to truly understand the struggles and lack of connection that the couple is experiencing, one really has to use connections and read between the lines. As the story progresses, Sa continues to be rewritten within her husband’s mind. The symbolism between the caring gesture of reading to her husband and Sa being a drafted novel within the Professor’s decomposing mind is one that Nguyen makes very clear to the reader. Imagine watching your husband create you into a woman you know nothing about, the mental strain that emerges out of changes in life like this is one of Nguyen’s main focuses within this story.
Overall, the use of syntax, flashbacks, and gestures of love help to give readers a better understanding of the everyday struggles that come along with living with a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and detail how love fuels the heart. The change in lifestyles that the couple experienced placed both mental and physical barriers between them. Besides the obvious mental barriers between them due to the competing worry and altered memories, Sa is also experiencing physical exhaustion due to constantly caring for the Professor which can be seen in the quote: “Her head was aching from lack of sleep, her back was sore from the chores, and her neck was tight with worry” (Nguyen 116). Despite their growing apart, Sa continues to care for her husband out of the love she felt for him throughout their relationship which will bring them both comfort in the long run. After reading this story, Nguyen hopes that readers will take away the ideal that people with Alzheimer’s are still worthy of love. While the struggles between relationships may grow, and gestures of love may change, in the end one has to remember that no one has control of their own decomposing life.
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