Scottish-born singer-songwriter, author and translator Malcolm Duff shares his experiences of being his wife’s carer and the healing power of music


I am a translator and singer-songwriter, raised in Scotland, now living in Normandy, not far from the beaches. I met my wife here fifty years ago, a beautiful, dark-haired girl with shining eyes and a sunlit smile, the daughter of Spanish refugees from the civil war. But a dozen years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. So, I retired early to protect and take care of her, and ended up serving as her escort – for a day came when she no longer knew who I was, other than a faithful servant. She lived on happily and peacefully in our home until the very end, surrounded by fields and the forests beyond. She died last May. Those years were neither happy nor peaceful for me, despite our helper, a wonderful woman whom I employed for the last five years of my wife's life, and who took care of her as if she was her own child. During the final six months, I had to tell what had happened to us all, how the illness acts as a catalyst, accelerating peoples' reactions without being consumed, in some even turning love to hate, and managed each week to write a chapter of a book now entitled "The Escorts". It is to be released this year in English, French and Spanish. My publisher in Paris has described it as "a poignant ode to the fragility of life"; that in London, "a tribute to compassion", and that in New York, "a story sublimated by song".

The book describes the impact of the disease, not only on my wife but on all those who accompanied her closely or from afar, and tries to provide a "survival kit" for the carers of people with a fatal disease, by discussing the physical and metaphysical issues involved, and explaining how I tackled the problems that every helper has to face. During the last three years of my wife's life I still managed to go to the recording studio one afternoon a week (it was the only break I had, being a carer is a 24/7/365 job), to sing the songs and tell my tale. I was fortunate enough to meet a writer who was looking for a composer, and a few months later found myself entangled in two love affairs: one, tragic (that of my wife), and the other, magic, with the writer, who gave me the encouragement I needed to finish the book and the songs. She became "Maria" in "The Escorts". With her help, the songs formed the soundtrack for the book, and when I had finished writing it, I added the lyrics and a short explanation about whom or what had inspired them. The songs have been released as an album entitled "For You", available here:

Each song is published with the lyrics and an excerpt from the book, which is perhaps best summed up by the bridge in the title track of the album:

"There's so much to learn about this lonely world,

As we ride from mountain high down to the sea.

Once upon a time I loved a girl,

And for a starry while, she loved me."

Only a fortnight after my wife died, knowing the house and how lonely I was, the secretary in the village hall called and asked if I could take in a family of Ukrainian refugees, a young mother, her two children, two cats and a dog. They had survived a month of Russian bombs and had trekked by bus, by car and on foot across the whole of Europe, seeking the safety they finally found in France – much as my wife's parents had done to escape other fascists almost a century before. I took them in, if only for the dog that I thought might serve as an escort for my old Labrador, who was as sad as I when my wife passed away. They have stayed here ever since, for they turned out to be good, nice, intelligent people; like my wife, their hallmark is courage and character, and they all love music, including the dog and cats (who sleep on my piano, the dogs under it). But since the war began, my translation work has decreased from three documents a day, to three a week, and now three a month, and my pension is insufficient to make ends meet, let alone feed my guests. Their story is the same as that of a million refugees, world without end. If my tale is any different, it is because I have told it in song. No matter. As a carer, I now know the importance of music in soothing a heavy heart, and that if life has many fine things to offer, love is the greatest of gifts, for one simple reason: in the end, it is all we need.

"The Escorts" has now been published and is available in English in paperback, hardcover and Kindle format, with its soundtrack: