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Post Road Magazine #35


Gail Hosking
Portuguese: "a kind of intense nostalgia, an indolent dreaming wistfulness."
        for Faye

Sometimes when the locked door of the memory unit opens, she looks at me with a hint of recognition. She's on the verge of a smile as though she's been waiting for me to pick her up for a trip to the art museum or to the yarn store for a sweater project. At nearly ninety with streaks of white and silver through her once-dark curly hair, she is as quiet as a lost child. I want to believe she knows who I am, remembers the many decades I've known her. When the door closes behind me, I want to reach out my hand and say let's go, Faye, and take her away from this place filled with strangers.

But even as her attention settles on me, she never once says my name. And there are no clues that she connects me to anything or anyone in her life. This former mother-in-law of mine—the women I once called Mom and who thought of me as her daughter—has Alzheimer's, or dementia, or something that has turned off the buttons of now and then , and made Swiss cheese out of a brain that no longer understands that we once called each other family. She does not remember that she made my bridal veil, helped me with my babies, and always remembered my birthday.

It's the oddest thing—for lack of better words—to stand with her now as I take her hand, she wondering who I am and why I'm here. I've come to visit, I say with a big smile, as though that will explain the blank canvas of her days. Explain why I come even when her only son and I are no longer married. Do you want to go for a walk? I ask, and she surprisingly agrees.

If setting serves mood, then what are the particulars of her day in this small world where she rarely smiles anymore? Does she, for instance, consider the pansies growing in the window box, or the whirr of crows landing on a tree outside, or see the twisting shadows against the wall on a gray winter's day? Does she have a story that she follows now, or does nothing attach anymore like the decaying synapses in her brain? Is it all surface, no substance? I think of these questions without answers as we walk around the circular hall passing other seniors, some shuffling by, others playing Bingo with the Activity Director.

Like a docent whose job it is to explain and to make this place come alive, I point to the oil paintings on the wall, talk about color and scene. As I speak, I use the defense of compartmentalizing because I cannot be here otherwise. We are on two different shores now separated by a river carrying the details of our past lives away toward the rapids.

She, a former artist, wants the paintings to come down, she announces. They are mine, she says out of the blue as she waves her hand through the air. No one appreciates them. On the contrary, I say, they are up where everyone can see them. Who cares? She questions with an angry tone. As we continue our walk, nothing she says connects to anything logical until the words Lake George, boat, waterski pop out of nowhere in that order, and I see immediately what we once saw together—a family vacation in the Adirondacks—she all smiles posing in her bathing suit, her son waterskiing behind a boat, my father-in-law holding on to the rope, me on the dock with a baby on my hip.

To distract her before she gets upset, I pause in front of a window so she can see the outside garden. I chat about pink bushes and purple irises as I recall her lovely garden in Connecticut with its beds of daffodils, mums, miniature weeping cherry trees and blueberry bushes. So beautiful it was that cars once slowed down to notice. As I speak about the garden here, I wonder who takes care of that other garden now.

Care is a big word here in this locked unit. The word itself becomes a meal, a shower, clean sheets, someone to be there twenty-four hours a day for the sake of safety. The truth is that she lives now inside a living elegy that sings songs she does not remember or care about, details of the past subtracting by the day. When I leave, I will look up the word care and find that it comes from the old High German chara, which means "grief and lament," and the old Norse word kor for "sickbed." No matter what the brochures say, this is indeed a place for grief and sickbeds. A place for assistance to people re-assembled, no longer the self in the photographs posted on their doors.

I have to pretend in order to be here because when I step back into the world we once shared, it reawakens my own grief. There is no room for nostalgia because that would only bring back what the ancient Greeks saw asalgos, meaning distress and pain. I also fear a kind of heimweh, what the Germans called a disease of homesickness, and I might be seized with a desire to return to a home that no longer exists, a family no longer together. It's a by-product of divorce, but also of aging. It can be lethal. Maybe that's why the Buddhists insist on staying in the present moment and tell us that life is all about change, change that is inevitable no matter how you try otherwise.

A friend of mine suggested improvisation, like composing a new narrative each time I visit. "Leave any yearnings you have at home and use humor," she insisted. She said not to expect anything. This works occasionally. I arrive each week curious as to what I will find. I tell myself that I am here simply to spend some time with her, nothing more.

But sometimes humor and improvisation don't work. Though I would be quick to tell anyone, no, I don't want anything with these visits—I'm just doing this because it's the right thing to do—I recognize that I really do desire something. I want her love. I want to believe that all these details of our lives—everything on that shelf of hers and everything we ever shared—matters. I want to believe that someone will always remember, as if, somehow memory will make all the difference.

In her room I pick up the crystal-framed photograph of the two of us standing together for my son's wedding in a Philadelphia park. I can still feel the humid heat of that day and hear the dance music in the background. Move in closer, the photographer had said. And we did, arm in arm. I stare at that picture now as if I'm reading a book with made-up characters that no longer speak my language. Who knew back then the world could change so fast, so unevenly? Now, here we stand looking over her few belongings lined on the shelf of her small room. Do these items stabilize her in any way, I wonder. I don't care, she repeats, disconnected from anything I've said. They can have me. The phrase peters out. I am in a dream dressed in black. All I can do is watch. Attend. Listen.

I rub my hand across her familiar things like a stone swan sculpture or her art books. I recall the hand-blown glass vase I once bought for her birthday, the striped rug I wove placed next to her bed, and the painting she did of her young husband in his navy uniform. But it's the photographs of my sons that are the hardest to look at in this autumnal story. Hard because they alone have the most powerful pull to the past, so I pretend I don't know my three-year-old son picking blueberries in her garden, or his high school graduation picture with his curly hair and dad's black sweater. I make believe I've never known the other son wearing his grandfather's plaid fedora, his grandmother's paintbrush in his hand. They look like sweet boys, I say. She shakes her head yes, but says nothing.

Lately, as she pulls more words from the air, I simply put my hand on her back, and stare where she is looking. I bring her chocolate and she puts it in her mouth like a hungry and delighted child. I stop talking. I stop wanting to know if she's heard from Aunt Edith or if she misses Gilly, her dead husband. The conversation narrows like the veins in her head. Instead, I point out the birds lined up on a roof outside her window. Body to body, their heads tuck under as the temperature drops. She starts to cry suddenly—so unlike her—and she announces that she wants to go home but she's not sure where her car is.

It feels like the only true thing that has been spoken in years.

I reach over to position my arm across her shoulders. I want to cry with her, but instead with my other hand I fiddle with the small stone in my pocket, fingering its tactile firmness. I do this because compassion hurts, and sometimes the raw things of life demand silence and touch. She leans into my chest and I rub her back.

Later, just after I seat her at the dining room table for dinner with the other residents, then put on my coat to leave, she announces, She took eggs to the bank and that's what it is.

I imagine so, I say as I button my coat, going back to improvisation. Her head nods in agreement.

Is she your daughter? A man sitting across from her asks.

She brings the soupspoon down to the bowl. Her? She asks looking over her shoulder at me, her feet not able to reach the floor. No, she's not my daughter.


One of these visits will be my last. She will fall off a chair soon after I leave, break a hip and be dead hours later. Her son will be the only one with her in the hospital as she passes. I won't be at her funeral either, and that complicated decision will haunt me for weeks like a Zen koan that cannot be solved in any satisfactory way. When she dies, I am states away staring at egrets as they pose in the mud before they fly away. Their whiteness silhouetted against a cloudy sky. Leaning into a fence, I watch the tidal river come in as I imagine my grown sons carrying her wooden casket.

The real trick, I would say to her if I could, is accepting the changing seasons when yesterday falls out of our pockets like crumbled dust. The real trick is keeping our hearts open anyway, finding home residing inside us, a place we carry wherever we go. I imagine the aide pushing code numbers on the wall keyboard again and the door opening as the sun settles at an afternoon angle. I turn to wave goodbye. Sometimes she waves back. Sometimes she looks in my direction and smiles because for one brief moment, I know she remembers.

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