What Remains

It’s nearly 20 years since Auntie Fran first grew confused and lost the sense of a daily plan; started following Uncle Ed around the house, even standing outside the door while he used the bathroom. When she began pocketing her food and hiding it in odd places, we wondered if it was time to talk nursing homes.

“I don’t think I can do it!” Uncle Ed told me, but in the end, he didn’t have to. She fell and broke her hip, could not manage the rehab and so did go to a nursing home – where, when we visited her, she never seemed happy to see us.

Once when I came, she reached in her mouth and handed me her teeth. 

For more than a year, she hardly spoke. Not to us. Not even to Uncle Ed.

It grew harder to recall the cheerful breezy woman she had been.

Uncle Ed went twice a day to feed her and sit with her and tuck her in with the kiss she turned her face from. I certainly meant to go. Three days a week I wrote, “Visit Auntie Fran” on my list.

In fact, I rarely went. None of us did.  We were busy, to put it one way. We were scared, to put it another.

Then my husband’s brother Toby came, from San Francisco and Toby was not afraid. He went every day for two hours to be with his aunt. He squired her around in her throne of a wheelchair and talked to her nonstop.

Outside once, wearing the sunglasses he had put on her, she gave him a dark look.   “Your teeth are green,” she said matter-of-factly. He laughed and lifted her sunglasses. “What color are they now?”

“She’s in there!” he told the rest of us. “She understands!”

But why won’t she speak? I wondered, especially to Uncle Ed, who read her silence as mute reproach. What can I do?

 One day I knew what I could do: I talked Uncle Ed into letting me take Monday lunchtimes and sit with her as, with great dignity and great effort, she chewed for the better part of the hour it took for her to feel full.

Imitating Toby, I talked my head off, asking silly questions that she mostly didn’t answer. 

After some weeks, though, I began to see what looked like thoughts passing like clouds behind her clear blue eyes. “You look EXHAUSTED!” she told me once after giving me a frank looking-over.

We kept news from her, in the way the well will do with the sick. 

Then one day when I came, I took a gamble: “Jackie Kennedy died,” I said lightly. “I know.” she answered. “I saw it on the television.”

 I put the spoon down. “You understand everything we say, don’t you?” 

“Just about,” she answered lightly.

My eyes filled with tears.  “Fran, we thought you were gone! You wouldn’t talk! You won’t talk to Uncle Ed! Are you mad at him?”  

She looked down fast.   

“And when Toby came east for that month he told us you were in there! He called you. Uncle Ed is calling you.” I held out my arms. “We’re calling you back, Fran!”

 Her eyes brimmed as well. And three days later she looked Uncle Ed square in the face and said, “Oh, Eddie, my Eddie. Can’t you take me home?” 

 Then it was his turn to cry.

How much is taken from two people in the end? Everything perhaps? Last week, alone in his apartment, Uncle Ed stepped from this life into the next, his arms up as if he were embracing a long-missed companion.  

 And how much remains, when there is love?

Why, everything again.