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.

14 thoughts on “What Remains

  1. This is a beautiful post. I talked with a friend last night who is coping with something similar with her father. Listening to her it makes me think of all the grief she has yet her dad is still here. It is a cruel illness. I’m going to send her the link to your post. Thank you for sharing these insights and important messages. My friend is afrail and I think it would help her to read this. Thank you.

  2. I have been following your posts, especially this week, and, though I do not know the cast, have been very moved. Your insights are a tribute to them, and though quite particular, give light and dignity to the road we are all traveling.

  3. Ah what a good one this is. We were just talking about Tobey the other day I think it was at our Easter picnic at China Beach. Isn’t Fran a beauty? Love this.

  4. You remind me of a similar situation with my Mom and I’m in tears as I type thinking of her beautiful smile. She was in the last stages of that horrific disease and we were moving her within days. It was hardest on my Dad and I think he was relieved that she only lasted a few weeks in the nursing home. Our only consolation was that we didn’t think she knew. She hadn’t spoken a word in months; just sounds. Mom was gone or so we thought.

    We had a little party for them on their 50th anniversary, which was one of her last days at home and the last time she spoke; my Dad said “I love you honey” and she said as clear as day, I love you too” and they danced like I remember them danciing all the time in the kitchen. We were amazed that she had come back even if it was for a moment and it made our day and Dad talked about it the rest of his life.

  5. You know, you might have something there with your writing if you would apply yourself! What a beautiful piece! Do tears run down your cheeks when you write this stuff? It obviously comes straight from your heart! And now I am gushing too much like a rabid stalker!

  6. What a beautiful tribute to both of them, Terry! I’ve been down this road five times now — three times with grandparents, once with my mother and once with my friend/neighbor. It’s complicated and mentally brutal, and the necessary decision to take someone’s familiarity and comfort away hurts everyone. I stopped calling my mother (in Indiana) because she didn’t even know who I was anymore and was annoyed by the calls, but she remembered my face when we visited. What hurt most were the glimmers of her old remarkable intelligence wafting in and out of the dementia. I knew she was depressed and afraid, and there was not a single blessed thing I could do to help her. It was her own dark and fearful path, and given our family history, I expect that one very like it will be mine someday. Hugs to you, Terry.

  7. Hi Terry,
    Thanks for sharing that story.
    My Mom died of Alzheimers 11 years ago. Although there were far more painful memories of her dementia days there was one that made us all laugh.
    One Sunday I had her over our house for a visit ad I was a teacher at the time and correcting some papers at the kitchen table. She looked at me and said, “You know my daughter is a teacher.” I said, “I am your daughter!” She responded, “I thought you looked familiar!” We had a good laugh over that one. At least she could still speak at that time.

    From one of your Lowell Peeps

  8. Joan that is so sweet. She still had her sense of humor … I hear the dark future implied in ‘at least she could still speak at the time….’ What a horrible disease it is..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s