You sink in your puny bed. Six feet of you. Less. Your head, dotted with age spots and prickles of white hair, grazes the headboard. Puffy cheeks shaved clean by someone else. Blue eyes, once robin’s egg blue, darker now, deep water blue. Blue that’s dropped from the sky to sea. Blue that’s some place in between. Like you. In between. Still here yet tendrils of you wander. Here. Not here. Now and next.
“Hi J.,” I say as I lean in to hug your bony shoulders. “It’s Annie. Your daughter.” I leave off the step of stepdaughter since you’ve been more than a stepdad since I was 10.
I’m practicing with this Hello. With this reminder of who I am to you. Daughter. Middle daughter. Daughter with two kids. Daughter of writing. Daughter of heart. Daughter of legacy.
I’m practicing. You know me and our family. Now. And that will change. Dementia will steal your memory of us no matter how strong love is.
My hello meets your bent smile. Your smile smudged from strokes and fuzzy brain waves. Still a love smile. I wait a beat to hear your words. You tent your brows and sigh. You squeeze my hand. Your hand. Soft. Callouses swallowed. You haven’t fixed a light, mowed with a push mower or planed wood for a few years now.
Ernie, your caretakers’ white Westie dog, small and curly, mascot to Rose’s Adult Family Home, clicks into your room and you inch up a little in a stomach crunch. You smile wide at Ernie who I swear smiles back.
“In there,” you say in a rasp as though your voice is remembering its sound, and you point to your nightstand.
I open the drawer and yes: dime sized dog treats.
“Here you go Ernie,” I say with two treats in my open hand. “These are from J.”
Ernie slurps the treats then goes to you, stretches on the bed, hind paws pressed to the floor, front paws to you. This upward downward dog pose. You pat his head. He wags his thanks and clicks out of your room.
Your room is simple here at Rose’s, like summer camp or a college dorm. Rose’s. Where you live with seven other seniors and constant care. Where the living room is recliners and fleece throws and lilac air freshener. Where they treat you like family with kindness and strong arms and homemade chicken soup.
Beige curtains. Pine-Sol smelling speckled linoleum floor. Clay colored ceramic lamp on your nightstand. Plus glasses. Your Mickey Mouse watch. A motorcycle magazine Mom reads to you. A skinny dresser topped with a boxy 12” TV, a snow globe with the Seattle Space Needle and one of your many motorcycle-racing trophies. Taped on the wall above your twin-sized bed, a collage of pictures corralled on black poster board: Black and whites of you racing motorcycles. Family pictures: Mom, my sisters and me, parents, sister, grandkids, cat. You and Mom and us three girls at the Puyallup Fair 1971, two years after you married Mom and the bonus of girls. You stepped in. A second dad. A Do Your Best dad. Now 76 years shrunk down to three posters of pictures. All on the wall above your tiny twin bed with the honey colored nubby bedspread and pillow with a plastic protector that crinkles when you move.
I stare out the window to calm my brewing tears.
Northwest winter day: gray and rainy. Bare branches of a maple tree hang heavy with clinging raindrops, like ripe figs. Yard lined with naked trees and mounds of perennials protected from winter, waiting, waiting for warmer days. Bird feeders plump with seeds. An empty concrete bench, moss creeping up its legs.
“How are you today?” I ask. It’s more than convention. I want to know.
You shrug. Your one-shoulder palms up shrug. One hand swipes your head from the hairline straight back even though your hair’s a memory. The white hair you used to have. Fine as feathers.
I drape my raincoat over the back of the prune colored Lazy Boy. “It was an easy drive,” I say. And part of me hates this small talk, this filling up space talk, but you used to ask me about the three-hour drive, the weather, the traffic. Did I stop for coffee?
I study you as you study the ceiling. Jaw slack. Mouth drooping. Skin the shade of bluish skim milk with moss green veins that push close to the surface. You’ve always been fair, more Swedish than German looking, but now you’re fading to translucent as your body withers as light seeps out your pores as your soul shines.
Some days you feel closer to our dead family.
My last visit, last month, the dead swirled around your room. Your parents, your best friend from motorcycle racing years, my first husband. They spiraled around you. Angel air that made my hairs stand up straight on my arms.
The dead kept watch. This mantle of kindness and getting readiness. My first husband crouched on your headboard like a gargoyle. Then stretched his arms, luminous. Wings of light. His expression peaceful. I felt him more than saw him and then I blinked and blinked and squeezed my eyes tight and opened them soft and I saw him too. Shimmer of light. Light I’d recognize anywhere.
My liquid heart oozed through my chest.
He was there for you, not me.
“Thank you,” I whispered and my golden-y husband smiled and nodded. Just one nod. His head tilted a little sideways. A blue-eyed blink. Like he used to. Like when he was alive.
I wish, not for the first time, we had better rituals around death and grief. I wish I had a practice to stand on, to lean in to. My Buddhist friend says it takes three days for the soul to leave the body. She says this on the phone and I work my jaw, worry she’s right and we’ll cremate you too soon. My Jewish friend tells me again Jews don’t believe in heaven or an afterlife. She says this while we’re on a walk in the early morning and I’m glad for the dark and for staring straight ahead so she doesn’t see my eyes flare and tear up. I’m worried she’s right too. My Christian friend assures me there’s Heaven and that you’re a good man, a good husband, a good father so the golden gates will open and God will welcome you. I’m comforted a little, having grown up with the idea of Heaven. But I still worry. What about reincarnation which you believe to the bone and I do too. How does that fit in?
Remember when you were in the hospital after a stroke and you were confused about where you were and what was happening? Mom and sisters and I all felt you there, not there. Your shiny spirit, like breath, winged in and out of your body. You in the In Between that I felt and couldn’t see.
One of the visiting doctors, an internist from Pakistan with a gentle touch and honey voice asked, “How are you Mr. Upton?”
You studied the acoustical tiles on the ceiling.
She tried again with, “How are you feeling?” And “Do you know why you’re here?”
“I’ve been talking to God,” you said.
We all leaned in. Eyes dry. Breath squeezed. Pulse in ears.
“What’s he saying, Mr. Upton?” she asked.
We leaned in. Harder. What?
“It’s time to come home,” you said and we let go our family breath. Was it relief that clung to the pale green walls?
But you stayed.
Later Mom told us how she crumpled into you that night, your age spotted hands cradled in hers. She pleaded with you to stay. More time. Please. She wasn’t ready.
“I always loved this poster,” I say and point to the motorcycle-racing poster that hung in your workshop for years, coated with wood dust from cutting and grinding and sanding. Portland Meadows in four inch ruby red print. Thumbtack pricked corners. A racer sliding through a curve. Left foot with its metal shoe protecting the boot, skimming the track. Girl me thought you were the racer in helmet and goggles, foot down, full slide.
I remember. Finish of races. Your chest in and out like a long note on an accordion. Your face dirt speckled, clean under goggles, grinning, dirt in your teeth. Dust puffs melting back to the hard pack dirt. Your Triumph motorcycle growling. The exhaust pipe shimmered purple, blue and gold from heat, skin scorching hot.
You loved speed.
My kids have joked, “Don’t get Granddad an electric wheelchair,” because deep in memory there’s racer you, racer you who could skid and slide in the L shaped hallway here. Reclaiming some of the speed you’ve lost.
Sometimes we choose laughing over crying which I’m pretty sure you’d agree with.
I lay my hand on top of yours. Feel the cool and smooth of hands that raced and danced and repaired and built and held. Memories bubble: You explaining Joseph Campbell, smoking your pipe with cherry tobacco, sipping Jack Daniels. You dancing with Mom in the kitchen, the living room, foxtrot maybe. And always there’s you teaching my sisters and me how to change the oil in our cars because, “You should know how.” Ask us and it’s one of the first things we’ll say about you.
I hear you winding up a kitchen table talk with, “My shit is my shit and yours is yours. We can talk about mine. And talk about yours. But mine is still mine and yours is still yours.” Those words. Best gift you gave me. My sisters too. Maybe it’s what we all miss most now that you barely talk.
Dementia steals you an eyelash at a time. It started with Easy To Shrug At Forgets—keys, appointments, Is it garbage day today? Then there was the afternoon you poured a full cup of coffee onto a place mat, as though you were standing at the sink, not sitting at the table. You lost money. You leaned sideways when you walked, unmoored.
Your memory snipped like a bonsai tree. A snip here. A branch there. When you couldn’t order off a menu you still knew the title and artist of every song playing in an Italian restaurant.
You had a few strokes. If I drew your moves they’d make a dark, heavy line–back and forth between the hospital and nursing home until landing here at Rose’s.
My daughter and I toured a historic home recently. Upstairs in a bedroom a memory quilt was displayed on the wall. An art tribute to the quilt artist’s grandmother. To the grandmother’s memories and her loss of them. The artist found her grandmother’s diary with daily entries for 50 years, entries that faded with dementia.
The artist shrunk words, printed words on fabric, folded memory words into little muslin boxes and stitched the boxes into 2” squares. The quilt is 9 feet long, two feet high. Beige with sepia colored words and stitching. Like the words were once black and white, crisp and clear on lined paper. Now muted. Rolled out like an ancient scroll of words. Hundreds of 2” squares sewn together in a giant checkerboard. A record of the grandmother. Artmaking of the woman. Of her dementia.
Starting on the left side, the tiny stitched word boxes are dense, like the memories. The grandmother’s written words. Did the wash, words. Canned pickles and tomatoes, words. As the quilt moves left to right in its timeline, its grandmother’s time, the artist stitched in a few blank boxes. No words. Dropped memories. Moving farther right–blank squares start to overtake memories, words. There are more blank boxes than word boxes. On the far right of the nine foot quilt the artist scattered a handful of holes. Empty space. Surrounded by blank boxes, blank squares. No words. No memories. Wall poking through.
DNA of memory. Family stories. Someone else’s memories leaking into ours. This quilt. Public memories. Shared and not shared. I stood with my adult daughter, half of my legacy. Stood in this historic house and stared at the quilt, this testament to love and loss. Sun streamed in, lighting the caramel colored wood floor, the downy colored walls. Filtered sunlight on the quilt. This art form of memory. The fabric of memory. My chest tightened. Tears welled.
My daughter touched my elbow, let her hand rest on me. Skin to skin. “It’s like Granddad,” she whispered and my tears spilled.
Dementia. Memories snipped and lost. A repeating pattern. Time of memories. Time past memories. Memories once dense. Then thin. To scattered. To gone. These holes in memory where the light shines through.
“I missed you,” I say and rest my hand on top of your milky white hand. Ropey green veins rivering to your heart.
You blink and let out a little air.
I miss you.
A storm of tears blooms in my chest. I breathe deep. Swallow hard. Thunder tears I’ll save for my drive home. Thunder tears that would tug at you.
I flip on the boxy TV on top of your dresser. PBS’s Great Performances sparks on black and white and grainy. A pianist I don’t recognize. Then Caruso.
“When you’re reincarnated do you want to play an instrument or have a great singing voice?” I ask. Having grown up in a family who talked reincarnation at dinner and played with the Ouija board over Monopoly, when was the question, not if.
You scrunch your brow.
Caruso’s black tails and white dress shirt on the little screen. His voice clear.
“Like that?” I ask and flick my head towards the TV.
You blink twice and smile. You always loved Caruso.
My throat shrinks like it does before I cry. These are the talks I long for. Reincarnation. What do you think happens next? When you see my first husband please hug him and tell him how much I love him. Do spirits hug? Will you send a sign? Please let Mom know you’re okay and that it’s glorious and you’re happy to be free of your body that let you down.
Mom totters in, like she does every day—side to side, three-legged gait with her metal cane that makes a sticky clicking sound each time she presses it into the linoleum. She’s slower still with the heaviness of losing you.
She hugs me warm, her middle daughter, the one who lives away. Not the up-close daughter who tenderly cares for you and her. Or the other daughter who loves you both near too.
“You’re here,” she says and smiles.
“Hi, Jason,” she goes, her pet name. To everyone else you’re J., Dad, Granddad J., Uncle J. Just like that. J Period. Not Jay.
“It’s me,” she says, soft, like grace. She doesn’t add Your Wife. Not when your face glows at her voice. She doesn’t practice that part today.
“You know me?” she asks, raisin colored eyes bright, her beautiful cheekbones still sculpted, salt and pepper hair wavy like handfuls of feathers.
You do your best to scowl. Stinkeye we call it—eyes narrowed, jaw jutted, lips taunt. Pretend mad. The closest you get to sarcasm these days.
Mom rubs the top of your veiny hand with her crooked thumb. The space between her skin and yours thin as atoms.
Then. “Hello handsome.”
Stinkeye melts. You grin just for Mom, your heartbeat for 42 years.
This connection. For 42 years you’ve been MomAndJ., JAndMom. My heart sac squeezes when I think about Mom being Mom. Not MomAndJ. When I think of Mom having coffee on the deck, feet propped on the rail, your chair next to her. Empty. When I think of Mom calling out to you in the belly of her sad and you silent. When I think of Mom changing her we’s to I’s. When I think of Mom. Widowed. Like I was 25 years ago. Hardest part of my life. Hard. I was 28 and pregnant with my son. After my husband died, people would say to me, “I can’t imagine.” If I talked at all I’d say, “You don’t want to.”
Now I can’t imagine Mom’s grief. No two griefs are the same. I know there are no right words. There’s Be With. There’s Don’t Make It Worse. There’s I’ll Hold You While You Cry. Grief stages Kubler Ross named (Denial. Bartering. Anger. Depression. Acceptance.) give us a language. That’s all. Grief is individually wrapped with a heaping dose of the relationship each of us had to the one who died. Grief is like you used to say: “We can talk about mine and talk about yours, but mine is mine and yours is yours.”
I remember feeling strange that I barely grieved an uncle’s death. I don’t remember crying when I got that call in my freshman college dorm. I felt sad like I’d feel sad that a stranger died. My grief a blip on my heart. This tiny beat. I remember thinking, What’s wrong with me? The next year a drunk driver killed my best friend from high school and I balled to puking. I hopped a planed to sit with her mom. To sob in her kitchen with the lace curtains and empty cookie jar. I fingered the necklace her mom clasped around my neck with, “She loved you. I want you to have this.” This talisman of her only child. Now dead. I almost said, “I can’t take this. You keep it.” Instead I worried the small half moon with a star pendent. Pressed it against my heart.
Battered. Stretched. Squashed. Cracked open. Oozing love.
I stare out the window at the undressed maple tree, strain to count the raindrops dangling off the nearest branch and blink through tears. The cool of winter out there. The unknown in here. My only certainty: Your death will be your own. Not mine. Not Mom’s. I’ll find my way through. Walk through the fire. Head down. Cry. Scream. Head up. Walk. Stumble. Crumble. Talk. Silent. Sob. Fold in. Stretch out. Keep slogging through the burn to the other side, to the gifts of grief, to understanding to bones that life might be short and it’s also wide. To appreciation. Gratitude. Love. There’s a grace in grief, an in between where joy and sorrow hold hands.
Anne Gudger recently won two essay contests: Hippocampus and New Millennium Writings. Previous work can also be found in Real Simple Magazine, The Rumpus, Slippery Elm and more. Anne is an Oregon/Montana/Oregon writer. Sea and sky float in her cells. She’s married to a honey of a man. Plus they have fabulous grown children.