“I had this friend,” mom told me on our drive today.
My ears perked up, and I wished I had brought along my recorder or at least learned the strokes to use my phone as a recorder.
Memory shards surface.
I smiled at her and focused hard. Sometimes, often on drives, she tells me stories from her childhood and youth. A couple of Novembers ago, we drove out to a Christmas-tree farm, close to where she grew up.
“We had an old bike with a no chain,” that story began.
She talked about how they would walk the chainless bike up the hill on what I have to presume was a dirt road, then take turns flying down the hill on the bike.
I’m fairly certain the bike was also without brakes.
They were a single-car family. I’m not sure they had a phone yet. Maybe my grandfather was at work with the car, or maybe my grandmother had the car shopping. I don’t remember what mom told me (she doesn’t either), but there was no car. The bike had no brakes. And my wiry, red-headed mom wiped out flying down the hill.
Her brother and maybe some friends ran down the road to fetch someone to help, someone with a car or a phone. Even though I didn’t grow up with cellphones and I handled many things without one well into my forties, I can no longer wrap my head around managing a crisis, big or small, with no cellphone and no car.
“Somebody told my dad…”
She doesn’t remember how he found out, but he showed up at the hospital where they had taken her.
Was it the excitement that sheltered that memory from the Alzheimer’s storm? Why do some memories —old and new— unexpectedly stick while others are swept away?
The memory of a friend
Today, I thought I was going to get another childhood story. We were driving along rural highways on our way to visit my cousin, and while these roads don’t run close to Pine where mom grew up, they look similar.
Mom has rarely spoken about friends. I was excited.
“My friend, her man is sick. He can’t do anything. She does everything for him, makes all the food, feeds him…”
We turn into my cousin’s driveway.
“Oh, this is it! I can’t believe I get to see her again so soon. She has a such a big, big…”
“Heart?” I try to fill in the blank. She has more and more of these blanks.
“Yes! She’s a wonderful person. He doesn’t know how lucky he is to have her.”
Which memory is it?
This wasn’t a story about mom’s friend.
“We’re going to see your sister’s daughter,” I had explained several times during the thirty-minute drive, repeating my cousin’s and aunt’s names.
“Oh, I guess I’ll remember her when we get there,” she said. She usually does.
As we pulled up, I explained where we were. When my cousin came out, she seemed to remember her, but following the visit, I know it was in spurts, incomplete.
The memory shards
Half hour into our visit, my uncle joined us. He has been widowed for a year and a half now.
Mom had recently talked about him by name. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. But he seems to be doing well.”
I think my uncle is strongly tethered to her memory in that house of shattering mirrors. Losing her younger sister has compartmentalized him in the best way: the memory of him is protected. Or maybe the fear of widowing or becoming widowed keeps him clear.
Regardless, mom knew who he was today. She was happy to see him and became more engaged while he was there. We had a nice visit.
On the way home, mom said, “I’m so lucky I got to see her two times in a row,” referring to my cousin. Then she added, “I didn’t remember they were brother and sister.”
A hero and her bloody memory shards
I cried inside today, but I didn’t drop tears.
Here’s the thing. I was amazed. She’s still fighting, like that hero from a familiar story who you know will lose the battle. It’s close to the end. She’s so bloody she’s hardly recognizable but the hero will battle to the bloody end.
I saw through the cracks in the mirror today, had a glimpse of mom’s battle. Mom hasn’t stopped fighting this damned disease, wrangling that stubborn bull. She battles to grip the shards she has left, even when they bloody her fists. She fights to put together the pieces of a story, the characters in her stories, and the bloody pool of memory shards at her feet.
“They’re not brother and sister. That’s her dad, Mom. She’s your sister’s daughter,” I corrected her. I shouldn’t have.
We drove in silence much of the ride home. I’m sure we were both thinking about the visit, my cousin, my aunt who died, my uncle who survived her, and mom’s struggle to remember.
Just before we turned in, mom said, “I’m so lucky to see her again. I had forgotten they’re mother and daughter.”
I’m still sorting this out.
©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.