She smiles as I come into her room but looks sad. I ask her how she is and of course I already know, I saw the obituary, but she, having dementia, may not remember. "oh, not so good". She says, with tears, "my sister died." I hold her hand and we sit together and reminisce, talk about her sister who I had also met with, with whom I learned the history of the area, to whom I taught about dementia, why not to argue with her sister when she forgot where she was, or thought she was still young, or so many things that happen when one starts down the sad road of dementia. "I was the oldest and now they are all gone" she says and we talk about that, how strange it is to be the last one left of her family of siblings even though she was the big sister, to have her parents gone, and to feel like an orphan, an orphan, at the age of 90. Yet it's true. Old enough to remember life when there were no telephones in every house, when they walked to school, when her mother knitted woolen stockings for school. Old enough yet feeling young and vulnerable without her mother, without the company of her sister with whom she shared a room for years at the nursing home. And it's strange today, that this woman, usually so confused, anxious, who has difficulty knowing where she is, what year it is, or what she had for breakfast, is, in this moment, so lucid, and able to grieve. And I am thankful for this, as so many people must be retold again and again, and must grieve a thousand times the death of their loved one because they cannot remember they have gone. This terrible disease of dementia, this robber of history, this strange affliction that has loosed it's grasp today so she might find peace. We have tears in our eyes together, we clasp hands, we grieve this loss, we will continue to remember until she is able to join her family and is no longer an orphan in places beyond.
Every year I return to the town I grew up in, a place of pain, but a place of familiarity, beauty, and yes, wonderful memories. I can't not come back, to the harbor, to the ocean, to the channel full of trees, to the grassy white dunes where I played as a child. This spit of beach was a safe haven, a place to escape from fear and sadness. The wind took away the pall on my shoulders, The salty sea cleansed my soul for awhile. I know the familiar roads, where fun is free, and fresh clams are served. I return to the places I learned to swim and my children paddle about in the fresh water, happy not to worry about crabs pinching their feet. We gather wampum, and stones, and beach heather, and fill our car with sand that will never quite leave. This place is home, it is my escape, where the blue hydrangeas line weathered fences and most nights are cool. I will return, and return, and sigh at the burgeoning compound but smile as I watch the boats sail out to sea.
Someone died today, someone young and vibrant, Someone with a child, a child who will never be the same without her mother. Her coworkers carry on without her, putting on their tough faces, hugging each other, voicing remembrances, trying to figure out who has known her the longest. They meet together and the tears flow, "I just found out this morning" or "I knew she was sick but....." or " I didn't know she was sick at all....its such a shock." They huddle together and the voice is the same, "it isn't fair". Which of course, it's not. Not at all. Its never fair when it's someone so young, when it's someone so beautiful, someone with a young child, someone so capable, so caring, so, so many things. Its not fair even when someone isn't any of those things, because death doesn't discriminate, it scoops up each person when the time is right, or when it doesn't seem right, or when it seems so very wrong. Someone died today, someone young and vibrant, caring about her family and friends until her last breath, Not wanting to trouble them with the pain of her disease. She died, and she is no longer suffering, which is fair, which is right, because there is no more pain. She has left a hole but a hole that is being filled with memories, stories, pictures, and tears as each hour passes, a hole that will overflow with a celebration of her life.
A man in his late 70's yet whispers to me about his loneliness as a child who suffered domestic violence.
She has white hair, her face is etched with 90 years of time yet her blue eyes sparkle as she recalls a Christmas as a child. "I got a red bicycle" she says. "It was beautiful."
She can't remember what she had for breakfast five minutes ago, she fights with her caregivers over getting dressed, but she tells me her favorite childhood memory. "We used to race to the top of the hill and climb the tower", "my best friend was Martha" she says. She smiles and for a moment, is back on the green hill and gone from this nursing home and her wheelchair.
A woman, does not know her children, does not know the time, yet screams as she is showered, screaming for her father not to touch her again.
This grandmother sits dignified in her chair yet with a furrowed brow, she tells me she is scared, she tells me her husband might find her still, "I'm afraid" she says, "He's going to hurt me again." Her husband has been dead many years, her family has never spoken about the violence, she never said a word to anyone but now, in the evening of her life, she tells me and I try to tell her that she is safe.
He is in a wheelchair, his hand shakes as he tries to feed himself and an aide spoons food into his mouth. On his head is a baseball hat with a military purple heart and his body bears a large scar he was given as a hero over seas. A photo on the wall shows a tall and muscular young man, movie star handsome, in his Army uniform. He likes to be called Captain.
A mother in her 90's wipes her eyes as she speaks of the death of her son. It was over 50 years ago but the pain of losing a child is still fresh, never to be forgotten, and she weeps and says her small boy visits her in her dreams.
A large and irritable man looks at me and his eyes fill and his chin trembles as he talks about his wife, gone these last 10 years, " I took care of her in her last days, she died of cancer you know" and I nod "you still miss her" I say, "everyday" he says, his voice breaking. "Everyday."
Pain and heartache, memories of loss long past but never forgotten, smiles and a step back to times of strength and beauty are these reminisences of a life well lived. I stand in awe of these teachers and listen to their lessons. These elders don't know they are teaching, all they know is that I am a kind face as they open their albums to me and their books of life, and with me, they are able to relive their joys and face their demons which may find some peace at last.