My face is familiar, but you’re not sure in what context it belongs. Am I from a magazine cover, or someone from your healthcare team, or am I your firstborn child?
What was it we were discussing there a moment ago? It floated away in mid-sentence, along with the coffeepots and suitcases that just now floated by the window. Never mind, we’ll talk about it again sometime soon. And again, and again. We may not ever reach the end of the sentence anyway, since so many things, unmoored, float by the second-story casement while we’re sitting here.
We sit here a great deal now, indeed, because you’ve forgotten that you can walk. Once in a while you stand up, out of the blue, and stroll to the hall and stand there, pondering, until someone at the nurses’ station twenty steps away sees you, strides down to your room, and swings your wheelchair over to where you sit back down in it without noticing and ask, Are we on the way to My House?
The answer is always Yes.
When I come to see you, yesterday is millennia ago and you’ve missed me in the long years since I saw you then. If you speak, it’s of the more recent yesterday when you were newly out of school and first in love, and you speak in the present tense of how you expect a visit at any moment from those you knew—now dead. If you speak at all.
Often, in silence you look out that second-story window to see the world projected from behind your eyes. Whenever you turn to the room it’s as though I’ve just arrived. And you still can’t remember quite how you know me or why you can’t put a finger on my name.
You tell me a garbled but elaborate tale about someone with my other parent’s name, your late spouse’s, who according to you has just run off with your (also dead) best friend from school and they’re now shacked up in Tahoe, a place you’ve never been. Then you’re silent again, perhaps thinking further on these events so vividly real in the new world of your mind, never finding it improbable though that school-friend moved to the East Coast years before you’d ever met your One True Love.
Later in the week, their names have been bestowed on two tiny stuffed koalas that arrived clipped to the stems of a small bouquet that was sent last winter when you had had your sixth, or was it your seventh, minor stroke. See? I can’t remember now, either.
But over these last few years, it’s come to matter less. I stopped correcting you, only after much futile and agitated foolishness on my part. It took me too long to learn that. It took me too long to learn that Denial was a river that would only drown me, while you might float along with much less sorrow if I let you go wherever it is you need to go. I learned to agree with you no matter how odd the claims, and to remember at last that my reality is hardly the only one; perhaps it’s not even the truest one, at that. After all, wasn’t it you who allowed these possibilities in me when I was very young?
Yes, I recognize it now, though you cannot. When I was small—in days that even I can’t recollect—you agreed with my outlandish claims and played along when I imagined things. It wasn’t purely to amuse me and encourage my imagination, but you knew, as parents do, that it was real enough to me. When it mattered, you’d agree, and they you’d carry on with the action of Real Life, sheltering me from its harsher blows and steering me around the dangers calmly as we’d go. I talked my nonsense and you were there to set me back on my feet when I forgot I’d started learning how to walk.
I couldn’t always remember right from wrong, let alone the difference between pretending and what was real. You remembered it for me so I could live comfortably in those spaces in between where most of us exist a lot of the time when we are small and the boundaries are still so permeable. I’m just learning, now, to find my way back in and visit with you there. And you, forgetting that I’ve lost my way, lead me, without the need to try, because we’re headed Home. Yes, we are. The answer to that is always Yes.
For Grandma, who dwelt in the alternate universe of Alzheimer’s for a few colorful years before wandering out of this plane forever.