|Playing bingo with Jane|
My mother-in-law is a time traveler, living her life backward, unbuilding it and taking it down. She has dementia and as the years fall away, she exposes what was there before. Her memories of the past appear again, revealed by the tearing down of what is here and now. She is remodeling, taking away layers of skills and knowledge and memories like unpeeling layers of wallpaper and laminate floors. As she deconstructs, I construct. I am an architect of love, poking bits of myself into gaps in the walls so there will be a place in which she can find me again when all other layers of the house are stripped away. The doctors tell us that one day, she will not know us but she will know how we make her feel. The later people and events come into her life, the sooner they leave. Last in, first out.
She must trust me so I may retrieve the architectural framework that dementia removes from her life and help her navigate a mental house with a constantly changing floor plan. Every morning spent slowly moving through her routine of pills and breakfast, toothbrushing and dressing, and discussion of her cats’ latest antics are actually carefully balanced exchanges. I take up the pieces of her life that she discards and I weigh them in my hands before I hand back my devotion in equal measures. I remember her father’s favorite singer, the concert she went to with her husband right before he died, and the name of her best friend whom she’s known since first grade. I make all the things she always liked to eat so that being with me feels warm and safe and familiar, even if she can’t articulate it. I do this in hopes that she will open doors both metaphorical and all too physical so that I may enter in and help her in this unbuilding process.
I have known her for almost thirty years but I never really knew her before this. We never see our parents as whole persons and instead reduce them to cardboard cutouts with harsh and brittle edges rather than full, round, and fleshy people who look different at different angles. Now she looks different to me. I see her for the first time and the last time. The entire structure of her life is coming down, piece by piece, and though I can see it more fully now, more fully than ever in these last twenty-seven years, it is disappearing. What I see now, I will never see again. So I become her memory keeper, I will take up these pieces in my hands and I will keep holding them until they are none left to take down and there is nothing left to undo and then I will hold them still.
I hold them for her and for her son, my husband, and for her daughter who lives across the country, and for her thirteen grandchildren. I hold them for her brother who died and for the brother who survives. I hold them for me and for the woman she used to be, the one who welcomed me into her family when my food and language and culture was so foreign. I hold them so that when the house of her memories is gone, we can look in my hands and know what love looks like. We will have a heap of fragmented memories like driving down a hill and looking out over trees in fiery fall colors. Seeing in these moments the reason for the profound affection she feels for my friend's preschool daughter who sucks her two middle fingers like my husband's long-dead uncle did as a child. We will remember the long evening that she spent failing to convince my husband’s sister to eat her peas. We will laugh about the wild day when the monkeys escaped the Emporia Zoo near her childhood home. The monkeys eventually made it to her father's barn where they were caught but not before they spooked the milk cow which then ran away herself. Sometimes her memories crash into each other and they morph into confusing convoluted tangles of things that happened but just not as she remembers them now. I hold those Frankensteined memories, too.
I am sorry that I have been an inattentive friend, sister, and daughter. My hands are full. The doctors tell me that the remodeling will come faster and faster as time goes on and my hands will necessarily become more and more full. My emails sometimes go unsent and the texts are only thought of and not tapped out. I actually went two days last week without knitting, two days in a row, something I can think of happening only a couple of times in my life. It has been nearly a year of me letting balls drop while instead I sit with Jane, unbuilding. There is a lot of dust that she kicks up in this messy project of taking down her life.
Come find me here and know that my love for her does not diminish my love for you. I cannot leave where I am but you are welcome to sit with me. There is beauty here and there is peace and it comes dropping slow. Like Yeats sitting on the shore of Innisfree soaking in the tranquility that is there, I am here with Jane. I am sitting next to my mother-in-law, my hands heavy with the memories of seventy-seven years. She is moving into a new house on the island out in the lake and is busy with the hard work of building there a small cabin. I keep the pieces of her old home —the one here on the shore, the one built of cows and monkeys, maple leaves and jigsaw puzzles, bingo cards and scores of cross-stitched projects. There is peace here and it seeps out of the moments. It is bittersweet but it is golden and still good. Her whole life is falling into my hands and I cannot risk letting any spill over and fall away. We need each piece so we can continue to remember what she was before she goes to live on the island in the lake, before she goes where we cannot follow. I am her memory keeper now because Jane is moving to the Lake Isle of Innisfree.