“What is love?”
She asked me in all earnestness.
She was singing the question first, dueting with Sinatra, his expressive legato soaring well above her 94 year old voice. It has grown weak from her heart condition.
She never stops singing. If the music is on, she is singing. She still has her bright south Boston accent. Her 70 years of life in Texas never quite altered it.
I had to answer her question. She expects to be heard and answered, despite two decades of dementia. (I did my best.)
She was not asleep.
You can’t ignore a wakeful person asking you a question. Many will ignore the odd, mixed up communication that comes with years of neurological decline, but good luck ignoring her. She will insist on answers, and persist if you are slow to respond. If you do ignore her, you will hurt her feelings. Of course you will. She’s human.
And she’s never been asleep.
We know this because of music. She sings songs she’s always known, like tokens of her obscured past, and they are an extraordinary solace to her endless present. She loves it, always commenting on how she should have been a singer, but God didn’t give her a voice. She smiles. She dances in her way – one waving finger, up in the air, or clapping a little off the beat.
She’s never been asleep.
We know this because she had a few very good days in these last years. Her mind flooded with lucidity. We rightly called it a miracle.
On those days, it was as though she had not missed a moment, as if she had stepped back fully in to the world, back in to time. This woman I remembered from my childhood reappeared unchanged: well dressed, who bought us little ice cream cups, who couldn’t cook, who let me watch Belle over and over and over again, and who couldn’t help feeding her dogs from the table because she loved them. Twenty years rewound, relocated, opened back up.
At the time, we said she woke up.
But she’s never been asleep.
We know this because on those days, she remembered. Everything. Not the long past, but the recent past. We thought it had been two decades of forgetting, losing her thoughts every few minutes, but that’s not the truth. Those supposedly irretrievable moments of life and love were clearly remembered. Her looped reality extended back across the decades and we saw, we heard, we knew that she remembered.
She remembered everything.
In the monotony of repetition with her, I can forget that she once remembered. I can think it hardly matters that we come, because she won’t remember we were there a minute after we leave. I can despair of watching her decline and, on bad days, wish none of us had to see it. It is all so very sad.
She wouldn’t know it if we didn’t come. She wouldn’t remember.
But she remembered once. Everything.
My brother’s wedding. My Mom’s devotion (and occasional fussiness), her constant worry over her care. My Dad’s bad jokes. She remembered us being there, how we were when we were there. She remembered people and events she didn’t know before her illness: the death of her brother, the birth of her great grandchildren, that one was named after her mother, that my sister had bright red hair once.
She’s never, ever been asleep. How could we think she was? How can we believe these twenty years have no meaning to her? I know it’s a fear we all have for ourselves. We don’t want what she has lived. But why should we, of all people, believe her life is only forgetting? She once remembered. We witnessed that. She likely remembers still.
She’s fading. We know. Much has changed, and yet it remains the same. She waits for one of us to come each evening, mostly my mom, to settle her in her bed and turn on her music. She sings herself beyond sleep, catching a word or bit of the tune, always humming long past losing complete consciousness.
Tonight she sang “Singing In The Rain”. She hummed the tune and couldn’t stop.
I started it over twice because I love to hear her sing.
She’s never been asleep. I hope I can remember that for these long last days, weeks, and months.