Tag Archives: memory

Blackberries, hospice, and being late.

gl IMG_2749 berriesI stopped and snacked on a few blackberries along my walking path this week, and that made me think about my dear late husband. And I wondered, how long does one use the descriptor “late” to refer to the deceased? So I read about that here. And after I read, I wanted to call him my “swete and late amyable husbonde.”

We are used to hearing that adjective attached to its noun, but I found it charming to read in Alexander McCall Smith’s novels of Botswana how people would simply state about someone who had died, “He is late.” You might think that the phrase refers to someone who has only recently died, but I can attest to the relative meaning of recently when we are talking about one’s lifelong partner.

A quote from this month’s New Yorker magazine, in the article about hospice worker Heather Meyerend, “The Threshold”, by Larissa MacFarquhar:

“People react differently to a death. Some cry, some are calm….Wives sometimes throw themselves on the body, weeping and grasping it, especially when the couple have been married forty, fifty, sixty years. ‘The Bible says, And two shall become one,’ Heather says. ‘It’s a wrenching that happens, a tearing, like a garment that’s being pulled apart.'”

Mr. Glad and I married when we were both 21, and soon moved from southern to northern California. Before we had even settled on what county we might live in, we were picking wild blackberries together, up in the redwood forests of Humboldt County. From then on it was a July tradition to search around the country roads or empty lots to gather enough for several pies and a few quarts of syrup as well. That’s how it happened that we formed the habit of his birthday pie.

gl IMG_2747 blackberries

As I’ve thought so much about my husband and our life together over the last year, Sheldon Vanauken’s book A Severe Mercy comes to mind, because it includes a lot about the death of his wife and his dealing with that. I didn’t like the book very much when I read it many years ago, because of the way the two of them seemed unswervingly self-absorbed as a couple; but one thing the grieving husband did tell about always stuck with me and made me ponder, long before I imagined myself in his position.

His wife’s nickname was “Davy,” and within days after her death he experienced the “flooding back to me of all the other Davys I had known. She had been in the year of her dying the Davy she had become — the Christian Davy of Oxford and since,” but he began to remember her at various times of their life together and even before, and to liken this process to what happens when you come to the end of a novel. You have been focused on each page and what the character is doing, who she is at that point in the story. Then you close the book and begin to grasp the meaning of it all from the first chapter on through.

When you are a hospice nurse, or the sole caregiver of a dying person, you have to focus on that day, that page of the life, to give all the love and attention you can. I hope it is possible for you to read the article I linked to above, about this particular nurse – if it becomes unavailable try googling her name – because the description of her work and ministrations is that of a saint. The author of the article follows her on her visits to several different homes and chronicles her interactions with the patients, and her wise assessments of the needs of the dying generally. The story of her own life shows how she was formed and guided by God into this realm that she seems imminently suited for.

When my husband was dying, our family didn’t need the hospice workers to help us with matters of the heart, but I appreciated Heather’s insight about such things as this:

When a patient was tormented and having a difficult time dying, or was hanging on despite no longer eating or drinking, Heather would ask, Is there someone you need to see? If a patient was preoccupied with someone he was resolved never to forgive, Heather might say that this unforgiveness was like bondage, and that if he forgave the person who had injured him that person would no longer be his jailer.

I thought that when I helped my goddaughter in her last days that the experience provided plenty of revisiting of the last months of my husband’s life, but reading about hospice care a year later is actually helpful. I’m less self-absorbed myself and can look back more calmly and see many reasons for thanksgiving in the last weeks and even hours.

One phenomenon that is mentioned in the article is how many people when they are in their last days seem to wait until they are alone before they let themselves “go.” One wife worried a lot about this when her husband was in hospice care, concerned that she might not be with him at that moment, and she was relieved when she was able to be by his side at the end.

I didn’t worry about it, but I would have preferred to be with my husband, and I was. Only from this vantage point does it occur to me that this was a gift from him to me and the daughters who were also there holding his hand, to let us accompany him all the way until the crossing over.

Whenever Heather entered a patient’s home for the first time, she knew that she was walking into a long, long, complicated story that she understood nothing about, a story that was just then reaching its final crisis.

Until today most of my own efforts to look back on my husband’s life have taken me far from last year’s final crisis, and by means of photos I’ve been helped to remember him at earlier stages in his life. But reading things he’s written is perhaps even more satisfying. I’ve just begun to sort through papers to find notes and creations that surprise me, that make me see the depth and complexity of the man whom I was mostly reading page-by-exciting-page all those years. We were living out our own novel, so to speak, and we were, as protagonists usually are, unknowing of what was going to be on the next page. But our Heavenly Father was the author, and He was making the ending very good, in spite of crazy things the characters might do or go through along the way.

gl tract coverI had forgotten about this gospel tract that he created — was it in his 30’s? Unfortunately he didn’t put a date on anything I have dug up so far. In those days he did like to have some “literature” to give people he met, something they could read later on, and I imagine he found most such material too reductionist to be called The Gospel, so he had to make his own. The content of it tells of his foundation in Christ, and also of what he died knowing.

gl tract inside 1

I miss my husband terribly. The grief ebbs and flows and is never the same, except for being always present. I’m glad I’ll be in this process for some time, of rereading my husband’s life and remembering more things to love him for, and be thankful. I’m loath to give up that berry pie tradition, so next week, on his birthday, I’ll be baking  one again — even though I already know he will be late for the party.

gl P1030289

These are not the lines.

This poem just now became an instant favorite. Oh, if we all could write half so well about the things we’ve forgotten!

LINES LOST AMONG TREES

These are not the lines that came to me
while walking in the woods
with no pen
and nothing to write on anyway.

They are gone forever,
a handful of coins
dropped through the grate of memory,
along with the ingenious mnemonic

I devised to hold them in place —
all gone and forgotten
before I had returned to the clearing of lawn
in back of our quiet house

with its jars jammed with pens,
its notebooks and reams of blank paper,
its desk and soft lamp,
its table and the light from its windows.

So this is my elegy for them,
those six or eight exhalations,
the braided rope of syntax,
the jazz of the timing,

and the little insight at the end
wagging like the short tail
of a perfectly obedient spaniel
sitting by the door.

This is my envoy to nothing
where I say Go, little poem —
not out into the world of strangers’ eyes,
but off to some airy limbo,

home to lost epics,
unremembered names,
and fugitive dreams
such as the one I had last night,

which, like a fantastic city in pencil,
erased itself
in the bright morning air
just as I was waking up.

~ Billy Collins, poet laureate 2001-2003

Only a certain number of times.

“We get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky

Memory and Memory Eternal

My father-in-law has been forgetting things. In fact, in the last many months he can’t remember most events longer than a couple of minutes after they take place. If they happened 60 or 80 years ago there is a good chance that he will remember them, but what one would call his short-term memory, that which he is losing, is broadening in scope. Ten years ago he often told us stories about things that happened 10, 20, 30 years previous, and I heard some of those stories enough times to remember them myself.

One had to do with his old leather jacket. We were at the assisted-living place where he lives, about to go out to dinner, and I wanted to take his recent favorite jacket home to launder, so I handed him another old favorite to put on. As we took the elevator down and signed out at the front desk, he got several compliments on his appearance. I told the concierge, “He and his cousin both bought leather jackets in Spain when they were on a trip there together more than 30 years ago.”

“I did?” he chuckled. “I’m glad you remember these things.” I remember some other stories he used to tell, but lately I hear new stories, from further back. Even his daughter was surprised to hear, when the conversation at a Christmas gathering turned to pets, “We always had fox terriers.” She didn’t know anything about a fox terrier tradition, because the dogs of her childhood were dachshunds and schnauzers. But W. was referring to the first dog he remembered, when he was a boy, named “Spot.” And he’s told us a few times since about Spot.

When we passed a purple house on the way back from a doctor’s appointment one afternoon, he said, “That reminds me of a woman in our church who we always called ‘The Purple Lady.’ Everything she had was purple. I haven’t thought of Mrs. Finnegan for a long time.” That was a church of his childhood, 75 yeas ago. It’s as though the loss of one data set has forced his mind to resort to a long-neglected mine of memory if it wants to keep busy.

One tale that is like the overarching First Story of his life, sweetly involves his wife, my late mother-in-law. And it happened when he was only about five years old, so I hope it will be the last one to be forgotten. Their families were friends–an aunt and uncle had even married–and they lived only a couple of blocks from each other. W. came by and walked F.K. to school on the first day of Kindergarten. They were always companions, never dated anyone else, and married when they were 21. The picture was taken in 2nd grade, cropped from the class photo where they were sitting next to each other.

W. has some good habits, which trump the rational; that is, he doesn’t have to remember to do these tasks. On another laundry-gathering visit, I asked him to take off his clothes and put on clean ones right then, so I could take the dirty ones home. When I came back into the bedroom, he had neatly folded the pants and hung them back on their hanger on the doorknob, and hung up the shirt likewise. Because he always does. And he had already forgotten why he was changing his clothes in the middle of the day.

He has a habit of being friendly and gentlemanly, so that he kept trying to help ladies scoot their chairs up to the table even when he was becoming unsteady on his feet. And he cracks really funny jokes–new ones–in the emergency room or anywhere there are people, strangers or friends.

God only knows if I have any good habits that will remain when I lose my mind’s faculties. How many pair of pants needed folding before it made a habit that endured? If I start now, building the habits I think might serve me, or God, is it too late?

I once heard Wynton Marsalis exhorting young people about the power of the daily habit of practicing their musical instruments: “Every day you go around making yourself into you.” We are not what we dream of being, we are not our vision of ourselves, or God’s plan for us, but a collection of usually little, seemingly insignificant acts that add up to a unique person.

I see people I love weaken and become confused by the afflictions of age and the loss of memory, like Vivian, who asked her daughter, “Am I myself?”

“Yes, Mom, you are.”

But there are people who don’t seem to know themselves, and certainly multitudes who have forgotten their own important stories. One aunt of ours thought she was in her right mind, but did not recognize her own daughter, and told her she was an impostor.

The possibility that I might forget important people, forget who I am, is certainly disturbing. It happens to a lot of people, being another way we are not in control, even of our own memories.

The scariest thing imaginable is to forget God. When Christ said to “take no thought for the morrow,” surely this thought was included! I have to quickly move on, and rest in the belief that it’s more important for God to remember me, than for me to remember Him. And I pray He will not soon forget someone who has tried to “stick to Christ like a burr to a coat,” as Martin Luther’s wife Katharina is said to have resolved.

Recently I read Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle,” which added a new dimension to my musings on this mysterious unknown toward which we are all headed. Niggle and his art are eventually forgotten by everyone on earth, and what he accomplished in his life “down here,” which was always less than he should have done, and always incomplete, has faded somewhat from his own memory. God remembers him, though, and makes use of Niggle in surprising and grand ways. What Niggle learns of Love becomes a story, a work of art and even a spiritual retreat, called by his own name, that continues to benefit souls out of time.

In the Orthodox Church we sing a simple hymn, “Memory Eternal,” at the end of memorial services, and in me it is a prayer for just this wondrous kind of thing God can do, to wrap us up in Himself and carry us through whatever shadowy places we encounter, whether in our minds or along our pathways, until our minds and hearts, and all things, are made new in that heavenly and everlasting Kingdom.