For an Aunt with Alzheimer’s

What is left of us when the mind goes?
Thia’s last years were spent with alzheimer’s
Which makes me wonder,
what part of those years were hers?
She forgot who we were, one by one.
And then she forgot how to feed herself.
But there were times when
she would recognize one of us,
sometimes she would romanticize
her husband’s blue eyes and
sometimes she would recognize
her sister, my yiayia, and the Greek she spoke.
And there was no agreement between them
to decide when or why she would speak Greek to her
only that when it happened
it preserved something English no longer did.

But thia’s memories peeled away,
like old wall paper.
And then suddenly
you see the skeleton of the walls.
Oh, how empty this house has become
And how it creaks—
yet surely this body of hers
is still the temple of her abiding soul?

 

What was left of her those last years?
Those last months?
Those last weeks and days?
Was she even there anymore?
Who were we visiting?
Who were my family and friends taking care of,
nurturing, and visiting in turn?
When we departed with I-love-you’s,
Was the “you” really there anymore?

How delicate we are,
as delicate as the cliché delicacy of flowers,
as delicate as thia’s carefully designed ikebana arrangements.
One must believe that something remained
of the beautiful arrangement that she was–
or maybe we had become ikebana artists in turn,
arranging her clothes,
the jewelry she loved,
and her day with love and care—
this keeping-alive-of-things plucked from the living.

Was our memory of who she was enough?
And is it today?
Surely yes; surely no.
Between the yes and no
there is an ancestral memory that
seems to know this tragedy intimately:
some vision of Odysseus
trying to embrace the shadow of his mother
already in the world of the dead.

As thia’s memory went,
our memories of her became
all the more important.
And in the end,
they are what kept her present even as
hers peeled away like old wall paper.
A part of her remained.
And today a part of her still remains.

What was left of her then?
And what of her now?

Perhaps such questions are better left for
the old prayer that we find ourselves joining
at the end of the funeral chant:

eonia i mnimi,
eonia i mnimi,
eonia aftis i mnimi.

memory eternal,
memory eternal,
may her memory be eternal.

SCAN0151

a picture of my thia Xanthula from a family photo album

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