Image Credit: Ayden LeRoux
“What is Oliver doing this summer?” my grandmother asks, offhandedly.
I’m in mid-coast Maine for a week to take care of her and my grandfather, who both have dementia. Each summer when I visit, I am scanning for signs of what has unraveled since the last time I was there. How is their word finding—can my grandmother remember the word for lawnmower, the name of her friend who called yesterday? How many times will my grandfather ask me when I’m leaving and where I’m going next, as if I am only made up of my movements? How many bottles of Ken’s Italian salad dressing and jars of maraschino cherries have accrued in the basement because they forgot they already have plenty?
I remind her that Oliver and I aren’t talking, and not because there’s no cell phone service or wifi here at their house perched on the edge of the harbor. “Living with his parents,” I say. I don’t feel the need to mention that I know from Facebook he’s working at a juice shop now. I try to sound indifferent, hoping this will diminish the heat of emotion that is pricking the surface of my skin in order to keep the conversation short. Incomplete sentences will convey that I don’t want to talk about it, I hope. I can tell from her face that my two sentences have reminded her of the events of late May. The breeze is clearing through the screens in the house and I’m at a loss, in myriad directions, for the slow way I’m losing my grandparents year by year as plaque accrues in their brains, and for the fast way I lost Oliver a few months ago.
I want to forget what happened when he moved to be with me after managing two years of long distance together, that he was there four days before saying he couldn’t stay because he wanted so deeply to be a father. I want to forget the humiliation of how he had already tried to leave me this spring. I want to forget the fact that I didn’t get to say goodbye to his parents, that my letter to them after our separation went unanswered. I want to forget the way I waited for Oliver to do the same, to do my parents and grandparents the kindness of saying goodbye after being part of their (our) family for more than five years. I want to forget that I looked at getting a wooden ring made and had a place where I was planning to ask him. I want to forget the flier I saw in the post office yesterday about physician-assisted death for the elderly. I want to forget that my grandfather doesn’t garden or play chess or put on opera after dinner anymore. I want to forget the way my grandparents have spent their decades of retirement reading, in the same two chairs for thirty years, how summer weeks spent silently thumbing through books made me the reader and writer I am, and now they can’t seem to remember the chapters of their books that they read yesterday.
In Lewis Hyde’s book A Primer for Forgetting, he ruminates on how in spite of the cultural value we place on having good memory and the act of remembering, forgetting is a process of unsung importance. Forgetting, he argues, is inextricable from narrative. Leaving out details is how we formulate a story.
An hour or so later, I’m reading at the dining room table, and my grandmother walks over to sit down next to me. “So what’s Oliver up to this summer?” I slowly raise my head from the fiction issue of The New Yorker. She doesn’t remember we have started to dissect each other’s names from various shared accounts, AT&T, Netflix, and Spotify, emergency contact forms at the doctor’s office, car insurance. I want to bark at her to leave me to my reading, to start laughing madly, uncontrollably, until she backs away. Ever since he left it’s as if all my grief has been pouring into a colostomy bag. I try to be discrete about it, everyone sees me carrying it, politely looks the other way, and now I want to tear it open, excrement splashing on the Oriental rugs.
Instead, I politely repeat what I told her earlier this morning, trying to keep my voice even. I am taking care of them after all, feel no room to weep on their shoulders. My grandmother is embarrassed—an emotion she rarely seemed to feel before the dementia— that she didn’t recall this landmark event and tries to change the conversation to our plans to go to the store. They don’t drive anymore and she is always eager to leave the house. She drags me into the kitchen to help her write a grocery list on an index card and I can’t tell if she has genuinely forgot her original line of questioning or is simply good at pretending nothing happened. I know that she already wrote another list yesterday but forgot where she put it; I pull it out from under some mail and we get ready to leave.
In 1999, Dr. Pauline Boss established the term “ambiguous loss” to name the particular kind of grief that has no closure, no resolution, no answers. Boss’ research explores how loss is processed in unresolved circumstances like when a loved one disappears without explanation (soldiers missing in action, being given up for adoption, or immigrating to a new country), as the result of historical and intergenerational trauma (from slavery, the Holocaust, etc), when mental illness changes who we think someone is, and, of course, divorce and dementia.
In the car on the way home from Hannaford, my grandfather sits silently in the back seat of my rental car with their Boston Terrier, Dennis. In the passenger seat, my grandmother asks, “What is Ollie doing?” My spine stiffens, posture brittle. Oliver never went by Ollie. It sounds like she’s talking about the man that mows her lawn not the person I spent one sixth of my life with.
“I don’t know, Gram. Living at home again,” I exhale as I rotate the wheel of the car left through the intersection. Her silence indicates she is embarrassed again and this time, in the car, she can’t redirect. We stay quiet as we coast over the hills and fields of Golden Rod and Queen Anne’s Lace. The cows are blanketed down in the field in the drizzle. My grandmother says “the dripping is terrible” meaning the rain. I feel muted, in spite of this landscape which has always blossomed a sense of expansiveness in me. Instead of expansiveness, I think about all the people who told me that “I should hold onto that one” or said, “He’s a keeper,” and try to figure out how I’ve failed at their urgings to hold onto this man, to want the things people tell me I should want, like marriage and children.
In dealing with trauma, telling a story is a mechanism for exhausting the intensity of the experience. Later in his book, Hyde goes on to describe Sohaila Abdulali, a rape survivor who teaches young women about sexual assault. While, at first, she was troubled and distressed to share her own experience in the class, over time it faded. “Forgetting appears when the story has been so fully told as to wear itself out,” a threadbare blanket finally shed, or “to forget is to bury…There are two kinds of burials: in one, something is hidden because we can’t stand to look at it; in the other, it is buried because we are done with it.”
A couple hours later with pre-dinner cocktails: “What is Oliver doing now?” I wonder if she’s noticed that she hasn’t received a letter from him in a while and that’s at the root of her questions. He was working on a novel fictionalizing his Cuban refugee family’s story and my grandmother, a Spanish teacher and social worker who had traveled to Cuba many times, has an extensive community of Cuban friends. Oliver and my grandmother had written letters to each other regularly for years as he was working on the novel. I always had the suspicion that my family found him easier to be around than me.
“He’s at home with his parents,” I say tepidly. “I don’t know much because we’re not speaking.” I am being tested in a laughable way. My initial annoyance has peeled away to discomfort that is so unbearable I want to cackle to break the tension. I thought being in this house of failing memory would be an escape from thinking about him, but my grandmother seems to have wandered outside and trying to get back in, is ringing a doorbell over and over again. The repetition of her question with small variations ringing in my head has blunted me. I remain calm and even.
She’s still very lucid, she knows who I am, but the conversations are circular now. Why can’t she grasp this monumental change in my life? Will I be left reminding her for the rest of her life that he and I aren’t together, the way I have reminded my grandfather for the last two years that I live in California?
I thought reliving this fact of his departure over and over would destroy me, but instead I find that it’s helping remind me of the certainty I feel in not being a mother. I still want to be with him, desperately so, but my disinterest in parenting is unwavering. I’m still wincing at the loss of him, but her persistently failing memory is reminding me in the most excruciating way that I won’t change my mind, that I’m supposed to hold onto myself more than I’m supposed to hold onto him. Each time she asks and my reply is a prayer: the ache of absence a plea for deliverance. Each time I have to answer her question, I am broken again by the loss of him, but bolstered too by the promise of myself.
For patients with dementia, recall is harder for the people, places, and things that have an emotional association with them. The more of an emotional anchor there is to something, the longer it will take to retrieve the name of it.
My grandparents wake early, with the sun at 4:30 or so, and when I come to breakfast the next morning they’ve been awake for hours. On the side table is a pale green copy of the Southwest Review. Oliver’s first short story publication. It’s the story of a Cuban family reunion in Texas centered on a teenager caring for his grandmother with Alzheimer’s. Oliver gave one of his two review copies to my grandmother years ago, before her dementia set in. It ends with the character’s grandmother hallucinating her homeland off the Gulf Coast.
The Maine harbor is marbled with the reflections of clouds, nothing like the muck of the Gulf. Having repetitive conversations with my grandparents is nothing like the devastation of a family member not recognizing me. I am in my thirties, not in high school like the main character of the story. Still, I can feel the symmetry. I lift the cover, find a note from him to her, tucked under the cover of the magazine. I don’t say anything. There are no questions about him this morning.
Later in the day, after taking them out to lunch, she gestures silently towards it, miming that me she wants to return it to me. She has created an altar of sorts on the side table with mail he sent her and other tokens he gave her over the years. She has something on the tip of her tongue. It strikes me that this phrase is actually quite literal—the way words and feelings are formed on top of our tongues, that the mouth is the place of losing things.
She stands there, trying to grasp at a sound sitting on her tongue, the effort strangling her. I can’t comprehend why she is trying to give this literary journal back to me, what resolution will come of this. Does she think I want anything that was his to hold onto, some archive of my loss? Why not just throw it out? Does she want me to bear witness to her rejection of him, as if getting rid of this old copy of a literary magazine will testify to her allegiance to me? All I know from this wordless encounter is that his departure has sunk in, or at least it has for now, for this one afternoon.
Perhaps tomorrow she will have forgotten again.
Ayden LeRoux is a queer artist and writer from New England. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Lit Hub, Catapult, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Palimpsest, among others. She is the co-author of Odyssey Works (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), a book about rethinking the relationship between artist and audience written with long-time collaborator Abraham Burickson. She holds degrees in creative writing and visual art from NYU and UCSD.