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The Memory Unit

Ann Anderson Evans ~

I arrive in the memory unit at 1:30 in the afternoon. Jean, my mother’s sister, is fast asleep in her hospital bed in Room 1410. For the past ten years, it has fallen to me to be her frequent visitor and care monitor. I do this willingly because without her generosity and compassion, my life would have been far less meaningful and enjoyable. She never married, but my brothers and I honored her on Mother’s Day. My brothers sometimes drive here from their distant homes for a bedside family reunion.

During her decades of charitable work, Jean was named Recycler of the Decade by the New Jersey Department of the Environment, received the New Jersey Pride Award from the governor and chaired the New Jersey Audubon Society. Except by a few elderly colleagues, she’s been forgotten in the outside world.

I tell the nurses about Jean’s many awards for public service, but they don’t seem to care. They call all the old ladies “Mami” and do their jobs patiently. I understand that it hurts to invest in dying people, but I wish they were more interested. They’ll be chatting in the hall, then turn jovially professional: “Okay now! Time for lunch! Are you hungry, Miss Jean?”

The bed is lowered close to the floor, so that if she falls, she won’t go far. I check, as always, to see if she is still breathing, and detect a small chest movement. She lies in a huddled fetal position, one knee protruding past the bed’s edge. A single shaft of light strikes her hair, which shines white and clean. It’s Tuesday, so she’s been to the hairdresser.

Every morning, the nurses load her onto the wheelchair and take her to the common area so she can “be with people” and avoid bedsores. The real reason, one nurse confessed, is that keeping all the residents in one place means that they don’t have to give them as much care individually.

Hauling Jean around seems cruel when she’s so frail, but bedsores are equally cruel. Another nurse opines that wrestling her into and out of the wheelchair is causing the skin to tear. It’s hard to know the right thing to do, so I don’t argue. I must entrust decisions about her daily care to the hospice nurse who comes three times a week.

Jean can’t ingest more than a few teaspoons of food or water. She turned ninety-five on May 6, and her weight is now the same as her age. Malnutrition has claimed the fat layer; the planes and angles of her body resemble inanimate boxes under the covers.

Her heart and lungs are robotically sustaining her. It’s the lungs that confuse me: She had severe tuberculosis as a young woman, then smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for twenty years, but now her lungs won’t give up.

A person of obsessive habit, she lies facing away from the window, even at night, and loudly objects to being rearranged. Over the last few years, she has developed another obsessive habit: She mumbles, “Help me. Help me. I don’t know what to do.” An old friend stopped visiting her, saying, “What am I supposed to do? Just sit there and watch her say ‘Help me?’ ” I know what she means. It’s heart-wrenching to be asked for help when nothing can be done.

Recently, Jean has stopped mumbling, and I’ve filled the conversational void by saying things designed (in my mind, at least) to determine her mental state. When I played on the word “crêpe” by calling the breakfast pancakes “crepuscular,” she answered, “They’re usually served in the evening.” I don’t know what kind of dementia she has, but it’s not one where a person can’t enjoy word play.

Beneath the surface, I recognize Jean’s old self: private, stubborn, intelligent, curious and self-effacing. She and my mother were competitive, and I wonder if she feels any pride that she’s beaten her sister by living three years longer, if you call this living. She retains her graciousness. When I went away for three weeks, my daughter visited her, and Jean said, “I’m glad she’s been able to get away.”

The other residents remain themselves, too; one couple sits cooing and holding hands, laughing at their private jokes; a gregarious woman tries to include Jean in the group: “Come on, dear. We’d like to have you join us.” One resident rarely has visitors; the nurse says it’s because she was “a nasty mother.” She’s still nasty. She kicks the nurses, accuses them of stealing things, throws her milk onto the floor. You can’t escape who you are, no matter how long you live or how sick you get.

Jean is an atheist, so there is no talk of heaven or hell. I told the chaplain to avoid talking about God, and he said he’s ministered to atheists before. She likes it when he holds her hand.

She never references death, but years ago she created a health directive that forbids using artificial means to keep her alive. I’ve come to believe that people should also be able to state, “When I have lived too long, let me choose to die by artificial means,” perhaps specifying the “artificial means.” But what does “live” mean, or “too long”?

About two weeks ago, Jean gave the first acknowledgment of her situation. “I don’t know what is happening to me,” she said. “I don’t know if I can survive this.”

I wanted to answer, “Of course you’re not going to survive it,” but that would be harsh. It’s up to her to make her own judgments.

Last week, she looked at me, alarmed, and said, “I don’t know who you are!” Until then, she’d always recognized me, so I thought she was having a stroke. I rang the call bell, and the nurse came and took her vital signs.

“Oxygen 98, blood pressure 125 over 55, pulse rate 72. She’s fine,” he said, and left. What he really meant was, “She’s not my responsibility.”

I felt foolish for calling him. It would have been nice if he’d stayed long enough to estimate the odds of her ever recognizing me again.

I am flashing back to my mother’s death. She died around midnight, and the men from the funeral home came to pick her up. They emerged from her room carrying a black plastic zippered bag of slack bones so light that the men didn’t have to strain to lift it. As they disappeared down the front steps into the dark, I marked my shock with a few tears.

“She looks so small,” I said.

Jean looks small like that, only she’s still alive.

Jean is out of Medicine’s reach; hoping for a miracle would be futile. I can’t tame Nature’s course, can’t make Death smile. My job is to be there, to witness, to tell her something she has heard too rarely in her long life: “I love you.”

About the author:

Ann Anderson Evans published the award-winning memoir Daring to Date Again (She Writes Press) in 2014, and many of her pieces have appeared in the literary and academic press. For eight years, she developed admiration and affection for millennials by teaching freshman writing at Montclair State University. Her blog is on annandersonevans.com, and she is present on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as well. A podcast in which she will read classic short stories is almost ready to go. “I wrote this story to honor the spirit of my aunt Jean Clark.”

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


1 thought on “The Memory Unit”

  1. Thanks for sharing a story most of us eventually experience as our beloved relatives age into the inability to function. It’s a helpless feeling but, yes, all we can do is be present for them and let them know we love them. As an aside, I ordered Daring to Date again. The Amazon summary and reviews of it look great.

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