In the gardens of memory, in the palace of dreams … that is where you and I shall meet. Alice in Wonderland
My father was 60 years old when I born. My mother 39. Keenly aware of their status as older parents, they asked my Dad’s niece and her husband to raise me if anything happened to them. Barbara and Seymour were also my parents’ best friends so I grew up spending weeks at a time with the four of them. I was a shy, sheltered child, awkward and unsure, often more comfortable around adults than kids my own age. Some of my happiest days were spent at Fernrock, Barbara and Seymour’s home, playing with their dog Vanessa, exploring their redwood covered property, curling up on a couch reading and listening to the adult conversation swirling around me.
Seymour was the first of the four to leave, dying at the age of 82 of a cancer the doctors couldn’t find and therefore couldn’t stop. My father followed the year after, unable to live with the spinal pain wracking his 102 year old body. Thirteen years later, Mom died of a pre-cancerous blood disorder the doctors could no longer control.
During the final year of Mom’s life, as her health relentlessly deteriorated, I spoke to Barbara more often, giving her the updates Mom was too ill too share. I started to notice that she had more and more trouble remembering what I had told her, often giving her daughter Judith incorrect details about what was happening. She began asking me the same question over and over again each time we talked, as if her brain couldn’t record or retain my answers. When I visited, she would struggle at times with the flow of a conversation or the plot of a movie we were watching together.
After Mom died, Barbara began losing pieces of her memory in chunks, unable to recall the names of long-dead family members, places she’d been, trips she’d taken, conversations she’d had. I showed her black and white photos of her time spent living at Rio Del Mar Country Club after her mother fell ill, hoping she could identify the people I didn’t recognize. But I was too late. Those memories were gone.
Soon after, she became confused about some of the people she loved most, asking in turn how Mom, Dad and Jimmy were. My heart hurt each time I had to tell her that they were all gone now. Each time she asked, it felt as if the three of them were dying all over again.
Barbara’s mind is mostly gone now. I am grateful that she still knows my name and remembers why I matter to her, although I am braced for the day I visit, and she no longer can. She has stopped fretting about living in a care home and asking her visitors if they think it’s the right place for her. Books, movies, politics … these hold no interest for her any more. But her desire to draw has somehow magically returned. She often sits in the living room area, sketching the caregivers, the other residents or someone she sees on the TV.
Losing Barbara, even as her body remains here, has been a loss unlike any other I’ve experienced. In her 90s now, she is free of pain and takes no medication. Her hands are still soft and smooth and free of the arthritis that crippled my mother’s. Her expression is peaceful, serene, and she remains as lovely as ever. Her watch, her rings, her necklace, her warm wool sweaters and button down shirts are so familiar to me that I could describe them with my eyes closed. What’s missing is the light in her eyes, the way she would lean forward when I confided in her, the questions she would ask, wanting to know every detail of where I’d been, who I was spending time with and what I was thinking about.
For over 50 years, Barbara held my memories, filling in the blanks on our shared family history, offering perspective on the tragedies, traumas, fights and estrangements I couldn’t begin to understand. Despite my sadness at the way she has slipped away and defied my best efforts to ground her here, I have learned so much from her these past five years. That presence and attention make a difference. That sitting with someone that you love, no matter how much they remember of the life you’ve shared, is soothing and fulfilling, even if neither of you say a word. That showing up matters, even if your second mother doesn’t remember the last time you were there. That there is peace to be found sitting by the bedside of a sleeping loved one, even if she’s too tired to spend time talking with you. And that when the bond between two people is deep and enduring, the love remains even when everything else has been wiped away.