When I don’t have a sub gig, I visit my Aunt Bettie in the memory care unit. “Memory Care Unit” sounds disingenuous, as they are not caring for memories, they are caring for people who have tattered and torn memories, memories which are wearing thinner all the time. Anyway, this week, when I arrive, Aunt Bettie is lying in a fetal position, dressed, but on her bed, just staring. Usually she is up and singing in the living room.
When people are like, “Does she know you?” I’m like, “Do I know myself? Who knows me?” which makes me sound like an ass, but is also actually true.
My great-aunt, Rita, who is on the other side of the family, died last week.
I see my great-uncle Jess at the funeral. He is the only remaining sibling in my maternal grandfather’s family. He is 92, walking with a cane, weekly going to coffee at HyVee in Lincoln, Nebraska. I don’t recognize anything about him except his laugh, which is close to my grandfather’s. So I tell him this, when I see him sitting to the side, at the party (well, it sort of is) following the funeral. Any time they gather, my maternal family is loud and gregarious and enjoying beers. A few of us are looking out the back windows of my mother’s cousin’s house, at deer who are gently eating birdseed out of the neighbor’s bird feeder. My grandparents had deer who appeared in their backyard, too; they would bless our breakfasts with their delicate calm in the distance.
Jess was the farmer in the family, and I was not taken to the farm as a child. It was too far, far out in Nebraska. People met in Omaha. I went to Omaha.
My mother’s cousin does the ceremony at the funeral home. He blows a flute, rings a singing bowl, and speaks about mothers and heritage and the divine feminine, and my whole front feels cut off and exposed. My heart is my whole body. What he says is true. Was true. Is true. How tenderly his mother cared for people. How her own troubled childhood wounded her and made her tender.
He talks about how every Halloween, my great-aunt dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West. For obvious reasons, this blows my mind. Poof. When he quotes “Surrender, Dorothy,” I start to cry. Do you see, she is me? That she had a life, like I have one, that was beautiful, and is over, and there is nothing to do but let it go?
I struggle to “believe” in God, or Jesus, or whatever, in the last few years, but I continue to believe completely and easily in people. Some people make it easy and clear to believe. They keep doing this for me.
My mother’s cousins talk about caring for and interacting with my great-aunt as she progressed with Alzheimer’s. Three years ago, my grandmother with dementia died. This year, my aunt moved into the “memory care unit.”
It’s a nice idea, that they are caring for her memories.
I sit and talk with old friends, in a bar we’ve patronized for many years. The waiter brings a sample of every salad dressing they have, so that we can try them all and figure out which one we used to order, when we went there for happy hour every Friday. We can’t figure it out. I think they don’t have it anymore.
I brought face cream to the memory care unit, and spread it on her cheeks and forehead, which are chapped and dry from the winter air. I let it sit, and then Aunt Bettie rubs it into her own face.
We stand under the burial tent and look at Great Aunt Rita’s casket, with its spray of yellow and purple flowers. My mom and sister and I take yellow roses and put them on the graves of our people there: my grandfather, my grandmother, and four of my great-grandparents. My sister cries, which means I don’t, because she’s doing it for both of us, and for my great aunt, my grandmother, and Aunt Bettie.
My grandmother, in her last years, was difficult. She was angry and scared a lot. At her funeral, it was hard to remember the person she was before her brain started getting eaten away. She loved meeting people, chatting with them, she laughed easily.
My mother’s cousin says, “The cemetery guy asked if my dad was an important person. I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because he got a great deal on this plot!'” My great-grandfather, a mortician, got him the deal. This meant my mother’s grandparents are all buried right next to each other. And one set of aunt and uncle. And her parents. It’s good to have people in the death business.
I walk up to my aunt and touch her shoulder. “Hi, Aunt Bettie, it’s Elizabeth, how are you? Are you okay?”
She would have known about my great-aunt’s death. She would have wanted to know all about how my mother’s family was doing. She would have contributed stories about her parents, grandparents, people she knew. She was our family’s keeper of stories. I have some of the stories, her children have some, my father has some, and others are lost forever, the way all of us will be, eventually.
At first she smiles. “Hey!” But then she says, “Not really. I’m not okay.” But she sits up. I wish I could tell people I am not okay in such a straightforward manner.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Can I help you with something?”
“No,” she says.
“Do you want to color in your coloring book?”
“No,” she says.
“Do you want to do a puzzle?”
“Yes,” she says. I take her hand, and we go to the table.
Image: “Julia Jackson” by Julia Margaret Cameron, Metropolitan Museum of Art.