Shirley Schultz: Thanks for the Memory


Sumac
Sumac seeds on a cool fall evening. The plant has “died,” gone to sleep for the season until spring. Not sure why this image, which I snapped on the bike ride before I went to see Shirley, works, but it does for me. Even at the end of the cycle, there is beauty in life.

The plan was go to see Shirley tonight and take her picture. I thought posting it would help Audrey feel connected to her mother this Thanksgiving even though Shirley’s second daughter is a continent and an ocean away from home right now.

But when I got to Promise House, my dalliance on the bike trail had taken a bit longer than I had planned, and the residents were already eating their supper. I don’t think Shirley would have minded if I photographed her while she was eating, and she looked pretty good and seemed to be enjoying her meal—and I’m not sure she would have noticed the camera—but, for several reasons, I didn’t take her photo.

It would have felt a bit intrusive. A nice old lady deserves a little privacy while she eats, whether or not she would remember being photographed.

Shirley acted like she was feeling well. She was focused on eating and had a hearty appetite.

I can’t say I’ve had a conversation with her lately, as she tends to mumble words quietly these days. But she had been getting stiff and still recently, and the two times I’ve visited her this week, she’s been a bit more active. Ben and I practically had to chase her around Promise House Saturday when we saw her then.

Today, she was just sitting and eating. Eating actively. She must like meatballs and coleslaw and sourdough bread and french fries, because she was packing it all in.

It’s hard to imagine what consciousness must be like for her. She has been slowly having memory slip away from her for years, and clearly forming new memories is not something her ailing brain is built to do. Earlier in her Alzheimer’s disease, she struggled quite a bit—a couple of years ago, poetically, she was raging against the dying of the light.

She’s calmer now, not sad. Her face is not very expressive anymore, but her eyes look happy when I call to her and ask her, “Shirley, how are you?” I guess there is enough memory left in her that even if she doesn’t recall my name or that I’m Audrey’s husband, or even who Audrey is, I’m at least someone familiar. Either that or she just likes attention from grey-haired, bearded men who act friendly.

Anyway, I think there must be a little more “there” than we sometimes suspect. For example, now and then she inserts names randomly when she’s mumbling—when I told her Audrey was in England visiting her new grand baby, Shirley mumbled for a second, and then, very clearly, said “Paula.” Audrey’s grandchild, Shirley’s great-grandchild, is named Juliet—but Paula is Shirley’s second-youngest daughter, and maybe the idea of a baby made a brief connection, maybe a little spark of her life when she was a baby’s mother came back to her.

It was gone as quickly as it arose, and the mumbling came back. But it had been there, a second of connection, the fog of existence, ever so briefly, lifting.

Life is a funny thing. We start off as cute little slugs that eat and crap and cry and don’t give a damn about anything else. Then, as we become children and grow into young adults, we flare with such heat and energy. Later, as we age, we burn more slowly.

Shirley has become a flickering candle. And there’s a breeze blowing. Sadly, someday soon, I don’t know when but surely not that long from now, the last ember will go out.

That will be hard.

But, I believe that it will be harder for us who know Shirley and have seen her change over time than it will be for her. I am not sure I consider it a completely positive thing, this new placid plane of existence Shirley has reached, but she seems at peace. And she is still making her way. Still burning, even if she’s just a small flickering flame of the vibrant fiery woman who once was.

There’s still some light in her eyes. Somewhere deep, being slowly lost in the fog of failing neural connections, there is still some Shirley surely left. Some well of memory that has not yet run completely dry.

And on this evening of the eve of Thanksgiving, it would seem unseemly to rage against God because Shirley is slipping away from us. After all, that’s far from a new reality.

Instead, I got to sit with her for 10 minutes tonight as she ate. During that time, briefly, she mumbled at me. When I first spoke to her, she looked at me, directly in the eyes.

Her eyebrows briefly jumped, a quick sign. A least for a brief instant, there was, however tenuous, recognition.

So, instead of raging against the dying of the light, let us give thanks for the embers that remain.

P.S. NOTE: I sometimes goof on the order of Audrey’s siblings, and this post originally was an example.  For two days, I identified Paula as Shirley’s youngest daughter, but Paula has both a younger sister and brother.  Sorry about that, and the post has been corrected.

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