Learning to forget

Mme. R used to sit at the same table as M. D, before they moved her to Mme. H’s table.  She and I get along generally, but my heart really went out to her when I learned that she had once been a physics researcher at Sorbonne.  Like so many people at Nazareth, the retirement home where I volunteer a couple of times a week at supper, Mme. R once had a beautiful mind.

It’s a bit like being an athlete who becomes paralyzed.  Only it’s somehow just a little sadder for me – and I mean no disrespect to anyone dealing with debilitations purely physical in nature – but we all know that our bodies have a use-by date.  We hope that our minds only grow more refined with age.  Sure, we become a little forgetful, but we get wise, and that is ample compensation for a little absent-mindedness.

At Nazareth I’m surrounded by former teachers, head mistresses, university professors and researchers.   I don’t consider myself a particularly intelligent person, but I’m sure that the loss of my reason, logic and memory would make me more than a little grumpy.  “Be careful with Mme. R,” Mme. D told me when she saw that we got along well.  “She can be very nasty sometimes.”

Mme. D is M. D’s wife and our neighbor, and she’s why I go to Nazareth at all.  Her husband struggles to sit still and has forgotten how to eat by himself.  I’m learning that, in spite of having been told that this is the “last place” the patients go before they die, there is yet another place…the less they can function on their own, the greater the likelihood that they will go on to this additional stage:  limbo in the truest sense of the word.  Mme. P left a few weeks ago for that place – I have no idea if she’s still with us.  So this is why Mme. D and M. P (husband to a different Mme. P) go to Nazareth each evening to help with dinner. They’re visiting their loved ones, sure.  But they’re also prolonging their stay by lending a helping hand here and there.

But Mme. D was right – Mme. R could be mean.  She once looked over at me as I eased M. D into his chair with scathing eyes and said, “Je pense que vous êtes très méchante, madame.”  I think you are very cruel.  As soon as M. D was seated I told her with my biggest smile, “Oh no!  Nonono…I’m really very nice!  You must have made a mistake!  You’ll see.”  She looked very confused.

A few weeks ago, a new woman moved in – Mme. B – and she’s been nothing but a headache for the nurses ever since.  It isn’t that she’s mean to them.  In fact, she’s very nice, if a little annoying.  She used to walk around with her empty handbag on her arm, her cardigan done up and her earrings on, all dressed up with nowhere to go.  She’s always looking for a nurse or a visitor to talk with, oblivious to any task they may be in the middle of carrying out.

But she’s horrible to the other patients.  She curls her lip at them.  She mutters terrible things about them not quite under her breath.  She pulls us away from conversations with the other patients to let us in on what morons they all are, what a pain they are for us, etc., completely oblivious to the fact that word salad is making its way into her speech.  Oblivious also to the fact that many of the patients, though unable to articulate themselves, seem to me quite capable of understanding what’s going on around them – what’s being said about them.  She even hits them sometimes, and while she doesn’t hit hard, the look in her eyes – like that of a cat hater shooing a cat – is worse by far than the offending hand.

Because of her inability to sit at the same table at mealtimes without upsetting everyone present, Mme. B must eat at a table separate from everyone.  I’ve now watched all the nurses go through trying to figure out how to reintegrate her to no avail.  The other patients deserve to eat in peace, after all, though left on her own, Mme. B bursts into wailing alligator tears or gets up and makes the rounds to the other tables, picking up people’s napkins and putting them on other tables, leaning over them to show them what she’s reading, or – more often – berating them for something she finds annoying in their very essence.

The other day, after I’d finished helping Sister J and M. D eat their dinners, I realized that the nurse had not been able to give everyone their medication because she was helping Mme. B – who will rarely eat on her own in spite of being fully capable – to finish her dinner.  I walked over and took her place.  Mme. B will only eat the tiniest bites, and every half-mouthful of potatoes or morsel of ham is consumed with her lips only barely open, her face twisted in disgust like a child forced to take a particularly bitter medication.  In between each agonizing bite, she turns to look at the others behind her.  At first she looks curious, and then resentful, and then, for the tiniest moment it shows up:  she is afraid.  Immediately her face fills with that same look of disgust.

But it is that split second of fear that resonates with me.  Mme. B has arrived at the last stop, and she – like Mme. R before her – is aware.  She knows – if not consciously then somewhere deep down – that she is among this lot because she will be following in their footsteps.  She has already stopped putting on make-up and carrying her handbag.  She will eventually forget her grandchildren’s names and then her own children (she already mixes them up quite a lot of the time).  She will forget her deceased husband’s name – if she hasn’t already – and then she will forget that she was ever married.  She will forget what marriage means.  She has already forgotten how to amuse herself, how to censor herself; she will eventually forget how to nourish herself, how to clean herself, and what it means to be who she is.

Mme. R is no longer “nasty” – in point of fact, she is docile and sweet, and it’s got nothing to do with her medication.  At Nazareth the patients receive little more than paracetamol or aspirin for pain, or perhaps a pill to treat a pre-existing heart condition or high cholesterol.

Mme. D tells me that the worst times for her husband have passed.  “It was so much worse when he knew what was happening to him.”  Her eyes well up, but tears no longer fall.  “He used to cry!  Oh!  He used to cry and cry.  He wanted to go outside but he didn’t know why or where he wanted to go.  It’s much better now.”

Mme. R has made her way past knowing what is happening to her.  Mme. B, however, is still in that horrible place.  But there is no reversing this malicious disease.

Most probably against the wishes of those who love her dearly, I can only hope that she forgets quickly who she once was.

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10 thoughts on “Learning to forget

  1. Those of us who can still remember must never forget those who cannot…brilliant post.

  2. Kate Brown says:

    oh dear, Ann dear, that strikes home. How well you write about it, with accuracy and compassion. I admire you enormously for having the spiritual strength to be able to spend so much time at Nazareth. You are right to say that trying to remember through fear and anger is much, much worse than forgetting. Ma was still herself, just (she didn’t have Alzheimers but vascular disease, slower but also devastating in the long run), though well on the way to forgetting us at the end, when her body finally, gratefully, gave up.

    • Ann says:

      and of course, it’s because of your mother that i learned how much i love working with elderly people…i do miss that lady.

  3. Very moving post. I imagine my mum feels much the same sometimes although I can barely grasp the edges of the feeling of what it must mean to want an absence from pain for someone in stead of life / awareness.

    • Ann says:

      i guess it’s just knowing that life isn’t getting better…that awareness won’t come back. perhaps one day we’ll figure this horrible affliction out, but for now it’s beyond our grasp. in fact, quite a lot of the families that dr. kevorkian helped were facing alzheimer’s, and i deeply admire him and his work. thanks for reading 😉

  4. maxzografos says:

    Alzheimer is a tough one. Both my grand-mothers suffered from it. The difference between the two, however, was huge. Both turned out to become the exact opposite from what they were during their earlier lives.

    Part of the issue is that our society dismisses old people as outcasts. They can’t produce anymore. In fact they’re a burden to the system. Hence unwanted. Resentment at that age is in many ways understandable. Everything is taken away from them, including basic respect.

    So it’s two factors, both of them societal:

    1. We don’t nurture our own wisdom and self-sufficiency. I.e. we rely on external factors (things / people) for peace. So when we inevitably lose them, we freak out.
    2. Old people get thrown to the sidelines the moment they can’t produce. Unlike different cultures in which old people remain at the centre of the family and consulted upon for their wisdom.

    Great and honest post Ann. Thanks for the food for thought..

  5. colgore says:

    First of all, you are an amazing writer. And you’re so compassionate and understanding. With my own grandmother, she’s still fully there mentally, I’ve had to learn to bite my tongue and smile and nod because she just does not censor herself anymore. She says exactly what she thinks and a lot of the times it’s something nasty or critical. But I see her confined to her room, being cared for by her daughter, lonely and she knows that this is as good as it’s going to get and I don’t feel annoyed anymore. I just feel sad and have devolped a level of empathy I didn’t know I had in me. I really commend you for the work you do with elderly. I just don’t think I could do it. You’re truly a good person.

    • Ann says:

      you make me blush. don’t get me wrong – i’m just there to help with dinner time…it’s not like i’m spending whole days there. though meals offer a lot of opportunity for seeing the dynamic, how people are doing, etc. your relationship with your g’ma is a lot more commendable – these people aren’t related to me, and i don’t know how i’d handle it if they were. that detatchment is helpful. but even from this distance, even hardly knowing you, and knowing you only ‘virtually’ at that, i’m completely unsurprised by the level of empathy that surprised you…there’s just something about you, lady.

      thanks for commenting.

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