Imminent sunset at County Line on the Hill.
When my mother moved into Querencia, a beautiful retirement community in Austin, we hoped she would see it as a homecoming. And, indeed, the smiling but fragile people you see in the hallways and patios there often seem to have wisps of our memories clinging to them: men who were doctors with my father in Houston, mothers of my UT friends, “girls” my mother went to Waldemar with, “boys” she knew at Austin High.
Nevertheless, there is an unavoidable sadness that pervades the experience of visiting there, as I have been doing these past few days. You might try to strike up a conversation with someone at dinner, for instance, only to be told they can no longer engage in one.
The pool at Querencia is cool and serene, but the lookout over the cliff at the end sometimes seems a bit too apt as a metaphor.
My mother has decorated her place beautifully, as she always does, and she is making friends, as is her talent. But her memory is faltering. We spent much of this trip visiting doctors and having assessments. It is a frightening experience to be standing on the precipice of a fading memory. We are reassured that Mother’s issues are likely treatable, not necessarily the result of aging. Still, watching this unfold, I have become much more aware of how much of who we are is in what we remember.
When I left Austin 25 years ago, I reluctantly let go of a relationship that was important. On Sunday, I met this man at my favorite coffeehouse. He has been struggling with cancer for two years. I was apprehensive about seeing him and was relieved when he walked in, looking, miraculously, very much the same, just older. It was awkward at first and I was afraid the whole conversation would crash and burn.
But, oddly enough, we really managed to connect by talking about his illness and our mothers’ aging. His own mother died a few years ago, after a long period of dementia. She had been a strong person, a leader in the community, and the gradual loss of memory had been hard on her. Watching it happen was hard on everyone around her.
There is a long porch filled with rocking chairs at Querencia. It is a lovely spot, but, in a community of 150 elderly people, I have never seen anyone sitting in them.
Even so, as he told me about the experience, his typical Texas humor was spinning all the stories into wry irony. Like so many, his mother experienced personality changes as her memory faded and she began to be unaccountably fearful. One night, his mom convinced another woman, who was confined to a wheelchair, to make a break for it. They escaped, but barely put a city block between themselves and their “captors” before being apprehended. We chuckled over the vision of two little old ladies, one with wheels, caught in the flashing lights and sirens.
Laughter is the main survival tactic for times like these. Tears hurt too much and don’t help you through. I am saving mine for real grief, which is sure to be coming, from one quarter or another.
My friend’s mother had strict no-resuscitation provisions, but was at one point put through a necessary surgery. She woke up on the operating table and, thinking the surgeon was violating her wishes, gave him a good blessing out. The doctor later walked out to the waiting room, where his first words were: “That was a strong personality!” Many folks in old Austin would have recognized the person the surgeon spoke to that night. The thought of that strong woman lost within dementia juxtaposed with the knowledge that, somehow, she was still “in there,” was both uplifting and uncanny.
Even these colorful lights and expired license plates, festooning the ceiling of an old favorite for barbeque, seemed a bittersweet reminder of our limited time.
This man I had loved so much talked about his own illness as the contradiction between a core personality and its body. Knowing your material self is merely a collection of atoms that have completely changed many times–not in any chemical way continuous with the body into which you were born–and yet recognizing the continuous “you,” with a narrative life, makes the glass into which we gaze so darkly seem all the more mysterious.
He and I fell easily, even after all these years, into a conversation with intense components like religion, dreams, consciousness, and fear. I was compelled by the sense that we were still the same two spirits we had always been, once again talking as if we had known each other for eternity.
Beyond this point, only cocktails. Seemed like a good approach.
Hill Country Texans have the purposeful practice of sitting down to watch the sun set. Mother and I pulled up our chairs at the County Line on the Hill and each ordered a Skinny Dulce Vida Rita for the show. We were not sure what aspect of the drinks that arrived was “skinny,” but the word gave us a welcome sense of salvation. For those few moments, as the sky reddened, ours did indeed seem a sweet life. Yet, all the while, my apprehension about the years to come was coloring this memory in the making.
Later that night, Mother and I began sifting through her many boxes of keepsakes. We had been told that activities stimulating her memories of life would help strengthen her ability to remember things in the present, so this seemed a good activity and, anyway, we need to reduce the stuff in her storage unit, which is mostly keepsakes, needlecraft stuff, and the outrageous amount of dishware required to sustain a lifetime of entertaining like a Southern lady.
I took this picture myself, but something about the clouds reminded me of an endless regression of Texas sunsets in my memory, the archetypal image of my home's landscape.
I learned many things about my mother as we pulled out old letters and dance cards from her youth. People and events popped back into her view as she remembered them after decades of never thinking about them. When we stumbled across my baby book, I was surprised at how carefully she had documented my first seven years. Here, as recorded for the first time, were tales of my early childhood that I suddenly realized were not my memories at all, but stories about myself told to me so often I had internalized them. The people around us have such a hand in forming who we think we are.
I was brought up short by the discovery of two envelopes stapled into the book. One contained clippings from my first haircut. I held these bits of my own hair with no sense of belonging to them and I thought of Mark’s comments about the disconnect between the atoms of the body and the experienced self. But the other envelope I did not open. It held the tooth I lost when I fell on my grandmother’s concrete porch as a toddler. I hit my head that day and sustained a wound in the middle of my forehead. My father, then a medical student, did not take me for stitches. Afterward, my mother blamed him for the scar I carried into adulthood, any blemish on a girl a tragedy in 1950s Texas. I have heard the tale of my head bleeding, my mother crying, and my father simply squeezing my skin together and cleaning it so many times that I feel I “remember” it. But somehow the physical artifact of the actual tooth carried too much reality and I did not feel like looking at it.
We are more than our hair and teeth. Our needs are for dignity and self expression as much as for those “basic necessities” that merely maintain these temporary atoms. Our worth vastly exceeds the value of the chemicals of which we are made, and, just as surely, we are not reducible to the manner in which we earn a wage. We seek love far more than we strain to “maximize our utility,” yet we have allowed ourselves to become enthralled by a theory of material life that denigrates our spiritual and social needs as “irrational,” favoring instead the demands of hair and teeth. These ephemeral companions, our ever-changing atoms, have so displaced our values that we have created a dominant world view in which the work of caring for the very young, the very ill, and the elderly is treated as an unmonetized indignity, a “private matter” for which we “take time off” from our careers–as if climbing the ladder were our real mission in life–and hope not to be too harshly punished.
Same scene at County Line on the Hill, as the sun actually sets.
We are coming upon a time in which the care of the elderly and the ailing will command more of our attention than the care of infants. This different kind of care will, I fear, rip us apart, exerting intense social, cognitive, emotional, financial, and spiritual pressure. But we have embraced a notion of economic priorities that will make us utterly unprepared for what is happening to us and to our loved ones. This confrontation, along with many other coming moments of truth, demands we invent a new economics.