My brother called last night with disturbing news; one of my mother’s oldest friends had passed away. Though my mother hadn’t seen Josie in years, the roots of their friendship grew deep; they had been neighbors in our small Italian community, talking to each other over clotheslines, and in the alleyway where our buildings married. Josie was even closer to my mother’s first cousin, Angie, so there were branches of her that spread throughout my family. “We were always together,” my mother said.
Ma’s immediate reaction to the news was physical. She started sweating, her face became flushed, and she jittered about with anxiety. When she hung up with my brother, she began talking quickly, firing questions at me that I could not answer. What did she die of? Where was she living? How did Jim (my brother) find out?
“I never got to see or talk with her. How can this just happen? I don’t understand,” my mother said. This death had pushed her to a place of perplexity; bewilderment hung all over her, and painful regret stomped on her heart for not having contact with Josie for years. I had absolutely no idea how to help her.
When Dan arrived home, I met him on the porch to warn him of my mother’s state and apprise him of her loss. When I told him who had died, he said, “She just called here about a month ago. Your mother talked with her.”
What? How could this be? I was bowled over.
I rushed in to tell my mother the news; she had indeed been in touch with Josie and just weeks before. She had spoken with her so there was no need to feel badly. She could lay regret to the side.
“That’s not possible. I don’t remember that at all,” my mother said.
“You did, Jill. I answered the phone, and a woman identified herself as an old friend of yours. You were confused until you heard Josie’s voice and then you were thrilled,” Dan said.
My mother was baffled, but within the confusion was a thin line of hope.
“What did I say to her?”
“I can’t remember exactly but the call lasted about five or ten minutes. You were happy though…I know that for sure.”
My mother turned to me and said, “Why can’t I remember? Not just this, but a lot of things.”
There was the briefest of pauses and in some sort of twisted recognition, she said, “I’m sick, aren’t I.”
Oh God, help me. She knows. In this moment, she knows.
“You are, Mum. You have Alzheimer’s.”
Her gaze did not waver. There was no fear, just enlightenment, like she had found something she didn't know was lost.
“Do I have it bad?”
“Not bad, no.” What was the point of saying otherwise?
“It’s ok Jill. There’s nothing to worry about. You’re ok here with us,” Dan said.
She nodded her head and then looked down at the floor.
“But Mum,” I said, “You spoke with Josie. You connected with her before she died. Isn’t that wonderful?”
She was deep in her own contemplation where my words fell unheard. I was alone wrapped in the loveliness of it; the two old souls had met in word, and not long ago. At least Josie would have had the pleasure of that memory, for awhile.
But I was also disturbed. My mother had suffered thinking she had not spoken to her friend in years. The horror of it made her frantic, and it was only by Dan’s revelation that she had a second of peace. She was tormented because she had forgotten. And her disease is all about forgetting.
When we were walking upstairs to bed, I put my arm around my mother’s shoulders and she put hers around my waist.
“Are you ok now?” I asked.
“I remember some of that conversation, I think. I remember Dan sitting on the couch there when he handed me the phone,” she said, pointing.
“That’s right, Jill. We were sitting facing each other,” Dan said, encouragingly.
I hoped it was true, her being granted the gift of remembering. And if she were to lose that memory, I wished for it to be bundled with the knowledge of her disease. If the good memory had to float away, I hoped it would take the bad one with it.