Memento Mori


I’ve been thinking very much about my Grandma recently. She died nearly a year ago, ten months ago to the day to be precise, and her ashes were recently laid to rest under a tree planted in the woods where she used to take walks, even on cold days like this, bundled up in knitwear and down. I saw a female cardinal playing in the snow this morning, crown sharp and alert, and something in the way it turned its head, something in its watchfulness reminded me of her. Of her goodness and her curiosity. I wrote the following piece shortly after she died, and shared it with no one. It felt too personal and raw, but I think it’s time to share this. Not on any anniversary: just on a day when I was thinking of her. When she felt strong in the nature around me. 

* * *

If I were to set the very moment of her death into words, permanent words, it would go like this:

First: Mom brought Grandma home from the Memory Unit to die, and I came to be there too. It was late in the night as I watched Grandma take her last breath, and I saw her at peace.

Then: I knew intrinsically that she was no longer there in that body, but somewhere nearby as Aunt Mary held her hand and Mom stroked her knee. Finally liberated.

Finally: A moment that I will never again forget as long as I have the capacity for memory. Grandpa had come to say goodbye to her body, Mary still holding her hand. Grandpa touched his wife’s shoulder and wept, saying goodbye in a way only he knew how, a wordless goodbye that comes from seventy-five years of being in each other’s lives. He left the room to get a tissue, and as the rest of us were sitting there, the door at the foot of her bed blew open. Not widely, nor dramatically, but quietly, just a few inches, just enough to let her spirit go. The following day when we told my brother, he told us that he’d woken up around 2:15 from the strangest dreams. “That’s about when the door blew open. She was coming to say goodbye, John.”

Those would be my words. What else do I have left to give her but my words?

* * *

The day after her passing, we went into her old room at their house to collect remembrances of her for each of her grandchildren. We found pieces of sterling silver and turquoise, scorpion pins, and fish pendants. Decorative fans from Japan, pearl necklaces, and combs. Her jewelry choices reflected a favor for non-precious minerals, an assemblage of rock and stone and silver. My chosen remembrances were to be found in a lower drawer, where I came across the pillowcases she used to use on the guest beds, the ones I remember so vividly from the nights I’d sleep over and wake up in the middle of the night with heartburn only for her to feed me a piece of bread and stroke my hair. On her nightstand — as if she’d only just left them there the other night, not many years ago when she was moved into the Memory Unit — were several mass market paperbacks by Elizabeth George and other mystery writers, two books of Emily Dickinson poems, a book of the wit of Mark Twain, old Irish blessings, a Wendell Berry novel, and a Muriel Spark novel. I took the latter two, slipping them into her old canvas tote next to the pillowcases. The Dickinson poems I brought home to send to cousins Daniel and David.

The next morning, I pulled out the Muriel Spark, and noticed for the first time the title: Memento Mori. On the cover, she’d affixed a return address label circled with a ballpoint pen. On the back: her initials distractedly scribbled in teal pen, and next to the title, a page number written in her hand: p. 172. I quickly flipped to the page, and saw an underline: “That is our memento mori.” Memento mori: Remember your mortality.

Not knowing what the book was about, I scanned the page for context, and realized that the character is visiting a nursing home. He describes a group of patients huddled around a television, emitting noises, attempting tasks but instead of, say, pouring themselves a glass of water, they end up with water jugs over their heads instead. This. This is a reminder of your mortality. This: this too was how her life ended.

I flipped through the rest of the book and found other underlined passages. Some denoted important character names or plot points, but the bulk of them were about aging and senility: p. 10 – “attempting to put her thoughts in alphabetical order”; p. 13 – “Her resemblance to himself irritated him.”; p. 23 – “doleful hands”; p. 37 – “‘Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.’”; p. 44 – “How nerve-racking it is to be getting old, how much better to be old!”; p. 58 – “He rose to leave, for he knew how Charmian’s memory was inclined to wake up in the past, in some arbitrary year.”; p. 67 – “arcus senilis” underlined and written as well at the top of the page; p. 119 – “‘We’ll soon be senile ourselves at this rate,’ said Granny Green. ‘Sh-sh,’ said the sister. ‘We don’t use that word. They are geriatric cases.’” and underlined: “‘To think that I spent  my middle years looking forward to my old age and rest!’”; p. 121 – underlined twice: “‘Remember you must die,’”

I raced to write these lines down as I turned each page of the book, like transcribing a long lost audio recording. I was suddenly privy to Grandma’s very private reading of this text, the lines that were important to her, the lines which resonated the most with her right before she began to disappear. Remember you must die.

Thinking there might be more, I picked up the Dickinson, and noticed how she’d marked a certain poem with a paperclip and a pencilled check, a poem that held such significance to her later life that we gasped as we read it:

The Lost Thought.
I felt a cleaving in my mind
As if my brain had split;
I tried to match it, seam by seam,
But could not make them fit.

The thought behind I strove to join
Unto the thought before,
But sequence ravelled out of reach
Like balls upon a floor.

And another poem, dog-eared:

A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish, — some way back,
I could not fix the year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely what it was,
Have I the art to say.

But somewhere in my soul, I know
I’ve met the thing before;
It just reminded me — ‘t was all —
And came my way no more.

The later years of my grandmother’s life were dominated by her Alzheimer’s. We watched her begin to repeat herself, then stop remembering us, then stop remembering herself and the reality of the physical world around her. Her “Alzheimer years.” As if it were just a phase she was going through. Alzheimer’s is a misunderstood disease: in films, we’re shown a woman who can’t quite recognize her children, who misplaces things or gets lost driving to the grocery store. A distant-eyed Gena Rowlands unable to recognize James Garner’s face. This is just the early stage of Alzheimer’s. What’s hidden from us in the Hollywood rendition is the moment when that person disappears altogether, when all they are able to do or say resembles the acts of an infant, when she utters nothing but garbled words and helpless cries, unable to sit erect, her fingers pinching and trembling against your wrist as if squashing spiders that only she can see. When her eyes are distant, nearly hollow, almost abandoned. Almost. Later in her life I fed my grandmother like a child, stroked her hair the way she once stroked mine, telling myself she was still in there somewhere, unable to imagine where on earth she might have gone. Willing her to come back to us for one last conversation.

When someone dies after many years of suffering from Alzheimer’s, there are no last words, there is no note. Nothing that would signify someone’s last great wisdom before slipping away into the light. We don’t even know if there is a light. All we have left are the words they left during life, real life, before.

In the days after her death, I went back to emails she sent me when she was just on the verge of all this, before, when the signs were still so small that they didn’t show up in letters, unless they were letters she’d forgotten to send. In one of her emails, she writes about the process of going through her things for the move to The Knolls, a retirement community on the edge of town.

Moving is progressing slowly but inevitably with lots of help from your mom
who is quick to say, “You don’t need this–throw it out, give it to the Good
Will or whatever.”  Otherwise we would have to fill our yard at the Knolls
with our useless trash (also known as “memorabilia”)  Books are hardest to
part with, but if their pages haven’t been turned sometime in the last 50+
years, they need to be gone.  Besides there are always new ones to take
their place.  Right?

This, too, could be a metaphor for death (Right?), but instead I looked literally to her books and to the words she’d underlined and cherished. It made me realize that the books she did keep were the ones whose pages she turned most often. Most importantly, she saved an Emily Dickinson given to her by my Aunt Mary, her daughter, and when she passed she still had other books on her bedside table, either in the process of being read before she was no longer able to read, or read long ago and loved and underlined. Piecing together her last words from pencilled marks in a book and scraps of emails. This is what it is like.

Remember you must die. “To think that I spent my middle years looking forward to my old age and rest!” Hardest to part with.

But here is the most magnificent thing about her death, about her departing: as hard as it was to watch her go, as soon as we let go of the body, she came back to us. The memories of her from before. Hiking a trail on a crisp autumn day, her gray hair moving in the wind, sitting cross-legged in a club chair doing a crossword, Jeopardy on in the background, watering the plants in the greenhouse overlooking the ravine, looking out the window at the birds on the feeder, handing me a Madeleine L’Engle book, saying she’s one of my favorites.

We all talked about how strange this feeling was, my aunts and uncle and mother and sister and cousins and I, how it’s as if the moment she died, the Mom/Grandma we knew before she got sick with Alzheimer’s had suddenly come rushing back into our lives.

“It’s like the Alzheimer’s version is no longer there to get in the way of who she was,” said Mom.

“I felt as if she was right there in the car with me,” said Aunt Joann.

“But now that we have her back I want to shout, NO, don’t take her from us!” cried Aunt Mary.

None of us expected this part of losing her: that we’d have to lose her twice. Not only that, but that the second time would be harder. People assume — as even we assumed — that the passing of someone with Alzheimer’s would feel like a blessing. And it did, for a moment. The first thing we were all saying is that we felt an enormous sense of peace once she was at rest. The peace of knowing she was no longer trapped in that decimated body, trapped in a mind that she couldn’t control. That we ourselves were no longer trapped in the thought of Grandma not how she used to be, but how she was in that moment, with the eyes that couldn’t quite see you, and the tongue that couldn’t form any recognizable words. But the overwhelmingly dominant feeling is still one of profound loss, and because we’re suddenly able to remember everything that she was, because it’s all come rushing back with the force and weight of an ice storm, the memories of things she said or did, a look she gave, the way she held your hand, the knowing smile she once wore — the loss is all the more profound.

Again, Dickinson:

Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly

To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With “This was last her fingers did,”
Industrious until

The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then ‘t was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.

A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him, —
At rest his fingers are.

Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.

At one point in the Muriel Spark novel Grandma so carefully underlined and left behind on her nightstand, as close to a final note as we’ll ever get, there is a passage she didn’t underline, a sentence she wouldn’t know would reverberate with me so strongly after her passing, but a sentence that stopped me like a downed tree in the road: “A good death doesn’t reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul.”

It had been years since she had been afforded the freedom to bear herself in any way, dignified or other. She was carried by a body that disobeyed her, a brain that betrayed her thoughts, twisted them, turned the outside world into a hallucination, her words into garbled songs. But her soul: as I watched her die, I knew her soul was still strong, still good. I knew when that door opened six inches, gently, that her soul was no longer fighting, but walking gently, composed. And so it was: A good death.

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

How removed we are from death now, how sterile and unseen it has become. My entire fear of death was built on a foundation of having experienced it too little. I feared that the burst of noise that is our lives, once silenced by death, would have no echo. But having experienced her death, having stood at the side of her bed in the middle of the night as she gave one last breath for each of us present, I can tell you that this is what death is like: motionless, hushed, the sound of a candle being extinguished. And then: the cacophony of memories that follows, a cacophony that is both torture and ecstasy. The noise of these memories is what makes you wail and shake and hold your head in your hands. Mourning is the noise of memory that follows the quiet liberation of death.

In her Dickinson book, Grandma had marked another poem with a tiny pencilled checkmark, almost as an afterthought:

The dying need but little, dear, —
A glass of water’s all,
A flower’s unobtrusive face
To punctuate the wall,

A fan, perhaps, a friend’s regret,
And certainly that one
No color in the rainbow
Perceives when you are gone.

It won’t be the first time I’ve argued with Grandma over large and important life philosophies, but, dear Grandma, I beg to differ with your beloved Ms. Dickinson: I wish you knew how much all the colors of the rainbow perceived your absence. Particularly these: the deep blues and greens, the turquoise and teal. The colors you wore and loved and chose to adorn your surroundings. The colors of your pillowcases and scarves, the agate slab paperweight we found in your desk drawer that was the color of your eyes, rimmed by a white halo where crystals had formed like arcus senilis later formed in yours. The colors of the illustrations in your Dickinson book. The color of the blue ballpoint pen you used to mark those words. After you were gone, to my eye these colors shone brighter in nature, even still in this gray and brown January. There: solid as agate, unobtrusive and bright.

You are now, again, still there.

©Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.