on Gonna-Do's and Getting Rid of Things and Scrapbook Layouts

Last week, my sister Becky and I started the seemingly-gargantuan task of finally cleaning out all the stuff in my mom's house so that she can sell it. It seems insurmountable because she's lived in that house since 1976. Almost forty years of accumulated stuff, and it doesn't help that she's a keeper. I mostly understand this impulse to keep things (see my recent struggles with cleaning out our toy room). It's mixed in with the fear of forgetting, because if I don't have every single everything that anyone in my family ever loved still in a box somewhere in the basement, then I wouldn't have the chance to come across it one day and be flooded with that memory.

It's hard to disconnect the memory from the thing. It's hard to believe that the memory really will stay around, even if you don't have the thing. Especially considering all we mourned while we watched my dad suffer with Alzheimer's.

But when you want to go from a home that once held six people to one that's comfortable for a widow to manage, you have to get rid of some of the things.

On the first day of the project, Becky and I started on the sewing room. One wall is lined with cupboards, where my mom kept the fabric for all the projects she was working on. Some of the cupboards stored food instead of fabric. As my mom was one of those domestic-goddess types who bottle green beans, beets, salsa, tomatoes, apple-pie filling, and various other stuff (one year she canned pinto beans for quick—and seriously delicious—refried beans; another year she did pickled cauliflower and carrots which I don't think were quite so good), the shelves were filled with old food. Like: really. old. food. Do you know what beets cut into strips look like thirty years later? Little piles of mummified cat poop in the bottom of a jar. And we'll skip the details of the mixture of macaroni, mouse droppings, dead mice, spilled Italian seasoning, and dust that coated the bottom shelves. Other shelves held cans and cans of a mix of old-ish and still-good products, soups and mushrooms and tomato sauce.

As we worked in the sewing room, I thought about how my mom used to call my dad "ol' gonna-do." Meaning, he was always making plans for things he was gonna do. (Lose fifty pounds, eat healthier, paint more, start his own business, fix the brake lights on my Torino...) That sewing room was full of gonna-do's. In the cupboards of food, which my mom fully intended to do something with, make dinners, feed her family. In the cupboards of fabric, most of it decades old, which she was going to make into dresses or quilts or pants or pajamas.

All gonna-do's.

I so understand the lure of the "gonna do."

I fight it every time I find myself in a scrapbook store. Surrounded by patterned papers and embellishments and alphabets, I start thinking about what I could do with this or that product. How I would use it on a layout. Then I bring it home and I realize, oh, yeah, I could've done the same thing with any of the other 20 million supplies I already have. (Really. Say I died tomorrow. Someone would have to go through all the supplies I own and I'm pretty sure my ghost would be hovering, scarlet with blushing because of the excess.) It's a thought process that sometimes leads me to question what I'm doing with scrapbooking anyway. Does it have any value, really? Or is it like the petrified beets, important at the time but pointless in a few decades?

The second day of operation let's-get-Suellen-out-of-her-house found Kendell fixing Mom's lawn mower while she and I worked on the room opposite the sewing room. Which we've always called the junk room. It's the only room in Mom's house that isn't finished—cement floor, no sheetrock, a naked lightbulb. It's where we've put, over the years, quite a bit of the things we didn't have a use for but didn't want to give away, either. (Like our very own Room of Requirement.) In the framed-in closet was a clothing rack, which held a whole row of ancient clothes. Once we'd worked our way through the junk (bags of flour and sugar as old as Kaleb, boxes of fabric and yarn and old patterns) to the closet, we started going through the clothes.

I wish I'd snapped a picture before we started.

Nearly every piece of clothing had a story to go along with it. The black and white floral dress was the one she'd bought at a store in Salt Lake to wear to a dance she went to during her years at BYU; she'd been sure she'd be the only one wearing it but when she walked in she immediately saw another girl in the same dress. The pink fitted dress and jacket was the going-away dress she made for the day she married my dad. There was the going-away dress she wore for her first wedding. (I told her she didn't even need to look at it, just toss it straight into the donations box.) (Plus: who knew that going-away dresses were such a big thing in the 1960's? I think after my wedding reception I put on a pair of black pants and a sweater!) A purple sundress, lined with white rickrack, that I remember my grandma wearing. The dress Mom wore to Michele's wedding and the one she wore to mine.

And not just dresses. Two coats of Grandpa's and his favorite flannel shirt. My dad's brown wool coat that I remember him wearing. A beaver-fur-lined coat that was my grandma's which Mom couldn't decide what to do with.

Every item had its story. She told me the stories, unbidden, unstructured. Then she'd decide if it should go into the D.I. (the Utah version of the Salvation Army) or to the second-hand clothes store downtown. It was one of my favorite moments I've ever had with my mother: I handed her old clothes, she handed me old stories.

And just like seeing all of those dessicated beets was sad (so much work for nothing but dust), seeing all her dresses being sent away was sad. Whomever buys them won't know the stories. They might make new memories in them, but my mom's connection to them is broken.

Later, we found a box with pictures stuffed inside. I managed to contain my ire about photos being stuffed into a box by remembering that's just how they did it back then. Luckily the mice hadn't gotten into it, because many of the pictures inside I'd never seen before. Random pictures of all of us.

Becky Fancy Hair
(This is Becky at about 7 or 8 years old, wearing ringlets. There didn't happen to be a ringleted photo of me in that box...but they are still out there. Oh how I hated the ringlets!)


Down near the bottom were some older black and whites: my mom and her brother dressed in their Sunday best, my mom at about twelve years old.

My mom with her date, in that black and white dress.

As we sat on the floor and sorted pictures, I thought about my gonna-do's. The projects I've bought the stuff for but haven't yet actually made. There are still a lot of them—a pink and black quilt, a hand-pieced quilt, quilted tableclothes for every season. My tall pile of library books is a gonna-do. My unwritten novel is, too, and the essays I've written but never submitted anywhere. The list of hikes I want to take is a list of gonna-do's.

And definitely, my scrapbook supplies are simply gonna-do's.

I thought about the dress, the elegant black-and-white dress. I thought about the photo of my mom in the dress. I thought about my mom in the junk room telling me the story of the black and white dress. And I thought about scrapbook pages.

It's so simple to lose your focus in this hobby. It's a quick switch, the lure of something new and pretty. It's almost completely about, in fact, pretty. Or it can become that way. About the supplies. About the outcome—a pretty page.

But what I continue to learn, especially in the past year, is that the pretty doesn't matter. The design doesn't matter, balance and composition and visual triangles. Because what if sometime, in some fashion, my mom had written down the story of the black and white dress? What if she'd put it with the photo?

The design wouldn't matter. Embellishments wouldn't matter. The pretty wouldn't matter. Just the story would.

So there on the floor of my mother's basement, surrounded by photos and newspaper clippings and funeral programs, I reminded myself again: the stuff doesn't matter. Even though it's pretty (or elegant or stylish or hip or just-so-perfect-I-can't-ever-use-it). The thing that gives scrapbooking its value isn't all the money I've spent on stuff. It's just the stories, paired with the pictures. Written down, kept somewhere safe and mouse-free.

I want less gonna-do's in my life. Not in the sense of doing less. But in accomplishing more. I want to finish that black-and-white quilt I've been buying random quarter-yards for. I want to snuggle underneath it and make it a real part of my life instead of a thing that's still unformed, in pieces.

I want to write my novel and publish my essays.

I want to use my stuff so that when I am in my mother's shoes I won't have a bunch of unfinished gonna do's.


How I Remembered the Particulars I Forgot

I'd forgotten something of him, the way he moved his body perhaps, or the space in a room he took up with his thoughts. I remembered that I'd forgotten when I saw the man in the chair at the library and recognized him by his hat and even though my dad never wore a black suede cowboy hat like his brother Monte's, I still for a second thought, Dad's come to visit me at work! before I knew it was my uncle Monte and not my dad sitting there.

I put onto the correct display shelves the armload of books I was carrying and then I went to say hello to Uncle Monte, knowing it was risky because he is, like Dad was, known for talking. For talking for a long time, regardless of where the other person might need to be. But of course I said hello because even though he doesn't look just like my dad, he looks like my dad in that similar way siblings have. The way they move their bodies, the space their thoughts take up in a room, as if all those years of living together caused them to form the same way of being.

Mostly though it is right in his eyes, it's in the way he looks up at me and it is something about his smile and looking at my dad's brother in a chair in the library where I work and have thought about my dad but never seen him. It's that look that makes me remember all the things I've forgotten about my dad, the sound he made when something seemed stupid to him, the way he drank a soda before his mouth forgot how, how his back looked crooked when he walked. The way he walked. The way he moved his body, the space he took up in a room.

The sound of his voice saying my name.

I didn't forget I had a father. But somehow I forgot I had a father, had that father who was maddeningly long-winded, who once backed Kendell's truck into a pole at a gas station, who kept to himself. Who loved me like no one else ever did. I keep him with me but the particulars, the details, slide away; he's only been gone for one year, three months, and eleven days, for one Thanksgiving, one Christmas, four birthday dinners, two anniversaries, two Halloweens and a thousand photographs, but he's been gone for so long.

When Monte looked at me and we talked about the weather and why he was in my library and what he was reading in the newspaper I could tell his thought was my thought and if this was a movie instead of just writing you could hear how they overlapped: I miss my brother/I miss my dad/I miss my brother/I miss my dad/I miss him.

I miss him, I miss him, I miss him.

Maybe, try though a person might, maybe the particulars always slide away. Maybe it is inevitable. But the missing. The missing never goes away. I wouldn't want it to, because if I didn't miss him that would mean that all the particulars were gone. Not missing my father would be like I never had a father at all, and I hope desperately to never be so stripped of memory that I forget I had a father. Even though he forgot, in the end, that he had a daughter. That he had any of us.

Maybe, though, there will always be reminders to bring back some of the particulars: the way his body moved, the space in a room his thoughts filled up.


My Father's Daffodils

For as long as I have been an aunt, my family has had the tradition of an Easter egg hunt in my mom's backyard on Easter Sunday. Because we tend to enjoy food, we also eat dinner together. As my oldest niece was born when I was 15 or 16, we've been doing this for a long, long time. Certain groupings of experiences have come and gone: the times when the amount of girls vastly outnumbered the boys, the year when we had three babies (this was Haley's first Easter), the times when the amount of boys vastly outnumbered the girls, the year we added cute little baskets to the hunt. Snowy Easters or bright, perfect ones; plenty of new spring outfits admired and photos snapped and strawberry-based desserts devoured

Since Kayci (the oldest niece) got married the year Ben and Kaleb (the youngest grandsons) were born, we didn't have an Easter with every one of my parents' grandchildren before the in-laws started being added. But every year, part of our tradition has been to get all the kids together for an Easter photo. We did some with Grandma and Grandpa and some without. Sometimes we took them in the front yard, sometimes in the back; sometimes, on snowy Easters, on the porch or inside, on the couch.

And for so many of those Easter Sundays, my dad was there, smiling, telling his slightly off-color jokes to Kendell, helping to hide the eggs full of candy. He and I would always talk about spring flowers, which ones were blooming, how the lilac bush was coming along, what the name of those tiny little purple flowers blooming by his antique wagon wheel might be. (He never seemed to remember exactly.) One Easter he played baseball with Nathan, who was just 18 months old. He was quite but still an essential part of the experience. Until he couldn't be any longer. Until silence took him away.

This year, for a variety of reasons, we had our Easter Sunday party on Palm Sunday instead. Some family drama meant that some of the nieces and nephews didn't come. We only had five kids to hunt eggs: my grand-niece Oakley, who is almost one; my two youngest and Becky's two boys. It was cold today, grey and blustery, and none of my father's daffodils were blooming yet. I felt heartsore, missing him, missing the years when all the grandkids were still little, the days when my knowledge was not yet so deeply felt and I thought that things would stay the way they were forever.

"Maybe this will be the last Easter party," my mom, who would like to sell her house and move into something smaller, said to me, while we were waiting for the men to hide the eggs. (It's tradition.) It felt like the last to me. Or maybe the one after the one that should have been the last. I don't know. When do you acknowledge that the family you have might be too large and diverse to continue insisting on pliability and similarity? When do you find that your own small family is enough? When do the edges snap away?

I went out to the front porch of my childhood home, scene of myriad memorable events. I looked up at the trees that were my height when Dad planted them, and then down at his flowerbeds, which were littered with little purple grape hyacinths. I talked to my sisters; I laughed. I went to the backyard and watched the small group hunt for their candy-filled eggs, revisiting the same hiding places the older generation had long ago discovered. When there were only a few eggs left, I walked with Kaleb, trying to help him find just one more treasure.

But it was me who found a treasure, just for a whisper of a moment. I thought of the blooming purple flowers, of the tulips with their green hands still shut tight and the lilac bush just barely covered in pale green leaves. I thought of all that has passed away. And I felt him there, my daddy, in the backyard that he loved and nurtured. Even though it's weedy now, and the swing set is knocked down and rusting. Even though the daffodils weren't blooming yet. He was there with me, just for a moment. He was there because he made it. He's gone but his grandkids still race around the beautiful space he made. He's gone but his grape hyacinths are still spattering the soil with lavender quiet. He's gone, but the trees he planted rustled in the wind and the flowers he planted worked their way towards blooming and somehow all the changes, the edges slowly breaking off, felt OK. Felt like how things just naturally progress. And they felt OK because of that moment. Because he made it OK.

Something moved away from me then. Perhaps it was the expectation that things will ever be the same. Maybe it won't be the last Easter party. But it will be the last time I expect it to bring me the same bright joy. It will have its own sadness, no matter where we have the party. And next Sunday, when it is Easter, I will only have my own children around me. Make it good, the wind whispered to me in my father's voice. Make it your own.

I will, Dad. I will.

Dads daffodils


Laughing in the Face of Death

On the morning that Dad died, after the gentle hospice worker had come and gone, and the young undertakers had bundled him in their strange covering (thick, malleable plastic on one side, cotton pieced quilt on the other), loaded him into a minivan, and took him away, my sisters, mom and I found ourselves ravenous. As if the process of him dying fueled our innate hunger, our human response to nurture life with food.

So we went to breakfast.

While we were waiting for the pancakes, eggs, toast, biscuits, and immense amount of bacon we'd ordered, Becky realized that she hadn't received a response from one of our nieces, whom she'd texted with the news of Dad's passing. An awful thought crept into my head: what if she'd sent the text to the wrong cell phone number, so that niece ended up feeling bad that we hadn't told her? But then I thought about some unknown person—the one whose cell phone she accidentally used—receiving her gentle text: 
          Grandpa passed away at 6:20 this morning. He went peacefully and we were all with him.

I gasped, and shared my image of some stranger receiving this text. I don't know who started giggling first. Maybe it was simultaneous. But we started laughing. And we kept on laughing. Loud, gasping peals of laughter. Laughter that rose through my body in uncontrollable, delicious waves. Laughter that was just on the teary side of weeping.

Laughter that drew the attention of the other people in the restaurant.

A woman came over to our table. "I have to hear this joke," she said, which only made us laugh harder. After all, there was no joke. We were laughing at the horrible confluence of Dad's death and a missent text. I put my hand on my belly, trying to literally settle the laughter back into my body, and explained.

For a minute, as I told the story, I felt awful. Who can laugh on the day her father dies, especially such long and sustained and tenacious laughter? Who feels mirth on this day? But somehow, as the story wrapped up, I felt the awfulness drain away. What other day is there to laugh so hard? When he was finally free of his entrapment, and at peace? When he would take nothing else but joy in the sight of three of his daughters and his wife, laughing hysterically at something silly?

That experience let him know that we would be fine. That we will not do what he would not want us to do: get trapped in a mire of sorrow. Laughter didn't mean we were already forgetting, or that the sorrow had already dispersed. It meant that we were continuing to live, carrying his memory forward with us. A line from a random poem burst into my memory as the woman patted my shoulder: I have stolen/some of the light which drenches you this midnight/to wish you all the islands in the world/and every one a different kind of peace.

The food's arrival was what really quieted the laughter, although every one of us occasionally pealed out an exhausted giggle. We ate. I thought of a time I sat in that same restaurant with Dad, on Jake's second birthday, and all of us laughed at the sweetness on Jake's face when the staff gathered around him with a little cake, to sing happy birthday to him. We talked about funeral plans. Becky and I talked about running. Life moved forward a bit, with us—remembering, eating, and yes, laughing—living it the best way we could.


there are many things I could say

On Friday, August 5, 2011, my dad passed away.

There are so many things I want to write about, but I'm not ready to share yet. Still, I want to say this quick thing.

I've spent hours since Dad's death looking through photographs. Old pictures stuck in those metallic photo pages—some I have never seen before. My own pre-digital pictures. Every single folder on my computer. I've been working on this:

Dad photos snip 
A collection of photos of Dad to put in the slide show Becky is making for his funeral.

I have so many good pictures. Photos of Dad with Mom. With Kendell. With my kids, and even by himself.

You know what I don't have? One single, solitary photograph that includes just me and my dad before he got sick.

Not even one.

A few weeks ago, Kendell took this picture of me and Dad in the courtyard at his home:

Amy dad last photo 

And of course: I love it. I'm grateful to have one last picture.

But oh, how much I wish I had one photo of the two of us together, before this hideous disease got a hold of him. This realization makes me weep.

So here is what I have to say: just go and do it. No matter how fat, grey, wrinkled, shriveled, or otherwise unattractive you might think you are. Get a photo. Not a group photo. Not an event photo. Just a picture of you with a person you love. Then do it again with another person you love. And then, again. Don't worry about feeling self conscious, or that someone might think you're weird for asking to have your picture taken, or that you want to lose five pounds first, or get your hair done, or at least put some make up on.

None of that will matter when that person you love can no longer be in a picture—because he or she is gone. What will matter is that you have it, that image. You won't look at it and think "look how fat I am." You'll look at it and think: I miss you, so how glad I am to have this picture of just us. 


That Conversation

"Mom," Jacob said, pulling me out of the kitchen. "You should come outside with me. It's raining."

I left the pasta water that hadn't quite boiled yet and went outside. We stood on the driveway under the overhang and watched the rain fall.

"This is my favorite smell," I told him. "Rain falling on hot cement."

"I know," he said. "That's why I had you come outside. Do you wish someone would make a candle that smelled that way?"

I thought for a moment; put my face into the breeze and breathed deeply. "I don't think you can candle this smell. Because it's not only the smell. It's the coolness of the air and the wind on your face and the dampness and the sight of the clouds."

Then we just stood, watching the rain fall and sniffing, and I it was one of those moments that you hope with everything you have your son will remember one day when you're gone. I hope he'll remember always that I love the scent of rain and wet cement, and that the smell will evoke me for him, whenever he finds himself in a rain storm, and that way I can always stay near him.

That conversation, that standing in the rain with Jacob and feeling time bend, just a little, also made me think of my dad. Because I don't know what my dad's favorite smell was. Maybe it was the way a hiking trail smells when it winds through tight clumpings of pine trees, so that everything around you is sweet woody savor. Or the scent of Lake Powell, which is cottonwood trees and sunscreen and sandstone emanating heat. Perhaps the smell of the high desert where he went to hunt arrowheads. Or something I can't guess at.

I don't know because he never stood with me in the presence of his favorite scent and told me why he loved it.

I don't know because I never thought to ask.

Now it's too late to ask. Now especially, when he is caught where he is—not dead, but certainly not experiencing life. Trapped. I can't help it: I long for him to be freed from the captivity of his body. I long for his soul to stride out. And to some day, when I find myself standing in the presence of his favorite smell, come back to me, on a breeze or a trickle of water, to evoke himself for me. 


stripped of memory, flayed of everything else

This morning, Haley sluffed school to hang out with me. OK, really, she sluffed because we had an early morning appointment with her school councillor to get her next year's schedule figured out, and then there was an assembly so I just brought her along with me on my errands. Since we were down in Provo anyway, we stopped by to visit my dad.

When we got to his home he was asleep, with just a brief and one leg of his pants on. I'm sure if I were a more capable and emotionally stable person, I could have just helped him get dressed and into his wheelchair. But I couldn't. He looked so...vulnerable lying there. So stripped. There are some memories of him I don't think I want. I found a nurse and asked if she could help, but she needed to call an aide, so we stood out in the hall, waiting.

There was a woman walking her wheelchair down the hall, her footsteps slow and carefully planted. She was carrying a plastic baby doll, swaddled in a towel. As she approached us, Haley said hello to her. The woman's face lit up in a smile, and she held out her baby, so we complimented her on its sweetness and beauty. Then she continued down the hall.

At the other end, the door opened and five or six patients wheeled back inside. One carried a plastic box full of cigarettes; they'd been outside taking their smoke break. At the nursing station, they scattered, pushed by attendants to their rooms, or into the day room. One older man, however, stayed near the counter. His body language babbled with anger and frustration.  "Hey, eff you!" he yelled, his inflection perfect, to seemingly no one. This started a sort of dialogue with another patient. He'd yell the F word, and she'd yell back at him to not talk to her like that. She said this with a nearly-regal elegance, sitting there in her wheelchair, TED hose hiked up to her thighs, a bib her only accessory.

I thought of another visit a few months back, when a different patient wandered into the room where Kendell and I were visiting Dad. "I cannot find my baby," she wept. "I put her down just right over here but now I cannot find her. Someone's taken her! Oh, how can I have lost my baby! Can't you help me find her? She's the girl. She's the girl I lost." (If you know me then you know: this made me weep, too.)

Or one of the times when I took Kaleb, and a patient came over to talk to him. Her teeth were mostly missing, and her socks didn't match, and her hair was a stringy grey cloud. She patted him on the shoulder and started talking to him. "Oh, I've missed you so much! I'm so glad you've come back. Look how big you've gotten. And you're so handsome." Kaleb turned his face away, but she persisted. "You're so handsome! Please won't you give me a hug?"

I don't know how the people who work there manage the madhouse feeling all day. It is not that I don't have compassion for these trapped souls. I do. It would drive me mad, coming to work every day and feeling helpless, knowing I could do nothing to help them out of the endless loops of tangled memory. They get stuck inside some handfuls of moments from their lives and there is no escaping.

And then there is my dad: he is silent. He never says a word. He wrings his hands together and shakes his head, a sort-of yes. He looks through bleary eyes that remind me, somehow, of a cat's. His eyes have the same spirit that Emily had, near the end. Trapped and exhausted and vaguely troubled by some unnameable physical pain. But always, always, surrounded by his silence.

We pushed Dad out into the courtyard. There were two white rabbits hopping around the just-green grass; blue sky and white Timp and naked trees all touched by sunlight made me sigh. "It's spring, Dad!" I told him, and I talked. About the weather, about Haley, about my other kids and my flowers blooming. I told him his daffodils are blooming, too.

He looked at me with one Emily eye, the other squinted tight against the light. He shook his "yes," he closed his other eye. He seemed exhausted. So, instead of talking, I sat in the gazebo with him, holding his hand and thinking:

The woman with her baby.

The angry man's cursing.

The woman defending herself, holding her own in elegance and composure even while her mind deteriorates.

The woman with the lost baby and the other one with the child she hadn't seen in so long she replaced his face with Kaleb's.

My dad, the silent man.

Even when our memory is lost, we still are ourselves, somehow. We still react based on what we know: the man still full of his customary anger, the elegant woman, the others with their habitual need to love their someone small. As if, stripped of memory, we are able to be flayed of everything else, until all that is left is our one essential definition: anger, courage, love, shame, pride; the one you lost and still cannot find, the ability to nurture, the self-assured belief in your own value.

That my father has been flayed into a bone of silence gives me pause. I think of him, reading the newspaper on the floor of our front room, a cup of coffee by his side, or reading a book at the kitchen table, or laughing with Kendell over their old jokes. Telling jokes, or talking interminably on the phone, or talking at the kitchen table. He was many things, some of them flawed and some not, but I always thought of him as a man of words. I didn't know his deepest thing is silence. It is a seeping sort of knowledge: in silence, your only companion is loneliness. This lack of words—the absence of image or repetition or even hallicinations—is perhaps the saddest thing I know about him. It makes me feel that I failed him. Not my mother, with her constant desire for him to be better than he was, nor my sisters, nor me; not the holiday rituals or the family vacations or the years of teenage angst; not even his childhood or adolescence or early single years: none of this left a mark on his essential self, which is silent, white. A piece of blank paper.

And it makes me know: live harder. live better. Be better.  "I don't want to be where you are" is the constant thought I have, visiting him. Both where he is physically (the rest home with its patients' internal arguments turned inside out, the thin mattress and the sharp, sweet-rotten scent) and metaphorically (my only companion my naked, essential quality, whatever that might be). Dad's illness teaches me about helplessness and silence while it works its hidden message: life isn't the future or the past, it is only right now. Right now is the only thing we have, and so we must fill it. Hopefully we fill it with something good, strong. Something that leaves a mark, so if the thing I fear most—being where he is, eventually—ever happens, I might have something other than silence.


On Memory

Today, I read three different reviews about Nora Ephron's new book I Remember Nothing. Probably the title jumped out at me because when I read it I thought "me too!" I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but somehow my memory is shot. Like...I'll ask Jake literally six times in four hours if he has any homework. Or I completely forget appointments even when I think about them two hours before. Names flow through me like water drained from pasta; I'll remember reading a book but not the title, or seeing a movie but now what that actor's name is in real life. Last weekend I sat through almost all of the first part of The Two Towerstrying to remember Legolas's real name. I finally just had to google it. (Orlando Bloom, my apologies.)

Considering my dad's condition, this memory thing freaks me out. I think I would rather experience almost anything other than Alzheimer's. Anything. I'm not sure there is one single disease I fear more than it, unless it's a brain tumor or...anything else that would leave me sitting silent in a chair, having forgotten everything.

What am I without memory?

Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it, so the saying goes. I say: those who forget their history are simply doomed. Doomed to a shell of self, to a half-life, to a mindless ache. There is already so much I have forgotten and so much more I don't want to. Consider, for example, this post that Becky wrote about our Grandma Elsie. The details she remembers about her house are so vivid and precise—I am grateful she wrote them down because I had forgotten. In my mind, her formal living room is simply white: carpet, chairs, couch, walls; a blank mirror in a silver frame. Her kitchen table has intertwined itself with my other grandma's table; I know that yellow Formica belongs somewhere else but I cannot remember Elsie's table in its place. I remember the dark yawn of her cement basement and the afternoon I spent sipping nectar out of her overgrown periwinkle bed. But not much else.

And that's just the far-away memory. What about the closer ones, like exactly how it felt to be newly married and without any kids, or the day I brought home Haley and became a mother. What did I learn during my days at college, and which Theodore Dreiser novel did I read, Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy? What were the details of that messy break-up I had at 18, and how did I get the enormous bruise on my right thigh?

I don't remember.

I have this sneaky feeling, though, that my memory issues are somehow connected to my not-feeling-anything, locking-out-the-world thing. Because, here's a confession: I hardly even pray anymore. It's too much—I don't want to feel anything. I think the not-feeling thing is severing the remembering thing. I know I am wired to be emotional—overly emotional, in fact. This is as much a part of me as my turning-grey hair and ability to stand on my toe knuckles. Valuing memory is, too. Of course I am constructed by the people and things that surround me, the tasks I do, the clothes I wear. But the things I experienced yesterday and in 1990 and five years ago constructed me, too, and I cannot bear the thought of losing their memory. I cannot bear to open up my heart to feeling and yet its is withering from lack of remembering.

And how strange is it, what we remember and forget? I can, for example, recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish, something I learned in eighth grade, but I can't remember if I ever mailed my American Express bill last month; there are snippets of poems in my brain ("The way you say the world is what you get" for example, and "I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief" and "a woman like that is not a woman quite") but I can't recall exactly how it felt to write a poem.

Perhaps those who fear losing their memory are doomed to do just that. Perhaps my doom is coming fast toward me, a devastation caused by something I forgot I'd done. Perhaps it is sympathetic Alzheimer's and will clear up eventually. I don't know—but I am fearful. I'm afraid I will forget to be fearful, and then it will all rush away, every cherished and happy and awful and horrid and sweet and everyday and amazing moment will sink, leaving only dimples in the path leading to my grave.

Forgetfulness
          ~ Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart


on Old Men

When you run the Provo River Trail in the fall, there are a few things you should expect: battling with bikers, walkers, long boarders, rollerbladers and other runners for your little place of trail; a staccato echo through the canyon from the gun club on Squaw Peak Road; a breeze that feels impossibly chilly when you get out of your car but refreshingly chill after five minutes or so of running; leaves just beginning to turn on a few trees and the rest that exhausted, early-fall green; golden grasses on fire with sunlight.

What no one expects, and what I have never witnessed before today, is a line of praying mantises. Six or seven of them, standing three or four inches away from each other, facing the sun on the sunny peak of a gentle uphill. Unexpected, yet there they were, leached of jade, the color of dry straw, stiff and slow-moving. They reminded me of nothing more than a row of old men, soaking the warmth of the sunshine into their morning-cold joints. I swear they sighed and shifted in the warm light. Their mandibles and claws moved slowly when I carefully leaped over them, leaving them to their stiff insect yoga.

As I ran, I thought, for awhile, of old men. I thought of my grandpa Fuzz, who had a stroke on a Sunday morning in December when I was twelve. He was living with us, in the room right next to mine, and over the few weeks he'd been there, I'd grown accustomed to the rhythm of his snoring. So the strange syncopation of his breath woke me early that day, and I lay, listening, wondering what the pattern meant, until I fell asleep again. I still wonder: what if I had gotten up and checked on him? Would he have lived longer? Was it my fault he died when he did? I still don't know. When I woke the second time that morning, it was to the sound of the ambulance wailing down our street.

I thought of my dad, caught in his dark wordlessness. He doesn't walk very well anymore—part of the disease—and goes, silently, by wheelchair. When I sit across from him, he looks me in the eye for a moment and I am again, consistently, surprised by the tininess of his pupils, engulfed by the brown iris. It is almost as if the problem isn't in his brain, but in his eyes; a few drops should open his pupils and then he would come back to us. Instead, he looks down and away. He wrings his hands. He shifts in his chair and eventually looks back up, and I am left to wonder many things: does the eye contact mean anything? What sort of terror is he locked in? Why is this happening—what is this trial meant to teach him? or me?

I thought of my father-in-law, too. I know the cliche is that no one gets along with their in-laws, but really: aside from a handful of topics we disagree on (and so don't bring up around each other), I love him. He has been a good surrogate father to me in the wake of Dad's Alzheimer's. He has tried to build a relationship with my kids. At the very moment I was running, he was in a hospital having surgery to remove a cancerous mass from his bowel. It was discovered on Thursday; we found out about it as we were leaving the hospital after Kaleb's cardio appointment.

And I thought about a question a friend had asked me as we talked about death and suffering. "Which is worse," she wondered, "the slow, lingering death or the quick, unexpected one?" The unexpected one cuts short pain and suffering; the slow, lingering one allows for goodbyes to be said. I think, if I could choose my way to go, I would pick the slow and lingering—so long as Alzheimer's or dementia isn't included in the list of suffering. I would want to be able to say goodbye, both to the people I love and to the things and experiences, too. I would want to bask in the sun like those seven praying mantises, to appreciate the simple things one last time. Feel warm light on my closed eyelids, a beloved hand in mine; hear a familiar voice talk me away from the world. Know I was going before I went.

Thoughts of old men, of cancer masses, plaques and tangles, regrets and mistakes: perhaps my running thoughts seem dark. But I was trying to puzzle it out, to put a name or a label to the way that gratitude swelled in me as i considered death and all the hardships of the world. It came back to the wizened faces of the praying mantises, who would certainly die soon enough. They weren't huddled, weaping, under leaves. They weren't hiding. Instead, they were seeking out sunlight and companionship. This is, I think, what we all should do, dying or not. It is what I should do: reach out. Step away from the protected comfort of loneliness. Come out into the world and let the sun warm my face.

When I came back down the trail, I came across the mantises again. A wasp hovered, buzzing, over their bodies, which had been crushed by a running shoe. Perhaps that should have sent me into a tailspin toward despair: my symbols for courage, trampled by a careless foot. Instead, though, I felt grateful that they had had their moment of sunlight and warmth, and then a quick death: the best of both options. Saying goodbye and then a swift blackness, with only that reminder left to me. Step out. Feel the sun. Seek out a friend. Never, until life makes you, stop living.


When Grandpa Talked

The other day, Kaleb tapped me on the shoulder. "Mom," he said. "I have been wondering. When Haley was little like me, did Grandpa talk?"

I hugged him when I answered so he wouldn't see the tears in my eyes. "Oh, yes, Grandpa talked. He used to talk so much you couldn't believe it."

He hugged me back and then pushed me away. "Haley is so lucky. All that talking with Grandpa. I wish he could talk to me!" And then he went on his happy little way, leaving me more than a little bit sad.

Because here's the thing: Kaleb never really did get to know my dad, at least not the pre-Alzheimer's dad. The day after Kaleb was born, Dad drove to the hospital on his own, and he got lost. My mom sat with me, waiting, for as long as she could, but she had to go to work. "He probably stopped to read the paper somewhere," she said, and I agreed, neither one of us acknowledging what had really happened. When he finally came into my room, he was matter-of-fact about it. "I couldn't find the damned place," he said. Then he held Kaleb, who didn't have a first name yet but whose middle name was already decided: Don, after my dad.

But here's the other thing that makes me equally as sad: Even if Dad didn't have Alzheimer's, Kaleb might still not have gotten "all that talking with Grandpa." Because, while Dad came to birthday dinners and holiday meals, he wasn't very involved in my kids' lives. He wasn't the sort of Grandpa who'd show up and take a grandkid or two out for a Happy Meal or a trip to the park. He didn't really talk to them on the phone much, or try to get to know them. He was passive in the relationship.

Really, "sad" isn't even the right word: "pissed off" about sums it up. How could he not make an effort? How could he not cherish and develop a relationship with his grandchildren? If you asked Haley, Jacob, or Nathan, I don't think any one of them could tell you something specific they loved or admired about my dad, because they don't have any specific memories with him. They hardly remember what he was like, pre-disease.

Maybe it is wrong to say that I feel anger towards my father. After all, he is ill, and disease should dissolve the past hurt feelings. It should offer at least that much: in the place of memory, absolution. I fragment of poem keeps repeating in my head: "What is elegy but the attempt/To rebreathe life/Into what the gone one once was/Before he grew to enormity." (Mary Jo Bang.) Alzheimer's tries to make him bulge into enormity: larger than life, impervious to anger. Immune to it. Blessed only for the good parts.

How odd that this is a damage the disease inflicts: it not only takes away the ability to tell the person you love you love him (and everything else good you should have said more often), it strips away the chance you had to say how could you? Your anger or disappointment cannot be expressed and so it hangs in your heart, a bitterness, a hook, a biting dark thing you are ashamed of.