The “prey of memory”

I have my coat on. Three bags on my shoulders. Note to Self: Don’t forget to stop at the Post Office for stamps. I reach for my keys, when something tells me to call my mother. I don’t want to call, but I now know that scream inside a whisper that won’t be ignored.

I pick up the phone and dial.

A strange voice I don’t recognize answers.

“Hello, I’m looking for Shaunna.”

“This is Shaunna.”

“Mom, it’s me. You don’t sound like yourself. I didn’t recognize your voice.”

“That’s because I’m not myself. Don’t hang up, Rachel. Don’t hang up!” she screams into the telephone.

“What’s the matter?”

“Everything’s the matter. Everything. They’re putting me downstairs.”

The dreaded downstairs. The Dementia unit.

“Who told you that?” I ask. I am never sure if she speaks the truth or if it’s her paranoia.

“That lady! That big lady. You know..oh what’s her name?”


“Yes, Carol. And that other lady. G-something. They told me I have to go downstairs. Everyone is treating me different now. Nathan used to be my friend, but he is making fun of me now because of my fingers.”

She sounds like 5-year old child.

“What’s wrong with your fingers?” I ask, bracing myself for the response which I don’t get, because she starts screaming instead.

“I can’t see the table! I can’t see it. Oh, God what is happening to me?” she yells to no one in particular.

I sit there on my wooden chair in my coat silent. Because from where I sit on 196th and Broadway I can do nothing to help my mother facing Alzherimer’s at her assisted living home in central Jersey. I am met again by helplessness. I must instead  hold the space. Be silent. Bear it.

“Rachel, nobody wants me here. Antonia today told me I am too much maintenance.”

Antonia is one of the aides.

Of course, I know this. I’ve just picked my mom up from a week stay at a psychiatric hospital where doctors have tried different meds for her screaming and sobbing episodes and the perpetual panic she lives in. She can do nothing by herself. I must move her to a nursing home at 63. I’ve already started looking and calling. Have started filling out the applications.

“I have to go.” she tells me.

“Mom, listen to me. You are beautiful and brave and don’t pay anybody any attention to whoever makes fun of you.  You are perfect and you just need more help and I’m helping you get it. Do you hear me?” I ask her.

“I have to go!” she screams at me.

“Ok, Mom. I love you. I’ll call you tonight.”

“Wait, what are you doing?!” she screams again.

“I’m hanging up, Mom.”

“No! Why? Why are you hanging up on me? Can’t you stay on the phone with me for a bit longer?” my chid-mother pleads.

“Mother, you just told me you have to go.”

“I did?”

“Yes.. I love you. You are fine.”

I hear her call out to what to her must be an abyss, “Hello! Is anybody here? Can anybody help me find the table? Where am I?”

Then my phone goes to dial tone.

I continue to sit.

I feel the same bulldozer knock me to the ground.

I pray for her peace and when I finish praying I leave my apartment and walk to the A train. From time to time I open my eyes which drift over the other faces. I wonder silently how many others carry the pain that nobody will ever see.

Rilke is in my purse. I pull him out when I get to the coffee shop I write at because on mornings like this, only the sad, wise, dead poets can comfort me. I open randomly to a page:

“Yet, watchful and warmblooded as they are, those animals know all the weight, the sadness, of a heavy heart. For, just like us, they are the prey of memory…as if all we strive for now had, once upon a time, been closer and more intimately ours: more faithful to us. As if all things now abandoned us-which once lived close as breath. To any who have known a better World, our own feels windswept and ambivalent.”

Rilke speaks of what I don’t want to admit. That it’s my mother’s memory that is causing her anxiety. The memory of when she could write a sentence. Stand up by herself. Teach a classroom of college freshman. Reading him, I’m reminded the monstrosity of her panic will diminish when she can no longer remember anything. That in some ways, this will be a gift. And that she will love me, no matter that she doesn’t know me some day because we love not from our neurons but from the deepest places memory cannot touch.

Rilke closes his Eighth Elegy with,

“All overwhelms us. We set all in order, All falls apart. We order it once more and fall, collapse, disintegrate ourselves. How were we first persuaded to perform our every act as though it were our last? As one might halt upon the last high ground, which shows him his own valley one last time, and turn; and linger; and hang we dwell here, forever taking leave.”

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3 Responses to “The “prey of memory””

  1. 1 Moira February 12, 2013 at 12:31 am

    I am speechless. Love to you, Rachel

  2. 2 Gita Baack February 12, 2013 at 4:19 am

    So familiar – harrowing. I was furious when my mother was moved down one floor to the lock up, altzheimer’s ward after THEY withdrew a medication suddenly, did not chart it, and I had to figure out that was the likely reason for her erratic behaviour. They said she would eventually end up there and gave her a private room at a semi-private cost which they agreed wd be a permanent arrangement. I gave in. If it is any consolation, pleasant dementia did set in and she never forgot me. She didn’t remember where she was or what she ate but she lit up when I came. Our love just grew and grew and I miss her terribly.

  3. 3 lauraboling February 14, 2013 at 4:32 am

    Rachel, I too am strangely comforted by Rilke’s words (as I have often found solace in them) — they are at once tender and soulful, harsh yet impossibly practical. Peace be with you. Peace be with your mom :)

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