Unforgettable

Yvonne Guerry at Huntington Beach, California, in October 2016.

Her gaze, somewhere between curious and indifferent, held me. Almost unable to breathe, I crisscrossed her Great Room, hoping against hope for the slightest glimpse of my once-alert mother. I had hurried to see her, and then as now, I believed there must be some sort of a magic spell that would bring her back to us, back from the prison of Alzheimer’s, and from the world of all things forgotten. Why hadn’t she taught me that spell? (Or had she?)

She’d always glowed whenever I discovered even the slightest bit of our family’s history, saying to me, “Oh, my, look at all you have learned…” So I had to believe that the cure for this, the cure to return all things unforgettable, had to be hidden away, recorded in an old family history book and just waiting to be discovered. You know, as if from a perfect Book of Spells, the cure called out to me, as if to say…

I know you are but who am I?”[1]

Making my way past low furnishings, upside down books and off-centered bric-a-brac, her eyes caught me. Here, even in the midst of it all, she still held court. There under the Great Clock she pretended, her humorous ways mesmerizing anyone who might come by. I like to think I wasn’t just any caller that day, though; indeed, I was her son. But the easy vacancy in her eyes told me that I was no more than “someone” to her  –  the memory of my identity lost in her mind’s need to survive.

[She] had an innocence about her, with no masquerade, and a look drawn from long ago.

Today, and in visits that followed, she would give less and less, losing more of herself in this world. Now she saved only enough memory for the wayward alley-cats she fed, they who chased her shadow, disloyal and fleeting from the porch yard.

Oh, she did not look silly or dimwitted that day, or even appear especially contemplative. And while her Sage family’s ancestral scowl had started to take root, she had an innocence about her, with no masquerade, and a look drawn from long ago. Sitting down beside my mother, I was beginning to see that, even in the turbulence of her disease, there was still an art to her ways.

Sweet and unassuming, she had become an oracle of the unknowing. I felt her immutable spirit, and her very pulse seemed to beat in time with my own. Along with this came the realization that I would never regain any foothold in my mother’s heart. Her devotion belonged now to a forgotten world, to the nagging beggar cats, and to the bag of Friskies she kept, crumpled, ready at the door.

Yvonne Lee in Long Beach, California, ca. 1951.

Looking at her now I understood why my father had married her, and she him. How ridiculous it had seemed to me, these two awkward high school sweethearts. How impossible their marriage would prove to be – like the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. Dad purveyed the American Dream, always aspiring to drive home next year’s Cadillac, and subscribing to the philosophy of Let’s Make a Deal.[2] Mom, who tried her best, was never able to keep up with Dad’s keeping up with the Joneses.[3] Mom was content with the ’62 red Falcon wagon in Naugahyde – secreting away a few dollars for those many “what-ifs” in life, hers was a spirit of another kind altogether.

There in her Great Room, watching her absently dangle a half-socked foot off the couch, I realized what it was that had brought mom and dad together (outside of raging teen-age hormones). I saw it then, where it had always been, showing simply in her quiet regard. You see, my mother was no less a huckster than Dad, no less a pretender, just one of a different sort. (Now I’m kind of wondering if she ever truly liked that red Falcon.) They had somehow been two sides of an improbable whole.

You see, my mother was no less a huckster than Dad, no less a pretender, just one of a different sort.

Today she affected a curious look, her fingers kneading softly at the sofa’s brocade, her forgotten Kleenex in hand. I saw her simple beauty. However, she could no longer pretend as well as she once did. Now she traversed this world only in her “memory loops,” her better scripts lost and secreted away. In reality, she had returned to what we all are in our purest form – innocent, without pretence.

My visit and stay did not last long. I’d planned a day at the ocean with her, naively thinking that this might be part of a spell that would make her “all better.” That day I helped to dress her, hurriedly and briefly, ashamed of myself for doubting her. I’d driven far to see her, counting on that unknown number of last days we all count on – and begging God for just one more. I drove the two of us down to the beach. It was a warm October day, but the sunny winds had set a familiar bite to the air. We sat mostly silent, near a bluff overlooking waves washing against the shores of our long-ago home, and a time when things had been, well, somehow simpler.

She’d managed nevertheless to hold court that day on the bluff, smiling at strangers and other well-heeled dogs passing by. She’d greeted them all with her same mischievous quirk of a laugh. She still had it; even then in the early stages of “not knowing,” she was indeed unforgettable. The strangers flowed past us like water, many drawn to her without even knowing it.

My time with Mom that day was beginning to grow short, as time always does. Yes, all of my days with her were running out. I could do little now but pray for her safety, and hope the memory of a beautiful beach day wouldn’t fade too quickly. Such would not be the case, as later that same day – after I had gone – she wondered to my stepfather when “the doctor” might come back to take her for another drive.

Yvonne (Lee) (Record) Guerry 1935-2018

Notes

[1] A play on the words of Bart Simpson, The Simpsons, “Lemon of Troy,” a television cartoon originally broadcast 14 May 1995: “I know you are, but what am I?”

[2] Let’s make a Deal,  a television program presented by Monte Hall, first aired 30 December 1963.

[3] Arthur R. “Pop” Momand, “Keeping up with the Joneses,” comic strip, The New York World, 1913–40.

Jeff Record

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

18 thoughts on “Unforgettable

  1. I traveled a similar road this year. Even as reality slips into less of their life and today never comes it’s hard to accept.

  2. Thank you for your beautifully written essay. I also slowly watched my mother fade away due to Alzheimer’s Disease. It was the most difficult five years of my life. The heartbreaking memories of her still bring tears to my eyes.

  3. Thank you for sharing part of your journey with your mother. I went through similar episodes with 3 family members – my father and 2 of my mother’s sisters. They were each diagnosed simply with “dementia” – their symptoms did not fit neatly into any specific “disease”. I treasure the time I was able to spend with each of them, especially the brief glimpses of the personalities they had been.

  4. As I read your article, it brought me back to my experience with our mother. She, too, had dementia issues. After about 7 years and assisted living, she went to be with Jesus, and our father. She missed them both. As she would tell us so often, she knew that Dad was not far away and he would be returning to her soon. Their love was one that was perfect in every way. I have no doubt that there is a special dance hall in heaven just for the Greatest Generation.

  5. What if you are the one facing possible dementia? I go to a neurologist on Monday to check out why I am mistaking my delphinium for a Dalmatian some days and can’t remember other words. Is this the beginning? I’m 83 and a long way from done!

    1. Sylvia, I don’t know that you will see this note, but I have thought a lot about your question today. I can only speak from my experience with mom, but I will tell you this: As you think about your “Delphiniums” and your “Dalmatians,” and yes, even your Daffodils and Dichondra, consider that you are not mistaking anything at all – rather that your mind is one incredible and vast library, containing oodles and oodles of books and files – because you Sylvia know so many, many things. Consider only that you have learned all these wonderful things – more than what any one person might have easily been able to recall – even had they only been but 25.

      Sylvia, I sense that you are still sharp as a tack, and still very much 83 years young! You are far, far, from anywhere near “done.”

      Best regards,
      Jeff

  6. Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute to your mother. I too experienced “dementia” with my mother… she had Parkinson’s and her mind really started to fail when my father died. It took 4 years and the last time I saw her she couldn’t remember my name but knew I was her oldest daughter… she always thought that Dad was just down the hall taking a nap or out to the store buying cigarettes.

  7. So sorry for your loss and for your sad journey. Too many of us have been there and done that, although each story is just a little bit different.

  8. Oh Jeff, from another Mother Lode genealogist, that was so beautiful and touching. It brought back the slow death of my own parents. Thank you for bringing beauty to my day.

  9. I too, have traveled that long road. It’s just heartbreaking to see a once intelligent, verbal and kind person turn into something that is totally foreign to you. My mom also had what is called “Sundowners”. When the light of day began to fade so did the kind, loving person that we all knew to into a crass, hateful and mean person. Your essay touched my heart. I’m so sorry for your loss and that of all the others who have had to watch the horrid disease take their loved ones. I hope for a cure in my lifetime but at 69 I’m not sure I’ll see it.

  10. Jeff,

    What a beautifully written story, and tribute to your mother. Both my parents had dementia issues, though from different causes. My father’s was from chemo; he was 84. My mother’s diagnosis was Alzheimer’s. Years before she died (at 100 and 11 months), she’d chosen to participate in a university-sponsored research program. It involved an interview and physical every year. Her brain went to this program after her death, and they determined via autopsy that she had “advanced Alzheimer’s.” They also kept and froze some tissue for future analysis when research has improved. When I reported this to my own doctor, she asked me two questions: Could she call her four children by name more or less reliably? Yes. Was she bedridden before she died? Not until the day of her death, which came early in the morning. My doctor said that these and other responses meant that while she had dementia, it most probably wasn’t Alzheimer’s. One of the purposes of research like this is to distinguish the multiple types of dementia. At this point, there are at least 30 some different types. They’re all scary, and none of us wants them to happen to our parents, anyone else we love, or ourselves.

    Bless your mother and you for visiting her. And for sharing her story with us.
    Doris

  11. I was able to be close to my Mom as she began to fail, health wise as well as memory loss. My brother came to see her from out of state and after he left she told me of a nice young man who had visited her. She didn’t recognize her son. I never told him. It was hard enough for him to see her as she was then. Life can be a bummer.

    Linda

  12. Wow. Thank you. I really needed this today. I am the caregiver for my mom who has dementia. It’s tough, heartbreaking and lonely. Mom is getting worse and I too sometimes look for that magic book of spells, wondering if I am in denial or just putting on a suit of armor to cope with the inevitable. Tilting at windmills and angry at the world. Fighting for someone who perhaps doesn’t need or want to be fought for; just loved, accepted and allowed to be – in whatever form: “In reality, she had returned to what we all are in our purest form – innocent, without pretence.” So beautiful and so true.

    I am sorry for your loss.

    Anne

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