With fists, with words, with kindness
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My beloved is losing his memories.
“Try to write,” I tell him. “It helps. Then the memories become something you’ve written, and then they are the truth.”
“I can’t write anymore,” he says. “I can’t put more than two sentences together.”
I take his hands and place them on my waist, spinning and rocking him around the kitchen. “You can still dance,” I say. “You still remember how to do this.”
“Tell me your memories,” I say one morning, “and I will write them for you. We will remember them together.”
“I want to remember the night I took you dancing in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I remember the Italian restaurant we went to first, and the tiny glass of almond liqueur they gave us after we finished eating. I remember our waiter had a white mustache.”
I take out a piece of paper, and across the top I write, “Buenos Aires, dancing, December 1982.”
He has stopped talking, so I fill in: “I wore red lipstick and a fringed shawl, and you wore a shirt the color of butterflies.”
“What is the color of butterflies?” he asks, and I think, Oh, once you knew. Once you knew.
“The color of the butterflies we chased in our canoe down the Amazon River,” I say. “They were big and blue, and they changed in the light, and they led us for miles. We didn’t know if we’d ever get back.”
“Yes, yes,” he says. “I want to remember that too.”
So I take out another piece of paper, and I write across the top, “Brazil, butterflies, 1981.”
“We tried learning to tango,” I say, “but we weren’t any good, so we just danced like we always do, even though the band played only tangos.”
“Yes!” he cries. “And then outside we ran into the Venezuelan woman I thought was so beautiful, the camerawoman who was working on my movie.”
“Oh, I remember her. I grabbed your arm and pulled you close while she spoke to us, and I laughed too loudly. What did she look like? Describe her to me.”
“I don’t remember,” my beloved tells me, “but I no longer think she’s beautiful.”
“How do you know?” I ask, but he doesn’t answer.
We go on like this for days until we have a shoe box full of his memories, and then another. He seems happier, I think, while I am writing.
I keep the boxes on top of the refrigerator, and sometimes, when he goes to get ice from the freezer for his gin, he stops and stares at them as if they were an animal crouched there and he didn’t want to startle them. I have to go and take the empty glass from his hand and gently close the freezer door.
“What is a person without memories?” he asks me in bed after I turn out the lights. “What am I without my memories?”
“You are this,” I tell him, and I kiss the left side of his chest.
“That’s nothing,” he says. “That’s skin and blood and bone.”
“I knew a woman once,” I start to tell him.
“You didn’t know her.”
“How did you know a woman once, and I didn’t know her?” He smiles at me in the dark.
I swat his arm with the back of my hand. “I knew a woman once, and she worked with people who had Alzheimer’s. She was a dancer, a former ballerina —”
“Now I really can’t believe you didn’t introduce me to her!”
“Oh, be quiet. Anyway, when she retired from dancing, she worked with Alzheimer’s patients. She tried to teach them movement, but most of them couldn’t get up from their chairs, so they would raise their arms, make ballerina arms.”
I show him what I mean, curving both arms up until my fingers almost meet, and he says, “Yes, yes, ballerina arms. I know what that is.”
“But the only way they could remember to do it was if they sang the same word over and over. And she asked them what word they wanted to sing, and they all agreed on shalom. That was the word they all wanted to say. She was curious about it, so she asked them, ‘Are you all Jewish?’ They had no idea. She asked the nurses, who said, ‘No, no, maybe one of them is Jewish, but the rest — they just don’t care anymore. They will go to any church or mosque or house of worship. Most of them used to be religious, but they just don’t care anymore.’ This thing that was an essential part of their identity was just . . .” And I raise my arms in a wide circle, singing, “Shalom.”
We keep going. Day after day we write his memories. It’s harder for me to help with the ones from before we met, but still I write them. He tells me everything he can remember, and the rest I fill in from the stories he’s told me in the past.
He used to be such a storyteller. I remember once in Bavaria, where we were filming a movie (I say “we,” though I only watched and nodded my approval when it was done, but once he told me that he would never make another film if I did not nod at the end of the previous one, so I say “we”) — that night in Bavaria we sat in a restaurant till four in the morning with the German film crew, and my beloved told stories from his childhood in Florida. The crew was rapt, imagining the unimaginable wild beasts and the dripping heat of the mangrove swamps, hearing the coos of the tiny burrowing owls and the haughty laugh of the Cuban woman who came to smoke cigarettes with his mother and deride Castro on the screened porch while heavy moths flung themselves against the screens. My beloved made these northern-European men see it all, hear it all, smell it all.
He starts these stories now, but he cannot finish them. He starts to talk about his high-school English teacher, the one who first showed him a Godard film, sealing his fate (and mine), but he cannot remember the man’s name or the name of the film.
I remember, and what I do not remember I invent.
“I want it to be the truth!” he insists when I tell him I have written that three alligators came into his backyard when he was small, and he would go out and feed them chicken bones, shutting the back door quietly so that his tipsy mother would not find out what he was up to. I have written that there were three alligators, but I cannot remember if he said there were two or three, and my beloved does not remember the alligators at all, or the chicken bones, or his tiny, breakable child’s body.
“I want these memories to be exactly as my life was. I want these boxes to be full of the truth of me,” he says.
“What’s the difference?” I reply. “Is there really such a thing as truth when it comes to what happened in the past? It doesn’t exist anymore, either way.”
Then one day he is done. “I’m out of memories,” he tells me. So that night we go to the movies and hold hands in the dark.
Chloë Gladstone’s short story “Buenos Aires, Dancing, December 1982” [December 2011] is moving and magical. She captures, in barely more than a page, the love and acceptance of a strong, caring wife as Alzheimer’s takes over her husband’s mind. I have shared her story with our staff at Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay, and all were captivated by Gladstone’s ability to describe the circumstances they see and work with every day.