Here’s how it goes when my uncle answers the phone, “Hi, Ralph, it’s Robert, how’s it going?” “Oh, good, I was just shaving.” That’s what he’s been saying to me for about 8 months now since he was separated from his wife and moved into a facility for people with Alzheimer’s. Always with the shaving, no matter the time of day. Now, it’s possible that he IS shaving, I’m not saying he’s not, but what I expect is that he’s not shaving, but it is something he remembers doing and it seems conversational. He’s always willing to talk though and I imagine him standing there with the phone to one ear, smudged with shaving cream and a wet razor in the other hand dripping water onto the floor by the phone in the kitchen (or wherever he has it.)
I haven’t seen him since he and his wife, Marie (number two — I adore her,) moved away from their home in Santa Barbara to be closer, first to her children, but then when it became apparent that Marie could not handle his spiraling dementia (downward, downward,) that his son (my cousin) came & took him back to Rapid City to live in a residential facility that works with and cares for those so afflicted.
It’s been a wrenching few months; Marie completely despondent over the loss; Ralph, at first, angry & threatening to “get on a bus” and go back to (not Marie) but California, but gradually accepting the change & settling into a routine of daily walks (he’s not gotten lost yet, Rapid City is his hometown after all.) But I worry.
I worry that all that’ll be left of him (and eventually me) is just, nothing. How can that be? After a life well-lived, to have nothing (not even your memory) survive you. (I’ll leave the dynamics of his and my relationship with his son for another time, but know that there is no love lost — although there is some confusion on my part; I mean, we’re in our 50s for god’s sake, what could possibly be so wrong about who I am at this point in his life?)
<Deep sigh> Regardless, without the accolades of a life in the limelight, we’re not even a footnote to the times. As individuals we end our lives a part of a historical trend as reviewed 100 years from now. Ick (it’s the best word I could come up with to describe my feelings right now–not dissertation worthy, I know, but that’s nothing I’ll ever have to worry about.) We have our little memory-starters (photos, tschotkes,) but those only matter to a few of us & when we’re gone, they’re just a problem for those left behind. It’s not like we’re leaving a Mona Lisa or a War and Peace behind us (at least not yet.)
But does the now of our lives have any meaning or will only its past as seen through the scrim of time & judged by strangers resonate with a future generation? All this typing & photoshopping & digital legerdemain as ephemeral as gossamer wings, but here we (I) sit, moving my 8 fingers & 2 thumbs along a keyboard, letters appearing like the ace of hearts in the hand of a off-street Las Vegas magician (an occasional flub, backspace) & presto! words appear their meaning unclear until the entire thought is expressed, if ever.
& all these thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, photographs, drawings, scribblings, mementos, detritus from this life, what are they if not an attempt to leave something behind, something that says I lived for something, I meant something to someone, somehow defying ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
My uncle does not live for the future any longer. He only lives in the moment, the past unclear & appearing unbidden & inconveniently causing confusion and anger (without being able to question it.) My story will end with me. The accumulation of my history with its family, friends, memories, will end with me. That is a fact I can live with.