“Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” — Paul Simon
She was once smart enough to hold her own in conversation with her nuclear scientist husband.
I sit with her in the opulent dining room, for months now in disarray as she furtively “steals” candies from the tin she “found.” (He set it aside for her to discover, poorly hidden, before he left for work. “Let her have as much as she wants. Let her think she is fooling me,” he says, sadness in his eyes.)
“He hates me. He’s trying to kill me.”
She looks so haunted. She believes her words, though he cares for her with every ounce of his being, as he has since they met 25 years ago.
I know that her neshama is screaming inside of her, knowing the words she says are tricks her dementia plays on her.
I talk to her neshama, and ignore her body’s words. We both know they are sheker, lies. I choose to validate the soul, the only other adult in the room.
She used to be a renowned Hebrew teacher.
For an hour a week, we look through photos of her brother and husband and children.
Her grandchildren are complete mysteries to her; but her long-dead husband and the brother killed in the Shoah are as alive in her mind as if they could walk into the room at any moment.
Most days, she loves her daughters, but cannot always remember their names. The son who seldom visits has disappeared from the photos and the memory.
I ask her if I can take a book from the shelf.
“No, they won’t let you. This isn’t my apartment.”
She looks at the Filipina caregiver with distrust, and says to me conspiratorially, “She hates me. She’s trying to kill me.”
Of course, this is her apartment, and the caregiver shows every sign of trying very hard to care responsibly for this elderly and bitter Jewish woman.
Helpless and suspicious she sits, day after day in her sweet little apartment, feeling like a stranger among someone else’s memories.
I hear her neshama cry. I thank her neshama for being my teacher, and helping me to learn Hebrew.
He was a pretty savvy lawyer, and quite a wit.
Today, I run into him between the frozen vegetables and the exotic Scottish jam. He reaches out, affectionately grabbing my shoulder. Behavior foreign in our culture — but I let it pass.
“Are you here with your wife, or alone?” I ask this as conversationally as possible, masking my worry.
The Indian caregiver pokes his smile at me above the rice cakes. He waves, half-apologetic, half-informative.
“Good to see you!” I say to my old friend, relieved. “How are you?”
His face darkens. “It’s not good. She HATES me.”
He says it with such conviction. My heart is breaking, yet again, as I hear his neshama screaming: “Don’t believe this poor, demented wreck in which I’m trapped! I know how much she cares, how hard she works. I know that she sits with you sometimes with a broken heart, trying to make sense of her new life, of our new life. How I wish I could tell her…”
I tell him that she says good things to me about him when I see her, and that I love my husband, but I yell at him sometimes, too. (It’s not true that I yell at him; but it seems a reasonable lie.)
“She really loves you very much.”
He doesn’t believe me. But his neshama knows and is in a as much pain as is his dear wife.
As he and his caregiver wave goodbye, I choke back tears.
It always happens, and it’s not fair. Good, smart, kind people, stolen from themselves and from everyone around them.
I buy too much survival food: canned fish, cashews, almonds, chocolate bars, Scottish jams in reassuringly exotic flavors such as “Orange, Lemon & Ginger Marmalade,” “Rhubarb & Ginger Preserve,” “The Dundee Orange Marmalade.” I don’t even eat sugar anymore, but I buy them anyway.
I pray myself home to my husband, to hold him and to cry and to elegantly sneer at politics, and then to share a few words of Torah together.
Anything to remind myself that our neshamot still recognize each other.