VISITING MARTHA: A BELOVED FRIEND with ALZHEIMERS-Memoirabilia Podcast #24
VISITING MARTHA: A BELOVED FRIEND with ALZHEIMERS
by Nancy Gufstafson
originally published by Telling Our Stories Press, 2012 as part of
“So Long: Short Memoirs of Loss and Remembrance”
In Memoirabilia Podcast #24, I am delighted to share with you a beautiful memoir about Nancy Gustafson’s dear friend, Martha, who succumbed to Alzheimers. Nancy’s narrative and poetry moved me on the deepest levels, the way a good memoir should. It’s not possible to print the entire transcript here so you will need to listen to the Podcast by clicking on the player above. I hope you will do that as this is a memoir written by a writer who doesn’t know just how good she is. I hope your comments will encourage her to write more.
Martha’s face is a portrait of agitation, her mouth quivering, her eyes squinted. I am determined to remain peaceful as she rubs her thumb roughly across my lips. She draws a harsh hand across my forehead, then presses her palm into my cheek while she grits her teeth. I wonder if it is anger that contorts her face, and remember that she is prone to pinch.
Martha steers her index finger toward my eyes. I have the advantage, since she is tied in her wheelchair with a silk scarf. Still, I want to pull away, wary of a jab. Instead, I close my eyes and force myself to lean closer. She touches my eyelid gently, and I begin to relax. When we are nearly nose-to-nose, her mood transmutes from lion to lamb. She rests her hands in her lap, her shoulders slacken, face softens.
Martha pats my hair back from my forehead, harshly at first, then gently, over and over and over, as she must have done to comfort her babies. I study her expression as it changes from unfathomable to mellow. When she begins to weep, I cradle her in my arms and kiss her cheeks while she tells me about her pain.
“It’s v –v –v , so so so m-m-m, an m-m-m.”
I wipe her tears. “Yes, it is awful, Martha. I know. Tell me some more about it.”
We are cheek-to-cheek now, looking the same direction, picturing her agonies: loss of a husband and son, her independence and finally, her mind. I wonder whether thoughts and memories she can’t communicate are still swimming around in her brain or if they have all sizzled like bacon.
“It’s v-v-vono-vono, mare, mare, so-so-so.”
When her story is repeated enough times that the emotional edge wears off and her tears dry up, I unwrap a gift, a prayer shawl I crocheted, and drape it around Martha’s shoulders. A caregiver scuttles across the room to rescue the shawl. She begins to pull it away from Martha’s clutching fingers. “Oh, don’t leave it on her, she chews on everything now…”
(The Podcast continues with the rest of Nancy’s story and concludes with this poem):
Maker of miracles, have mercy
on her tangled brush of brain,
that witch’s garden, labyrinth
of snarls and thunderclaps.
Her memories lie as ashes
among the choking vines, and she
cannot recount her deeds for judgment.
Will You stand up for her?
She speaks no reasoned word
does not recall her name,
Your name or mine. Summon
her withered life – rhizome to iris.
When all that remains is spirit
remember Your promise, cultivate
weeds into angels’ trumpets,
a garden for her in Heaven.