For eight months, I visited a family just a few miles away. The elderly matriarch had been admitted to Hospice for “failure to thrive,” although the wealth of services and support for her and her family had caused her to energize quite a lot. Her caregiver was her 64-year-old son, a magnanimous, intelligent and outspoken man, who had returned home several years ago to care for her and his brother. The younger brother, a Down’s syndrome man of 55 named Larry, was threatening to me on the first visit, but friendly after that. He asked for hugs often and on several occasions, inquired if I was single. He would then point conspiratorially at his brother, trying to set us up. “Oh, Larry,” said Ed. “She’s taken.” I always smiled at Larry, touching him on his rounded shoulder, saying, “Thanks for thinking of me.”
When Larry was born, the doctors told Peg and her husband to institutionalize him immediately. They said he would never walk or talk. Her husband Ed said, “If he won’t walk or talk, he can do that in our home.” They nurtured him and fought to have him included in regular school classes. They created Special Olympic programs in which Larry was a wrestling champion. His brother said that he has no agenda, which also means he has no guile. And, like a little child, he is easily distracted with an offer to watch TV or by simply changing the subject. A kind word, a smile and a hug go a long way with him.
Peg was frail but feisty, obviously a strong character. She was always happy to see me, and wanted to talk. Once she worried that she may be boring, but I assured her that hearing about her life was fascinating. I asked questions about her childhood, her marriage, children, and work. She had worked in insurance agencies and for the FBI during the World War II. She was a member of the Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary, and told me about marching in the middle of the street late at night, after drinking through their meeting. She was interested in me as well, and I entertained her with stories of my children, of weddings, travel. When I went away, I sent back chatty emails for Ed to read to her. She liked to read, and said she was leaving all her books to a friend, dust and all.
I asked her if she would like to “write” a book, and scribbled as she narrated. She told me about her mother, who generously helped a family in need only to glance up in a mirror and find the woman stealing her rings. She told me about a boy who stole her tricycle and threw a “clinker” at her. When I asked her to define “clinker,” she started to answer, then looked at me sharply. “Girl, don’t you know ANYTHING,” she snapped. We both burst out laughing.
Even as she and her sparse white hair grew thinner, even when she remained in bed, she would tell me another story for our “book.” Ed gave me photographs to scan; there was a picture in a striped bathing costume, inner tube around her waist. There were dozens of pictures of her with girlfriends in Washington in front of an apartment building where they lived. They wore shirtwaist dresses, coats with fur collars, shorts and peter pan collars. They sat on blankets at picnics, next to men in uniforms. Unable to see the tiny faded black and white photos, she identified most of the girls as “Helen who lived in Iowa.” It didn’t matter really; what mattered were the stories.
Memory is impressionistic. Events imprint themselves on our psyches along with the emotion and years later, it is hard to separate fact from feeling. Peg knew that she had friendship and fun with these women; naming them correctly was not important. Capturing a few of her memories was also impressionistic, because time shifted for her as well. She would start to tell me a story of her childhood, then turn to her son to ask him about it. “Ed, remember when we…” she would query. “That wasn’t me, Mom,” he responded. I told her the problem was that she had too many Eds. Her father, husband, son, son-in-law, grandson…No one could keep all those Eds straight!
Peggy died peacefully, with her daughter next to her. Despite Ed’s diligent care or perhaps because of it, she waited until he left the house for a rare errand. I arrived an hour later, and Larry wailed when he saw me. “My mother’s dead!” he cried. “Can I have a hug?”
The Life of Peggy was collaged into a spiral notebook, along with photographs. I arranged impressionistically, organizing it under titles: My Father, My Mother, FBI. I brought it to the funeral home and left it on a table for people to see. “Do you want to see my mother? I can’t believe she’s dead,” said Larry, holding my hand. I patted him on the shoulder and told him how much she loved him. His eyes filled with tears. I thanked the family for allowing me in to their lives, gave Larry one more hug, and left.