A dear friend, Harmer, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is living, if we can call it that, on a locked floor in a nursing home. Before I moved out of the city and he was moved to the home, I frequently visited him and his wife, my old high school friend, Judy, on Friday nights. We'd have take-out dinner together, chat, and play with their cat. The sorrow of witnessing a steady decline in mental faculties was ever present in our conversation and goodbye hugs. When I left I wondered if Harmer would recognize me the next time I arrived, but this was a small, private concern compared to that of his wife and three children. Our ties have always been close, almost like family. Harmer and Judy's eldest grew up with our daughter. They went to the same nursery school, played together, kept in touch.
Harmer is British, originally from Faversham, near Canterbury, and when we lived in London, before our children were born, we saw Harmer and Judy when they stayed with his family, usually in the summer. His parents were warm, lovely people, and we enjoyed every moment of our visits with them.
There is so much to say about this beautiful man; my memory box is overflowing. I don't want to talk about him in the past tense, not yet, though I know that his verbal acuity is fading fast, and that a memory box is, by definition, in the past tense, even when the person is still alive in body, and in spirit, too, because I do believe that even in this fading away an essence of a person survives that we can continue to feel and cherish.
Harmer was a writer as well as a well-known, highly regarded auctioneer and art appraiser. What happens to a writer who loses language? I can't think about this question, it is too terrifying. I never knew Harmer "scribbled," as he called it, until I mentioned I was forming a writer's group. He joined for a while and we shared work over lunch from time to time. We talked about our manuscripts, we talked about our children, we talked about the political landscape, we talked about the environment. Harmer was "environmentally conscious," before anyone else I knew was environmentally conscious. We went on a whale watch together with our kids and I learned, quickly, that the dolphins were endangered by tuna nets and that the oceans were polluted. Harmer was more of a guide and mentor on that voyage than the captain of the ship who spent the hours we were at sea blasting cheerful ephemera into the loudspeaker.
Empathetic, cultivated, thoughtful, charming, a gentle man, a gentleman, rarely careless of others that I can ever recall, a tennis player, a collector of Olympic memorabilia, an avid reader, a scribbler, a devoted father and husband and son and brother.
I was determined to see him in the nursing home, though I dreaded the concept of a locked floor, however necessary, however protective, as Alzheimer's patients wander. Still, it felt like an incarceration to me. I hoped that Harmer would not know that it was a locked space, that he would already be so far gone that there would be no knowing this, no understanding that he'd be alone in the dark at night far away from his loved ones.
It had been almost a year and Judy warned me that I might not recognize him, that he might not recognize me. We arrived during a chair exercise class, Harmer trying to follow along. He looked deceptively like the man I remembered, the man in my memory box, but he missed all the beats and raised his left hand instead of his right and his right hand instead of his left. We met him in his room, which Judy had painstakingly straightened and organized as we waited for his arrival from the class. His expression was gleeful as he saw me, or was that my imagination? We hugged. My first words were, "I've missed you, Harmer." And he replied, "I've missed you, too."
Later, as Judy spoke to a social worker, I sat next to Harmer, put my arm around his shoulders and said, " How are you feeling?" And he said, "I am feeling sad. I am feeling bored." And then we both began to cry. Over lunch at a local diner he tried to say my name, but had to be reminded. Sentences began and then drifted away; Judy completed them. He ate more than I had ever seen him eat and he told an odd story about staying in control of something that has happened. "Oh, so you can control it," I said. "Yes," he answered. He wasn't distraught, he was satisfied that I had understood.
On the way back, walking in the sunshine, enjoying the fresh air, he constantly veered to the right with his walker and we made a joke of it until, finally, he almost drifted into the street, oncoming cars rushing by, and we had to rescue him.
Outside the doors of every room, an enfiladed hallway, are small vitrines, family-made memory boxes for every resident of the home, reminders to their loved ones of who they used to be once upon a time, of what they looked like when young and hopeful. There is no future tense here, no becoming, no aspiration. The enfiladed hallway, the vitrines, are not memory boxes so much as memorials, sentinels on the way to a final resting place.