In December 2009, I moved in all alone to my very first apartment. Most of the neighbors in the portion of apartment complexes I live in are very chummy with each other, knowing each other for years and even family members. Maybe surprisingly, I kept mainly to myself with only making friendly and surface chit chat when needed. The one person I could not keep to myself from (even when I tried) was Joe.
Let me tell you about Joe. Joe was like the security guard of our apartment complex. He was in his late 70’s when I first met him and he greeted people with his wide gap-toothed grin, caterpillar grayed moustache, and tufts of white hair that stuck up everywhere. He always called out my name with a booming and lilting: “MAAARRRYYYY!!!” He would belt to my friends who visited me, “Do you know that Mary is the best???” Joe would also grill and drill my friends as to who they were and me as to where I was going and when I would be back home. He was like my surrogate grandfather always watching out for me and others. After my hip replacement, Joe and I became particularly close and was one of the extremely few neighbors I turned to after the surgery to walk with me. In his scuffed and torn sandals, he said softly, “You are so nice to keep company to an old man as me.” I would well up and respond as I struggled walking with him after my hip replacement, “Joe, I am the lucky one. Thank you for walking with me.”
As my hip improved and I was back to daily life, I rarely saw Joe because the routine and time crunch of having to do all the things you have to do doesn’t allow you to really stop and step back for a moment to enjoy the then and there. I began to suspect that something may have been wrong with Joe when I would catch him huddled in his car in the freezing cold just reading a book. I first felt a jolt of trepidation of Joe when he had rapped insistently on my car door just when I was driving out, causing me to nearly hit him with my car. I rolled down the window, frightened and said: “Joe, you scared me to death! Are you OK? I nearly ran you over!”
The expression on his face made me freeze with fear. His bright blue eyes were dull and he looked confused as to who I was and questioned hesitatingly: “Mary?”
“Yes, Joe, it’s me, Mary,” I said carefully.
His face contorted back to his familiar and friendly self and he said jovially, “I’m sorry I scared you. Drive safely.”
My heart was pounding. It was like Joe was there, but not there. I made a mental note to myself to try to get a hold of his wife who I rarely saw to check if he was ok. But, what I meant to do, I never did. The months went by and the seasons changed and Joe was still there in the back of my mind. Especially, when he was never there to greet anyone anymore. He seemed to have vanished into thin air. I wondered if he had died, but I did not have his home number and I felt strange knocking on the door to speak with his wife who I did not know well at all.
A few months ago, I finally bumped into his wife in our parking lot. I could immediately tell and feel that something was wrong from her stooped shoulders and her sad face. I braced myself for the worst to hear that Joe had died, but she stunned me when she said: “Joe is in the nursing home.”
His wife went on to explain in shuddered despair about how her and Joe had been married for over 40 years and he was no longer the man he remembered because he was having trouble remembering and had become difficult and even volatile at times. It is often easier to talk to the unfamiliar than the overly familiar as she was confessing to me.
She appeared exhausted and in tears when she shared, “I don’t know if I made the right decision putting him in the nursing home.”
I said slowly and pensively, “I don’t think we ever know if we made the right or wrong decision in life. I think we make the best decision we possibly can when experiences in life forces us to. We are only human, and can only do the best we can. Be kind to yourself.”
How strange that I was learning that Joe was losing his mind when he was more on my mind than ever before. There is nothing more frightening to me than to lose my mind. I can handle my body betraying me, but I cannot even fathom the thought of my mind turning on me with lost memories and moments to not even knowing who I am anymore, who I became from what happened in life, or who I was to begin with.
I hugged Joe’s wife as hard as I could. An ache formed inside of me for both of them. I started to remember my times with Joe, making me miss him and hurt so much that I could cry. Yet, I thought, how beautiful and wonderful that I can remember and hold on to the memories of Joe. Remembering can hurt like hell, but not remembering is crushing in that you can only live in a body but no longer in your mind that has become your worst enemy and most lethal bully.
Recently, his wife came to me and asked, “Would you come to visit Joe with me sometime? I showed him all the pictures of our neighbors. The only person he remembers is you.”
“Me?” I sputtered. I was shocked, flattered, and extremely intrigued that Joe remembered me. What did he remember about me? Did he remember what I remembered?
On a beautiful autumn day with the dance of crimson and golden leaves twirling and swirling around us in a gentle and sweet breeze, his wife and I drove up to the nursing home. His wife made small talk and said more than once, “It means a lot that you are coming here with me.”
“It means a lot that you are letting me come with you,” I said.
She paused, “He has his good days and bad days. Please don’t be offended if he doesn’t remember you or if he is not as you remember him.”
It was funny and interesting to me when I hear people say that they want to be remembered a certain way—and usually in the best way, brightest light, and happiest of demeanors. I think we all wish to be remembered for our best rather than our worst, but if it wasn’t for the bad and worst memories of us and us remembering the bad and the worst then how would we come to value the treasured and happy memories? How would we ever learn? How would we develop compassion and kindness if it wasn’t for the painful and most hurtful of memories of people at their weakest and most vulnerable points that they may not want to be remembered?
In my mind, I replayed my dear and treasured memories of Joe. The memories were even more vivid as we walked the shiny corridors to where his room was. He was in a locked and clamped fetal position when we first went in the room. I was immediately cautious, uncertain, and scared, but told myself that I would be okay with however Joe would be in whatever way he would be in—whether he remembered me or not and depending on what he remembered of me or what he didn’t remember of me. This was all about Joe and what he remembered. This had nothing to do with me.
Although he was an old man, he looked like a sweet and sleeping baby in the bed. He only looked a little older. His eyes fluttered open at us. Those same child-like and innocent eyes that welcomed everyone with such warmth and joy. I knew this was Joe. The Joe I remembered.
He sat up slowly and blinked a few times to look at me and then broke into his signature gap-toothed smile and exclaimed: “Mary!”
I could not believe he remembered me. More than that, I was shocked that he was the Joe I remembered with greeting everyone in the nursing home in his friendly and happy way. It was a quiet and simple afternoon of him eating green beans and mashed potatoes in the company of his newfound friends and life.
At the end of his meal, he looked to his wife like a little boy and asked: “When am I going home with you again?”
His wife paused and said, “Remember what we spoke about that this is your new home. Do you remember that Joe?”
He did not say anything. I had a feeling he remembered, but he did not want to say this memory aloud as the reality was too raw and real. I felt the sting of sadness for both of them in that moment in time, wondering if they were replaying and remembering moments in their over 40 years of marriage. I rewound to another memory with his wife saying to me in the car before we arrived here at the nursing home: “He asks me when he is coming home. I used to lie to him and say ‘soon, Joe, soon.’ Now, I can’t lie anymore. It isn’t right and fair to him or to me.” When she said that to me, I thought most people want you to say what they want to hear anyway.
I was overcome by how powerful the mind and memories are to making us who we are. What would you do or how could you function if your mind betrayed you? What was your earliest memory? What distinct memories do you have that have formed you? Are there certain memories you would wipe out if you could? What would you like to be remembered for? How do you want to be remembered?
When we went back to Joe’s room and his wife and were about to leave, he smiled so bright so that his mustache curved up: “Mary, thank you so much for coming.”
I looked down at him. I grasped his smooth and gnarled hands. He seemed so young and old to me at the same time. I thought how fragile he was and how we all our and how we just needed a bit more kindness and patience in this world and life. People are so scared and terrified of pain and sadness when they are what brings us and brings out great kindness, beauty, love, and compassion.
“I hope to visit again.”
“That would be great,” Joe said.
Joe’s grip squeezed my hand harder. I asked him, “Can I give you a hug?”
His eyes lit up. “Of course!”
He reached up to me and I leaned down to him to give him a gentle embrace.
I was so sad and happy to have this memory and time with Joe and all the moving moments and memories with people to make me who I am today and going forward. I am thankful to remember.
Keep smilin’ until we meet again,