Arthur Nead illustration
Someone told me that Alzheimer’s is the worst disease because you lose a person twice. I know when the second time was because of a call from the nursing home that came at 3:15 on a Sunday morning.
I will always wonder, though, about the first time. Was it during my last trip to the nursing home when her eyes seemed to be fixed on nothing in particular? Or was it a month earlier when she still seemed to recognize me but then phased into a monologue invoking relatives from her distant past? Was it in February when a stroke compounded her maladies? Or was it in October 2005, when she cried as she saw the mush that Hurricane Katrina had made of her home. She was still physically able then, but the memory was fading. There would have been mercy in that particular memory being the first to go.
A person’s life should not be remembered by how it ended but by how it was lived. A cousin who spoke at the services recalled that this particular life spanned the era when women were more often homemakers. They lived as fully as they could, though their opportunities were fewer. The obituary notice mentioned that her life has been affected at each end by floods. As a child growing up in central Louisiana, she and her family were refugees living in a Red Cross camp, forced there by the Great Flood of 1927. Then, near the end, there was Katrina.
She was a loving, saintly woman with only one known object of contempt in her life – and it was passionate. The scorn she felt for the magnolia tree that grew on the side of her house could drive her to tears. Its roots would break up the sidewalk and prevent the grass from growing. Its leaves fell, seemingly continuously, clogging the drains. Because the tree stood on the public side of the sidewalk no axe wielder was allowed to chop it down. She might have elicited the services of a professional tree assassin had I not prevailed out of fear of having to pay her bail.
Katrina did what the law did not allow and that was to eradicate the tree. That was, to her, the storm’s only benefit. The high water also destroyed a life’s worth of family photographs and documents. Surviving, however, was her classic recipe for mushroom rice. The dish would be recreated for a gathering after the funeral. Lost forever, I’m afraid, are the secrets for her signature cabbage rolls and her one-of-a-kind snap beans with pickled meat.
Cooking for others was a way of reaching out. The kitchen was her power base. The spatula was her scepter.
Had I known when I was going to lose her the first time, I might have spent more moments gathering memories and recording her speaking in that lyrical Louisiana French patois, but life moved too quickly.
My hope is that in her waning months, when her mind took her to other destinations, that they were joyful places where she got to revisit the friends and dreams of her youth. Among the few surviving photographs are some that show what a pretty young woman she was as she set out to build a life and a family. Those were happy times: There were no high waters then, and magnolias were safely in bouquets.