The Memory Unit
Aunt Jo lives in the memory unit of a retirement home outside of Knoxville. It’s new, spacious, with a little café that sells snacks, a cafeteria with menus like a restaurant, and polished hardwood floors. It’s clean, smells good, and is associated with a church next door, where residents can go to Sunday services if they want. Employees in this retirement home are cheerful and stand up straight. If you have to live in a memory unit, this is the one you’d choose. A memory unit, ironically, is for people losing their memory. The memory unit has double-lock doors to prevent unsupervised wandering. The memory unit is supposed to be a safe place to lose your mind.
After Uncle Art’s death, when Aunt Jo was still in her North Carolina home, I’d phone her from time to time, or she’d phone me to hear a friendly voice and because “she wanted to stay close to the Wilson family.” She described an active life – walking a couple of miles every morning in her neighborhood, a quilting group at church. She’d ask about University of Kentucky basketball. That was a thing in the Wilson family, UK basketball, and when she’d married a Wilson, she’d married that, too. Waving the flag for Big Blue in Tar Heel Country takes nerve, but Aunt Jo relished the confrontation, rubbing their noses in it when UK beat North Carolina, taking her lumps when it was the other way around. I’d send her the season preview and phone to let her know game times and the right TV channels. Then, she started phoning back because she couldn’t remember the time or channel. This forgetting didn’t seem noteworthy at the time.
One day, I receive a call from Aunt Jo announcing that she’s sold the house and moved into a retirement home in Knoxville. She tells me it’s because she can’t mow the yard anymore. As we talk, it comes out that her next-door neighbor, who looked out for her, moved away. Regardless, she’s in Knoxville. She gives me the address.
I and other Wilson cousins decide to visit her, a half-day road trip. She’s happy to see us. She talks about missing Art, proudly displays her golfing trophies, and acts the hostess. There are used tissues, magazines, a bag of candy, and other evidence of living. Embroidered throw pillows are scattered across her bed, too many for the space, mismatched memories she’s not ready to let go. She tells us she circles the retirement home two times each day for exercise. She points outside her first floor window where, instead of a garden, remarkably, there is a putting green. She says she can practice putting whenever she likes. We work with her TV to identify the channel UK games will likely be on once basketball starts up again. She writes down the channel on the back of an envelope so she won’t forget. We give her homemade chocolate chip cookies, pose for pictures. She walks us to the double door exit that a nurse unlocks to let us out. Aunt Jo waves goodbye from behind the glass. We wave back, ignore the handful of old men and women who sit outside in wheelchairs and stare with vacant eyes like scarecrows.
After that first visit, things begin to change. The next time I phone, Aunt Jo says she’s making a will, that her lawyer wants a list of her nieces and nephews, i.e., me and my cousins. She asks for my help. I list everyone over the phone, but she can’t remember what I say. After the call, I write out a family tree and mail it to her. Next time I phone, she doesn’t remember that the Wilson cousins have ever visited her. Not only that, but she says Beth, her cousin by blood who lives in Knoxville, who got Jo placed in the retirement home, who manages Jo’s affairs, never visits. I tell cousin Betty what Aunt Jo said, and Betty, who’s in regular contact with Beth, says Beth visits every day. Aunt Jo just doesn’t remember.
Another time, she phones for advice. She’s thinking of buying a car so she can drive to the house in Atlanta, but worries she’ll need a Tennessee driver’s license. I don’t press her about why she wants to drive to Atlanta. It’s where she and Art lived decades ago, before the move to North Carolina. I encourage her to feel daunted by the Tennessee driver’s license question. We both agree her plan to buy a car is impractical. We’ll repeat this conversation the next time she calls.
The Wilson cousins organize another visit. During this second visit, Aunt Jo is like a spinning top that’s starting to teeter. She remembers us, but not with certainty. She has trouble placing who goes with whom (am I Larry’s son or Johnny’s boy?). She thanks us for coming to visit, doesn’t remember that we’ve visited before. She asks about our parents. We tell her they’ve been dead for many years. She keeps returning to which of us is the child of whom, as if she’s trying to draw a family tree in her head. Now and then she’ll circle back to who’s alive or dead, unsure whether she’s confused or we are. She says she doesn’t know which channel UK basketball is on and the staff won’t tell her. But she’s still Aunt Jo, and when she hugs me, she feels the same as she did when I was a little kid.
In the car, and later at Cracker Barrel, we don’t discuss the change in Aunt Jo, maybe just a sentence or two. Wilsons are notoriously tight-lipped about their feelings, and besides, nothing needs explaining. Mamaw, who lived to be 101, spent decades not knowing who any of us were. Alzheimer’s took Uncle John, too. Dementia is an old family friend. A cousin asks me if my dad was showing any symptoms of dementia before he died. I say I don’t think so. But within seconds, I recall events that, in hindsight, suggest he was.
After the second visit visit, the waters around Aunt Jo get choppier. One day she phones me, alarmed, says that staff at the retirement home claim that her husband is dead. She insists it can’t be true, says Uncle Art brought her to the retirement home in Knoxville and will be coming back to live there with her. But she doubts herself, so she asks me, as someone she trusts, “Did Art die?” I confirm he did, describe the funeral at Pisgah Church, and the military salute, a row of guns firing to honor the Bronze Star Uncle Art earned in World War II. That detail seems to convince her, not necessarily because she remembers but because it makes sense. It will not be the only time we have this conversation. In later versions, she will suspect the retirement home kidnapped Uncle Art.
My phone call connection with Aunt Jo begins to disintegrate Sometimes when I phone, she sounds despondent. Sometimes she doesn’t pick up, then later explains she has two phones and doesn’t know which one is ringing. Sometimes she leaves a message, calling out my name. I phone back. She doesn’t remember phoning me.
Then she stops picking up at all. I try to get through by phoning the retirement home to connect me to her room. Turns out, the retirement home has taken her phone away. She kept calling 911 to report that the retirement home did something to her husband and the police got tired of it. The Wilson cousins confer, and we organize another trip. I say, “before it’s too late.” Others say, “if it’s not already.”
We make our final visit. Aunt Jo is in the big dining room at a table with two other women. A nurse introduces us, explains to Aunt Jo that we are her nephews and niece. The fact that the nurse knows she has to explain this speaks volumes. Although Aunt Jo keeps a straight face, I can tell she’s terrified, as if we are the police who have arrived to arrest her for a crime she doesn’t remember committing. The women she’s eating with have zombie eyes. They ignore us and continue to eat their lunch. The nurse suggests that we all go to Aunt Jo’s room and visit. This is the nurse’s way of telling Aunt Jo what is appropriate to the situation.
Aunt Jo’s room seems sparser than it was the first time we visited. There are fewer corny throw pillows and knick-knacks that say Aunt Jo. We tell her who we are, invoke the names of our parents and their relation to Uncle Art. No light bulb goes off in Aunt Jo’s head. Nothing reflects back in the mirror of her eyes. But she accepts our claims – what else can she do? When everyone says you’ve lost your marbles, the only option is to play with theirs. I feel how hard it must be for her. I remember what Mamaw said to me once, near the end. I’m sorry. I know I’m supposed to remember who you are, but I don’t.
Nonetheless, we visit. The cousins and I fill the room with words that conjure up our lives. We comment on the verifiable, physical part of hers. I see Aunt Jo trying to piece it all together, our names, the names of other people who must exist because we talk about them. Sometimes she repeats back what she’s learned to see if she’s getting it right. When it’s her turn to talk, she reminisces about living at her stepfather’s farm in Western Kentucky and a doll house he built for her to live in. I have no idea if any of it’s true, but the first time she tells the story her eyes shine as if the memories are vivid. But as the visit continues, snatches of the story degenerate into lifeless memes she repeats in a loop, as if she’s fallen asleep beside a turntable where the record keeps skipping.
We and Aunt Jo soldier on through the rest of the visit, like children pretending to have a tea party. When we rise to leave, we hug her. And though she doesn’t feel like Aunt Jo, has no idea who we are, she feels our love. She hugs us back. Her hug is genuine. Love doesn’t need a mind. For love, there’s no such thing as a stranger.