Soo and I met during our first year in college. We were dorm neighbors in that time most memorable: the first months away from home. I was barely 18, toggling between life stages, both kid and adult. My dorm room attested to this: on one wall, I pinned a koala poster; next to that, a print advertising an art show.
Soo was sweet and kind. She laughed well and often. I admired her artistic talents, her effortless abilities with diverse media. A gifted potter, she made me a tea cup.
As often happens, time passed and we lost touch. When we reconnected, I was happy to see her side by side with Scott. His smile, frozen in a photo, matched Soo’s. The two were devoted parents to their two babies, a big sister and little brother.
I sent my daughter to spend a morning at Soo’s house early last summer, my not-quite-teenager needing some company for a few hours during her travels. My daughter taught the children a game she made up not long before: deciding if a described person was “real or fake”. Soo’s children jumped right in. Soo texted me a photo of her six year old’s handwritten scrawl: REAL OR FAKE?
Just over a month after that, Soo’s husband died suddenly.
An earlier traumatic brain injury had left him vulnerable to seizures, and one struck while Scott was swimming on a family vacation.
As another summer approaches, Soo and Scott would have celebrated sixteen years of marriage. Instead it has been almost a year now of soul-work of the most acute sort, the unquantifiable and unquenchable wrench of grief. Of loss.
Of the memory of love. Except that there is no memory of love. It knows no past tense. Their love was, and it is.
My parents, now 83 and 73 years old, both have dementia. Their common disability means that their interactions with each other are now addled by their confusion. Neither could report the season, much less the day. On a recent visit to their apartment where they live under my brother’s care, they both spent the entire time standing, shifting, pacing, as they together tried to decide when to leave for “home”. My father’s use of his same long-ago phrasing in his same long-ago inflection was striking. “I want you to be free to be who you are,” he told my mom, and then he shuffled, his steps slowed by the fact that he had removed his own shoelace entirely — and wrapped the lace around the locked front gate outside. I have been told that dementia patients are often looking for something — they just don’t know what. My father lamented, as he readied for this trip “home,” that he didn’t have his keys. My mother stared with little purpose or direction, just a sort of little-animal fright. “You’re the world to me,” he later told her, and she looked away, still searching.
This could be the sad, even pitiful exchange of two people who have lost themselves, two diseased individuals only lightly reminiscent of the thoughtful, well-read, well-liked people they once were. Or this could be all the truth that there ever needed to be in all the world.
In the earlier stages of her brain disease, my mother was at first like a trapped bird, wings flailing, pecking at the snare. Now she is past the battle, that storm quieted. This has all evolved with my father at her side, he too unable to reflect upon their situation, too distant to remember a detail of anything, too far into the pathology to generate my name. Yet he still knows that he is the love of her life, and she of his. He has forgotten what a remote control is for, but he knows that she is his center.
So while I might weep over the cruelty of a particularly trying disease, or steel myself against the declines that only continue, I might also be grateful that there is no memory of love. There is only love. And so for Soo as this most bittersweet of anniversaries passes, there is love. And in my parents’ side-by-side trials, their dual journeys most vulnerable, there is yet love. One can lose one’s understanding, one’s perspective on place and time, one’s stride or even one’s very life, but there is, assuredly, still love.