I remember you, she said

Finally, even memory is a scene of struggles.

There was an old woman who, in my memories, really loved two places. From her couch the daylight came in through three ancient windows, the sills lined with tchotchkes. Outside you saw a row of hemlock trees, a tumbling stone wall, some meadows in the distance, and a circular birdfeeder that attracted chickadees. In the afternoons she would lie down with her novels, which she read voraciously, as they took her far from herself, away from her house. She had trouble walking as she aged, and her memories had begun to slip away, not all, but quite a lot of them, a loss which made her feel ashamed. For the past few years, her ironic greeting had been this: “I remember you.” Her loss of memory bothered me intensely. But the novels, which she no longer purchased, but always borrowed from the public library, still carried her through her days.

In front of her kitchen (where most of us see the sky or maybe our neighbors’ houses), she kept a sunroom full of plants in terracotta pots. With long leaves like animal ears perking up. And if you went down among the plants, you could water them with mist, or pick a miniature orange that grew indoors, or look out from the plants at the garden. Outside the plant room were a step and a little walkway, and then there were rough stones amidst the little flowerbeds. In my tenuous memories she kept pansies, marigolds, lilacs, dogwood, roses.

One day she went out past her plants and was standing among her flowers when she fell, having had a stroke, and was taken away in an ambulance, and from there to a hospital, and then to a bigger hospital. After the stroke she kept living very softly for weeks, dependent on machinery and medicine. I saw her then, just once, but I didn’t know what to say, not to her, not to anyone else. Sometimes she moved her arm as if to tear out the breathing machine. I wanted to know what she felt. And I remember her spouse, lost and overwhelmed, hoping that she would still come home again.

“Do you think she’ll be able to read?” he asked us.

“There’s no way,” someone said.

“Well, the doctor said she couldn’t speak, but he didn’t say anything about not reading,” he said, with the most despairing hope I have ever seen.

But soon they turned the machines off, and she didn’t read again, nor look out through the ancient windows at the hemlocks, the tumbling walls, or the sky. Her ashes were scattered later in the river.

Sometimes now I cook the meals she used to cook, or wear the sweater I still have from her closet, as if memory could be more than just images. Memories can be so close. They can keep you warm.

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