One month ago, on January 6th, 2016, my Aunt Marjorie died. She’d lived in a nursing home near me, and died from dementia, among other things.
For all her memory problems, she remembered me to the very end. Whenever I visited, almost before I was all the way through her door she would cry out, “oh, Jim!” with a dramatic exclamation of relief.
But often she had a hard time remembering where she lived, and what she was doing in that unknown place. Sometimes she was aware, other times she was lost, needing to be reminded of her circumstances over and over again.
Aunt Marj never married and had no children. At the end, I was her main family contact and handled her financial and legal arrangements. A few hours after she died, I collected the possessions remaining in the small room that she’d shared with another elderly woman at the nursing home. It turned out that everything she had left in the world fit into one medium-sized cardboard box.
Gathering and removing those final few belongings left me sobered and sad. I filled the cardboard box with her hodgepodge items, including a large-print bible, two or three old address books, several hairbrushes, and Christmas cards that had been opened and read to her in her final weeks. But I stood looking at one piece of paper longer than anything else.
A year or two earlier, a nurse had thought to write on that piece of paper something to remind Marjorie and to help ease her anxiety whenever she forgot where she lived. I’d seen the paper on top of her bedside table for many months, but not in the past year or so, and then I’d forgotten all about it. While emptying one of her drawers that day, I saw the large letters again: “I live here. Room 121.”
Sad and poignant feelings came back, and more. Those few words, along with the cardboard box containing every earthly possession, starkly highlighted the gigantic losses that can happen in a life. From vital, fully involved, well-traveled days, to Room 121.
Maybe the words carried an unintended meaning too; try to remember actually to live your life, wherever you live. I can forget.
There’s an inevitable sorrow and sense of mystery that haunt after almost any death. Now they seemed to double. I wondered about how, after 90-plus years, my aunt had died within just months of the passing of her only sister—my mother. But in those dark months, because of her illness, Aunt Marj seemed unaware of her sister’s absence, and had stopped speaking of her almost completely.
Marjorie’s middle name was Mildred, named after her aunt—Marjorie’s mother’s beautiful and otherwise healthy younger sister, Mildred— who died during the deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, at the age of 14. My grandmother said that her mother was never the same after losing her young daughter.
The people of Spain were known to have a different name for that flu, calling it the Naples Soldier, which was the name of the most popular song in an operetta that premiered in Madrid during the epidemic; the librettist claimed that the song was as catchy as the flu. The name of the operetta was, The Song of Forgetting.