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What Can We Do With A Memory?

We went back to Florida for fun for the first time since my mother in law, Joan, died there.

The last couple years with Joan were really hard. Dementia and nursing homes. Feeling like we were not doing enough, feeling like we were doing too much, feeling like quitting, feeling guilty for feeling like quitting. Consuming, frustrating, sad times - that so many of my friends are going through now with aging parents.

Back in Florida, memories flooded us.

We passed an older lady with those gigantic black sunglasses one gets from the eye doctor after surgery - and we laughed about Joan wearing those glasses long after surgery like they were Gucci. Seniors would approach us out to dinner and ask her “where did you get those sunglasses!!?”

We laughed about how Joan would introduce us to everyone in her path: the garbage man, the UPS guy, the waitresses, the busboys…”I want you to meet MY family!” She would proudly say. And the people being introduced would be polite, shake our hands, walk away bewildered and wondering who Joan was.

We laughed about her Brooklyn accent that sometimes changed into an affected Katherine Hepburn accent.

We laughed about how she would tell us she didn’t like our hair cut, or shirt, or friends - as easily as she might say “pass the salt.”

We laughed about her getting a cane because she thought she couldn’t walk (she could); and how she used that cane to go after the care taker she didn’t really like.

We laughed. Because that’s what we do. And we firmly believe from experience, that’s what works.

So what can a memory do to us, if we couldn’t laugh?

A memory could lie. It could swallow the truth like the Gulf of Mexico has swallowed whole ships.

A memory could become bigger than the whole. It could take this young girl from Brooklyn, filled with dreams and memories of her own, and turn her into a cane swatting senior who is angry at the world.

A memory could punch us in the gut. It could batter us around like the fat sweet manatees who float blindly into boat motors and come out scarred but still swimming.

I see so many friends in deep right now. Swimming against their loved one’s dementia, understaffed nursing homes, details of diseases we never thought we would know anything about.

So we keep our memories fond. These Joan memories are like home movies we watch over and over until we see ourselves - not always in the best light. Mostly, as in Chris' case - a good son doing the best he could. But always - in a way that introduces us to who we are.

Memories can scold us and hold us. We can hold them dear, we can black them out. They can tell us - if we listen - who we should be.

The Stewart cure - laughter.

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