My memories say hello... they ask about you all the time.
A few days ago I was at a facility seeing a patient. I got off the elevator heading toward the memory care unit and noticed a familiar face across the room. I watched as she laughed with several other ladies, and I smiled because I could see she was happy. This woman was the wife of one of the very first patients I sat at the bedside with until he died. He was one of the kindest men I knew and he trusted me until the very end.
She and I stayed close over the years, meeting often for dinner, and I considered her a friend. There was a time when she thought the same of me. I haven’t seen her in a few months and the space between our texts has grown further apart. Her memory has faded, which is what encouraged the distance between us, and the reason why she was at this facility. Thankfully I am able to check in with her daughter who keeps me updated, and while aware of her decline, I clearly wasn’t prepared.
As I walked closer to her, I could see that she recognized me, but she had that puzzled look on her face as if to say, “do I know you”? A deep painful ache crawled through my heart as I walked closer. I tried so hard to not show the sadness I was feeling, and instead reminded her of whom I was and hugged her as tight as I possibly could… hoping so badly, that maybe I could squeeze her memories back. She introduced me as her “husbands nurse”, thanking me publicly for the care I provided. I said I had to go, but promised to stop by again before I left. As I walked away, I realized that our friendship was just a memory now; mine, not hers and I started to cry.
About an hour later, as I was leaving, I passed her table and smiled as she waved to me, continuing on with her conversation. She looked happy and that matters most to me, but I was sad. I am still sad.
That afternoon and many days after, I started to think about all the wonderful memories I have made, the moments I hold so safely in my heart and how thankful I am that I get to bring them up any time I want to. We take our memory for granted, we assume those moments in our lives will always be within reach any time we want them. But you and I know… that isn’t always the case.
When I sit with a family moments before last breaths are taken, I will sometimes share a quote I connect with (even more so now): “My memories say hello, they ask about you all the time”. I encourage family members to remember times they shared together, traditions they had, and silly moments that make everyone laugh out loud. Those moments are really beautiful to witness. I am reminded that to be able to remember is a gift, one we do not appreciate as much as we should.
Sometimes, in fact more often than not, the person lying in that bed cannot remember, and cannot express their gratitude for a life shared with those left behind. I have convinced myself that despite their inability to respond, suddenly as their last breaths near, they can hear and feel everything everyone says… so I encourage the memory sharing. I like to ask a husband or wife the story of how they met, and while the ache is there, I also see a twinkle and a glimpse into a time when both were strong and healthy and they had a great love… I want that to be their last memory of the one they are saying goodbye to.
I was recently sitting at the bedside holding hands with a husband who was struggling to say goodbye to his wife. They had been married 60+ years but the last 10 were spent with her in a dementia fog and him caring for her in the most beautiful way. She didn’t talk, she didn’t respond, and yet he bathed her, he fed her, and he carried her to bed every night until she died. They met on a dance floor and that is where they fell in love. He told me that if she can remember anything at all, he hopes it was that day on the dance floor. He said that it was his very favorite day.
I truly believe that while the memories and the voice may have disappeared over the years, in those last moments it is as though it all comes back. I have seen the grip of a hand tighten, slight smiles appear, and even the motion of one last kiss, surprise everyone in the room. I believe that while it may only be a sliver of a window, the memory comes back just enough for them to embrace the last words of love. It is because of this that I always encourage the loved ones to say the beautiful things, to hand over some of the treasured memories to take with them, and most of all to allow them to leave knowing just how much they were loved. And while I cannot be certain any of this is so, it works for me.
This has me thinking about my own memories and life experiences and I can’t help but wonder if I could only keep one memory, which one would it be? Until then, I choose to relive them often while I still can, continue to make many more, and remember to be thankful and grateful for every single thing my life has blessed me with.
When you are at the bedside, and someone is about to take their last breath, remind them of the gifts they brought into your life, thank them, forgive them if necessary and send them off knowing they made a difference. And do not for one second, think they cannot hear you, because I truly believe that they can.