The other day I visited a very dear, old friend of mine, the mother of a childhood friend from school.
I hadn’t seen her for about a year. She’s in her late eighties, suffering from dementia and confined to a wheelchair, but living close to her daughter, in her own house.
When I visited her last year she could recognize me and we had a small, almost coherent, conversation about times past.
This time, her daughter, my friend from school, had warned me that her mother wasn’t at all getting better. Sometimes she couldn’t even recognize her.
With that in mind I was a bit anxious but prepared to go see her.
I knocked on her door, but there was no answer. I went in and found her sitting in the living room, in her wheelchair in front of the TV.
“Hi, it’s Oak!” I said
“Hi Oak.“ She answered in a feeble voice without looking at me.
I asked her how she was. “Not well.” she said.
And that’s what she said while I was there.
I gave her fragile body a tender hug as I have always done.
There wasn’t any reaction.
I tried to ask her a few questions to which I knew she knew the answers.
No reaction. Her eyes were empty.
Or was she simply far, far away, in deep thoughts and memories she couldn’t share with anyone, any more?
She was once one of the most hospitable people I have ever known. Welcoming guests with big hugs, laughter and kisses. Cooking the most sumptuous dinners. Weekly, at her home, when I, as a child, was playing with my schoolmate and was invited to stay for dinner, but also when my mother and I, often several times a year, were invited to her wonderful, whitewashed “casita”, on a hillside, on the small Mediterranean island of Ibiza.
All surrounded by wild, aromatic herbs like thyme, sage, oregano and rosemary, and pine, olive, carob and fig trees, with the most breathtaking view of an invitingly beautiful, turquoise, horseshoe bay, deep down below.
In spring the wild orchids were abundant and in autumn we could pick the fat, cracked, sun ripe figs and sweet carobs, which sounded like a rattlesnake when shaken.
Daytime we would go down to the beach and swim or we might go into Ibiza town to shop fresh produce at the old covered market.
In the evening she would cook her wonderful meals and we would dine in front of the house under the starlit Mediterranean sky, listening to the crickets, long into the night, eating, talking, playing cards and when I became old enough, I too would drink liberal amounts of the local wine.
But all that and much, much more, happened decades ago.
Now she is an old woman confined to a wheelchair.
I stroke her hair.
She had been a great tennis player too. Even played at Wimbledon as a teenager. Found all her silver trophies a bore to polish.
Where have all those memories gone?
Are they in there, somewhere, in her thoughts, in a dimension we know nothing about?
Has she simply retracted all her senses from a life that no longer interests her, a life she is no longer able to live? Wants to live? Has she simply withdrawn to the deepest recesses of her mind? Reliving her past? Meditating about whatever the future might bring?
Or is all a void?
Those empty eyes.
Not looking straight at me once.
Not looking at me at all.
What was going on in her mind?
What was left of her mind?
She was aware that I was there, or was she?
Was she at all conscious of me visiting her?
I think so.
Or do I?
When she no longer could live alone in her old house, which I had known all my life, and had to sell it, it was demolished.
Lock, stock and barrel.
The airy living room with its high, beamed ceilings, where I sat as a teenager with my friend from school and talked about life and love, until long past midnight, gone.
Her cosy, sunlit kitchen, where she lovingly had prepared thousands of meals, gone.
The covered terrace where we sat and enjoyed freshly cooked shrimps in the summer next to a roaring fire, gone.
Even the beautiful garden with the playhouse, where my friend and I used to play as children was totally levelled with the ground.
The yew hedges, the rose bed, gone, the crab apple tree from which she made delicious jelly in the autumn, gone, the gigantic, ancient pine and even the aconites, the snowdrops, the daffodils and tulips, everything gone.
All that was left was bare soil.
Once in a while I would pass by on one of my walks, as it’s quite close to where I live.
I would be standing there, looking at the barren earth, imagining the lawn, the rose bed, the house, the kitchen door and my friend opening it to welcome me with a happy smile and open arms.
Now she could hardly hold a spoon to feed herself.
I expected something to be built there quite soon.
But nothing happened.
It keep lying as an open field.
As if the spirit of the place wouldn’t allow anything new to be built.
I gave her another hug.
In a way it was as if she wanted to respond, but somehow had forgotten how to.
Perhaps she felt my arms around her, but simply didn’t remember how to deal with feelings.
Perhaps she was beyond feelings.
In another world of just – being.
Being whatever it was she was now.
Where she was now.
How would I know?
I sat next to her in silence.
Just how conscious was she of her own condition?
How conscious was she of life around her?
What is it to be conscious?
I looked at her.
Gave her a last hug.
Stroke her chin.
In the doorway I turned around to look at her.
She didn’t look back.
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