What Course Can Teach Us to Understand
a Fading of the Soul?

By Lawrence Biemiller

Baltimore -- Time has fallen away from my grandmother, or she from it -- it's hard to know which. At 88, frail and often bewildered, Nanny has all but ceased to notice the passing of days, hours, and even minutes -- for her they are beyond recall and beyond anticipation. I'm not sure she'll remember this morning that I'm coming to take her out for her birthday lunch, even though my mother has called from Florida to remind her.

But when I arrive at her room, she smiles and says, "There you are!" She's been waiting for me. She squeezes my hand as I kiss her on the cheek. The aides have dressed her nicely, and she's thrilled to be going out, so it takes me a minute to realize what's not quite right: She has always greeted us by name. In my head I can hear her clearly, hear her voice back when it wasn't small and timid. I realize that There you are is a circumlocution, one more way of working around what her memory can no longer provide. Nanny has forgotten my name.

She lives in the Alzheimer's facility of a life-care community nestled among rolling hills west of Baltimore. Her room, at the quiet end of a long hall, is bright and pleasant. I help her on with her coat and we walk slowly down the hall. She tries to tell me about something that seems to have happened the day before. "We went to, you know, that place we old gals go ... and she had everything all done up" -- but I can't make heads or tails of the story. A party? A performance?

"Was there food?" I ask.

"Oh, yes," my grandmother says, as if I should have known. "It was ... " Increasingly she struggles for even commonplace words. Her syntax is still recognizably her own, and her idioms are unmistakable -- "I'm gonna sock you one right on the jaw, pal!" she says with a smile when I mention her age. But the names of things are going the same way as the names of her grandsons.

As we pass the dining room, a woman with a walker approaches us, whimpering. I say "Good morning," but she doesn't answer. She follows us to the locked door that keeps the residents in. I punch the combination into the keypad and the door clicks open and I follow my grandmother through. Before I can close it the woman following us wedges her walker in the door and starts to cry. "You old nincompoop!" my grandmother scolds. "What do you think you're doing? Get back!" She is suddenly fierce. With her good arm she reaches past me and tries to swat the woman on the wrist.

"Nanny!" I say, surprised. To the woman with the walker I say, "I'm sorry, this lunch is just for the two of us." She looks me in the eye, whining, pushing against the door. "You're not coming with us," I say, more firmly, pushing back. I feel ridiculous pushing a woman who's pushing 90, but I see no other options. "Turn around," I tell her. "Now."

A full minute passes before the standoff ends and I get the door closed. I take Nanny out to the car and we drive to the little restaurant in the town. I wonder whether she ever tries to escape, whether I would try if I were a resident there. At the restaurant, Nanny and I shuffle up the handicapped-access ramp. She clutches my hand in hers. "They've fixed this place up," she says when we get inside. "Doesn't it look nice?" In fact, the restaurant hasn't changed at all. But Nanny will ask the same question half a dozen times during the meal, just as she will ask repeatedly whether it's water she's seeing out the window (it's the side of a warehouse). After the waitress takes our order, I start to relax. Nanny is enjoying her crab cake and seems delighted by my company. And it's not hard holding up my end of the conversation when possible topics are both so limited and so recyclable. It's been a long time since I've brought someone so much joy so effortlessly.

Now and then I steal a glance at her while she's concentrating on her lunch. She has shrunk so much in the past few years that she is almost a porcelain-doll version of herself. She no longer sees well, and she is so unsteady on her feet that it scares Mom and me to watch her walk. On Christmas Day my mother held her hand and led her slowly from room to room in my apartment, showing her a painting her father had done, pieces of furniture that had been hers for half a century. She seemed to recognize nothing. "He did? My father?" she said when Mom showed her the painting.

And yet she does not seem unhappy. Age and infirmity may have conferred a peace she did not know when she was healthier and more anxious. But who can say what she dreams of at night, what terrors may haunt her? She does not say herself.

After she has finished off a big slice of chocolate-cream pie, I take her home. She looks forward to seeing my mother "next week," and I don't bother telling her that Mom won't be up for a month. As we walk slowly back down the long hall, her hand still clutching mine, I hear singing. The thin, uncertain voices of old women lag behind the plodding lead of an electric organ. It seems, at that moment, a chorus as sorrowful as anything in Greek tragedy.

The next morning, trapped an hour and a half in the dentist's chair, I make a mental inventory of my teeth and wonder how many will last until I am 88. Nanny has fewer teeth than one might want. That molar in back, Dr. Wall tells me, is going to need a crown -- "there's not enough actual tooth left for a filling." I can only grunt assent. As he works, I stare into the bright light and think about Nanny. We want to believe that knowledge and art together can prepare us for anything, but nothing in the finest college's curriculum or the biggest museum's collection readies a person for what has happened to my grandmother. What, even in Shakespeare, will teach me how to face this slow fading of the soul? What philosophy instructs me how to think about the erosion of all thought? How can I study for an examination in which life's questions vanish slowly before me until I know nothing to ask and no one to ask of? By comparison, it seems easy not to fear death.

When I was little, my grandparents lived in an apartment overlooking Mount Vernon Place, in the heart of Baltimore. Whenever we visited them, I begged and pleaded until someone took me out to walk through all four of the park-like squares that surround the city's towering monument to George Washington. The north square, which my grandparents' apartment overlooked, is the plainest; each of the others has a fountain. In one, a child dances in a spray of water; in the other two, arrangements of basins and jets charm eye and ear alike. I was fascinated by the fountains, by any kind of moving water, and my grandparents -- if they wanted to eat dinner in peace -- had no choice but to indulge me.

The fountains are empty and dry now, as I discover when I stop one wintry afternoon to revisit Mount Vernon Place and think about what Nanny was like 40 years ago. It's odd how large these fountains loom in my memories of childhood, of Nanny, when she can't remember them at all. It's odd to think how easily, come spring, they can be turned back on, their waters happily spraying and jetting and spilling -- the same way memory does when it works.

November, 1998

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education Publishing Date: 02/20/98