Posted Saturday, August 11, 2018.
Members of the Wedding: Pop Mannion, his new beloved daughter-in-law, the brand-new Mrs M, some guy in a rented tux, and Mom Mannion. May 28, 1988.
Mrs M has been home from the hospital three weeks now, and in those three weeks she’s made excellent progress in her recovery. Physically. She’s been regaining her strength. Walking more and farther and standing longer. Her coordination’s improving. She’s still wobbly on her pins. Her balance isn’t what it needs to be. Her left arm and left leg are still showing signs of neglect and are much weaker than her right. She has to be reminded to use her left hand and her left foot doesn’t always want to hold her up, so she’s in constant danger of falling and one of us needs to be nearby to spot her when she’s up and about. But with Ken acting as her personal trainer, she’s been diligent about doing her exercises. She surprises her physical and occupational therapists with her progress with each visit. And her doctors are thrilled. The trouble now is she’s getting cocky and thinks she can do more than she can. One of the things she thinks she can do is drive. This is a point she returns to again and again.
“You can’t drive,” I tell her, refusing gently but firmly to give her the keys.
“Me, for one.”
“What do you know?”
“Your therapists. New York State. Pretty much the whole world. Nobody wants you driving yet. You’d be a menace to traffic.”
“I would not.”
“You still have trouble navigating around the house. You turn right when you want to go left trying to get from the kitchen to the living room. I let you take the car to the grocery store and the next thing I know I'm getting a call from the Oregon state police telling me to come get you.”
“You worry too much. Where are the keys?”
Mrs M’s determination to get in the car and go is somewhat unnerving, mainly because she’s sneaky and quick. One day Oliver caught her on her way out the door and had to haul her back in the house. But as scary as it can be, it’s also heartening. I take it as a sign her old independence of spirit and need to keep herself busy are reasserting themselves. It shows she’s getting better, although, as is characteristic, she’s impatient and in too much of a hurry. What’s truly disconcerting is where she wants to drive to and when.
One example: Evenings after dinner she announces she has to go into the office for a bit to finish up some work.
The office she’s referring to is the newspaper office where she hasn’t worked in five years.
Physically her progress has been steady. Cognitively she’s been improving in fits and starts as her brain works to knit itself back together, a slow, complex, and unpredictable process. Mainly she’s been experiencing what are called confabulations, a mixing up of real memories with false memories with what’s actually taking place with what she’s imagining taking place. To listen to her confabulate is like listening to someone describe a dream while dreaming, with the dream being very real to the dreamer. Sometimes it’s as if Mrs M is living in two and even three realities at once, this one, an alternative and largely imagined one, and a remembered one. For instance, routinely in the mornings since she’s been home she’s waked up in her parents’ house and had her coffee in their kitchen while recognizing our bedroom and our kitchen and wondering how we managed to bring all our kitchenware down with us when we came to visit.
Her thoughts have to take detours and they don’t always get on the same train and travel along the same tracks. And some of those trains are hauling cars loaded with false memories and jumbled memories, and the passengers are looking out the windows at imagined landscapes and towns, and the trains are stopping at imagined stations to take on more confabulations.
The trains can be redirected and all the cars coupled on the same track, and her thoughts arrive at their scheduled destinations. It just makes for an interesting journey. And there’s a psychological aspect as well as a neurological one, although the two are part and parcel. Her confabulations usually seem to have roots in what is really going on or represent wishful thinking. Mrs M is itching to get back to work as a newswoman so her mixed up brain is telling her she already is.
Mrs M is aware this is part of her condition and sometimes it amuses her and even makes her laugh at herself. She calls her confabulations and memory confusions “brain hiccups” and tells people “my brain is loose.” I’m not sure she isn’t making a pun there, describing how some screws still need tightening and how her thinking occasionally escapes her control and goes wandering on its own. Her surgeons and her neurologist assure us that this will clear up, it’s just going to take several months.
Her other major cognitive issue is with her short-term memory. It’s not that she’s experiencing short-term memory loss. It’s more like short-term memory misplacement. New information takes a while to get stored where she can get at it easily when she needs to recall it. It’s as if on her way to put them on their proper shelves in her mental attic she gets tired of climbing the stairs and puts the memories in a side closet to be carried up later, then when she needs them she forgets to look in that closet. Usually a gentle reminder is all it takes for her to go look. Sometimes she has to be told. When she finds them, she seems to recognize them. She actually remembers. But sometimes a memory comes back to her as news and she’s surprised by it as if this is the first she’s heard of it.
Which brings me to the other morning, Wednesday, two days after Pop Mannion’s funeral.
When I went to help her get up and get dressed, Mrs M noticed I wasn’t my usual ebullient I’ve-been-up-since-four-a.m.-and-I’m-still-full-of-vim-and vigor-and-rarin’-to-go self.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
“It’s a sad morning,” I said.
“What are you sad about?”
She reached out and stroked my cheek. “He’ll get better,” she said soothingly. Back in the beginning of May, when she went into the hospital, we thought that he would. I almost didn’t have the heart to tell her.
“Kid,” I began. We really do call each other kid. “Kid, we went to the funeral, Monday.”
She looked stricken. Her lips and chin quivered and her eyes filled with tears. It all came back to her in a rush.
A moment like this has happened just about every day since Pop died. Mrs M and Pop were very close. I’ve only had to lose my father once. She’s lost her beloved father-in-law five or six times and will likely lose him a few more until the memories finally make it to their proper place in the attic.
I debated with myself over what order to tell this, whether I should put the sad part or the funny part first. Yep. There’s a funny part. Obviously, that was the sad part. So here’s the funny part.
Pop loved all four of his daughters-in-law and both his sons-in-law, but he and Mrs M had a special affinity. They could talk to each other about politics and current events, the news business, books, and sports with an enthusiasm and directness and sense of fun that was a delight to listen in on. There was a time, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, when Pop and Mom Mannion nearly despaired of me. The thing that convinced them I wasn’t the complete screw-up and ne’er-do-well I appeared to be was my bringing this ebullient, gregarious, big-hearted, smart, talented, and ambitious curly-headed blonde home and then getting her somehow to agree to marry me. Not only did Pop enjoy talking with her, he enjoyed that she fed him well. On one of her early visits to the Old Mannion Homestead, Mrs M---the Blonde as was---made dinner for the whole clan. She was just learning to be the great cook she is, but she already had a delicious specialty, a spinach and cheese pasta dish that Uncle Merlin can attest is addictive. Pop devoured it. But it wasn’t until his third or fourth helping that he asked.
“What is this?”
“Spinach pasta,” he was told.
Pop looked taken aback.
“It can’t be,” he said.
“Why not?” Mrs M wondered.
“I don’t like spinach,” Pop said matter of factly.
So that’s the funny part. And whenever Mrs M gets sad about Pop, I just have to say “spinach” and she brightens right up. She remembers. Truly remembers. Not just that he’s gone but how happy we all were when he was here and how happy the two of them were whenever they got together, although...
She’s taught herself many more recipes over the years and I’m not sure she ever served him spinach again.