An Effigy of Memories

By E.M. Liddick

I went back to Pennsylvania to visit a house. To unload its contents, disassociate it from our family.

You see, my stepmother had become a memory the day before Thanksgiving. 

It was an unseasonably warm day when my stepbrother found her reposing in bed, her two yorkies steadfastly at her side. The forecast had held no prophesy of pain, his unanswered calls and messages still offering the possibility of some innocent explanation. 

The house was cold when we visited a week later. It would have been left to Dad, meant to compensate his resulting loneliness. But what was left of him was in a nursing facility, rotting from the brain out—the effects of Alzheimer’s.

I almost didn’t recognize it. The house had worn through the years. Not the paragon of youth I remembered in mine, but something altogether different. Weary, perhaps, in the way one surrenders to a lifetime spent bearing witness. Weathered boards and rain-stained gutters, cracked paint and peeling wallpaper, matted carpet and history told in the pages of layered dust. 

We, the collective children, stood together in the kitchen—a kitchen frozen with life—uncertain as to propriety. The murmur of echoes sounded like anger and sorrow, spoke of how this untimely death from diabetes had been avoidable, when my stepbrother’s voice cut in, suggesting we take any personal items holding irreplaceable significance, immeasurable value. Items like jewelry, photos, trains, place settings; items imbued with something beyond utility, a chronicle of shared lives. I imagine we all tasted a bitter reluctance in that moment, uncomfortable in the prospect of stirring the dust, sifting through what felt like an intrusion into the intimate—a disruption to the fabric of private mementos and memorials, and with it, an ever-deepening acknowledgment, in the act itself, that the past now dispossessed the present.

The house, with its fresh vacancy, smelled like a dank cellar, and the floorboards groaned with grief, yearning, as I roamed between the former bedroom of late-night escapes, the living room of Christmases past, the bedroom of a father’s snores, the basement of trains and circuses and boozy parties. A nomad of nostalgia, moving among the detritus. Each item tracing a provenance of associations. His stained-glass pieces, her artwork. His circus posters, her eyeglasses. His reclining chair, her piano. And all his clothes, which she saved, as though he might come home at any minute.

It felt dirty, this search for memorabilia. Like a band of marauders looting a tomb. Yet we each partook in the plunder, searching for something to replace our sadness. And what were my spoils? A stained-glass tree topper. More sentimental than nostalgic, less practical than preserved. Something Dad had touched, created. Like me.

Before long, I began flipping through photographs laid out on the dining room table, their edges fatigued and deckled from lingering fingers. The photographs seemed to preserve something unknown and unfamiliar, forgotten even, when suddenly, in the middle of my attempt to recover their hidden stories, the import of a moment that someone had sought to preserve, an epiphany gripped me: I was visiting upon my father’s second death.

Dad’s Alzheimer’s had followed a common progression. The momentary lapse when he would forget my name, laugh it off as something ordinary. The obscure response to a question about the weather. The explosive revolt against his inability to locate a word. The loss of driving privileges. The late-night elopement that ended when a state trooper found him walking along an interstate. The unwavering stare that seemed less vacant, more frightened. The decay of speech, words and sentences replaced with grunts, groans. The pacing along a nursing facility hallway. The twitching hands and jerking legs. And, before long, his first death, marked by that imperceptible crossing over into anonymity—from father to stranger, living to alive.

Standing at that dining room table, flipping through photographs, seven years removed from his first death, it was as though her passing brought with it his second. As if by visiting that house, its life bound to Dad, we were participating in a ritual of death not just for her, but also him. The third would come, I thought to myself, when Dad’s body finally relented.

My stepmother’s funeral service followed the next day. A rainy day, riven by wind, and not quite as warm; a dirge of clouds blotting out the sun. By the time I arrived, the wind had fallen, the rain replaced by a fine mist. The hovering, deceitful kind. The kind that discreetly penetrates your black suit, goes unnoticed until you smell sodden sheep somewhere nearby. 

Inside the mortuary, positioned around the parlor, bathed in a crimson hue, were posterboards propped on easels; photographs of my stepmother, father, family arrayed in neat rows, hand-drawn borders and glitter filling the white spaces, giving fullness to this mass of life, and grief. I moved between those white spaces amid the blurred migration of visitors, surrendering to the past, conscious of the niggling sense of something budding, but nothing in bloom. 

We took our seats for the mass, that ritual of purification and goodbyes. My stepsister gave the eulogy. A beautiful speech delivered beautifully. Yet as she spoke, I found myself lost to a deepening past, to the overlapping memories personal to stepmother and stepson, the ghosts of adolescent happenings invisible to older siblings; memories—many good, some bad—left hanging in perpetuity beneath the eaves of that house. Like the time I accidentally dropped a whole container of cayenne pepper in her chili and we laughed. Or the time I discovered her secretly recording my phone calls and we didn’t. For she was complicated, and what more is there to say about being human?

My stepsister continued her tribute, sketching in broad strokes the biographical details of a life cut short—about my stepmother losing her first husband to cancer, her second to Alzheimer’s; about the loneliness that death, whether real or figurative, forces upon its collateral victims—when suddenly that niggling sense flowered into brilliant clarity. This funeral for one felt like a funeral for two. 

In hindsight, I should have seen the signs. The rain, our preferred weather. The ice cream stand featuring teaberry in its daily rotation, his favorite flavor. The friend recommending “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” his beloved holiday carol. The three deaths epiphany. The conjoined funeral clarity.

The nursing facility called two days later. A conversation recalled in fragments. Ray isn’t eating. Recommend hospice care. End of life. 

A dire message, benign meaning. After all, Dad had lived with Alzheimer’s for fourteen years, doubling the disease’s normal half-life.

And yet.

I made another trip back to Pennsylvania. To say goodbye. Just in case.  

The unseasonable warmth had gone. In its wake, a blustery winter day, or so I remember it. If that previous week’s rising temperature had held no prophesy of pain, the whipping wind carried no promise of mercy.

I walked into the nursing facility, signed in, took the elevator to the first floor. It all felt mechanical. After finding Dad’s room—the nurses had moved him—I didn’t recognize my father. Indeed, I am ashamed to admit, I first mistook the nominal roommate for him, the bald head, bony shoulders, listless body compressed into a fetal position all too familiar sights.

Without transition, my criminal error turned punishing truth. Dad lay on the other bed, worse. Mouth agape, wheezing—cleaving to life. It was a discomfiting parallel to the first time he no longer recognized me; as though I was peering into a looking glass and seeing myself as he saw me: a stranger—unrecognizable, anonymous. I crouched at the bedside and gripped his frail forearm, hoping without belief he could feel my presence. And there I remained.

After fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, I bent over his bed and whispered in his ear. I need more time with you, Dad. Please don’t go, I wanted to say. Bye, Dad. I love you. You don’t need to fight anymore, I said. Then, I kissed his forehead, left the room. 

The regret came almost immediately. Just before leaving the facility, a red square button beckoned to me, the word “RESET” centered and printed in white. I agonized over its call, fighting the urge, indescribable at its fullest, to push that button. To reset time, or at least freeze it. To sit inside every second, to live within his heartbeats, fearful that every second relinquished would mean years of regret retained.

Should I go back inside, sit with him longer? I wondered, before recognizing the folly in my thinking. I could have spent forty-five minutes with him only for guilt to demand sixty, sixty minutes only for guilt to demand ninety. What I wanted was something satisfying, but nothing satisfactory. Because no length of time spent gripping his forearm, whispering in his ear, kissing his forehead could offer an acceptable end to the forty years shared with my father; to overcome guilt, defeat regret.   

Dad was laid to rest a week later. His second death gave way to his third.

For the second time in as many weeks, I found myself sitting in that same funeral home, in that same black suit, eying a marble box—this one sky blue—containing an effigy of memories. I marveled in disbelief—or was it denial?—at how such a small box could contain such a large personality. Then I remembered: Alzheimer’s had incinerated that too, years before.

My thoughts tugged back to the house he and my stepmother shared. At one point during that earlier visit, as the others excavated their own relics, I walked outside for some privacy, to the pond he built. 

The pond lay fallow, overgrown and stagnant. Barren of fish. Fetid too. It smelled like betrayal, how the pond—once an oasis, now a ruin—became just another vestige to impermanence, indifferent to his labors and all that felt holy.

And as I sat there in the funeral home, eying his remains, observing these pinpricks of betrayal, I gained awareness of some thing more painful than death: the irreversible effect of aging, of innocence slipping away. That house, with its stories, its laughter and tears, its triumphs and defeats and milestones of lives once lived but no more, would never be the same, lost to the years breathed inside seconds.

I had visited—a house no more a home.

About the author

Eric Michael (E.M.) Liddick is the author of the memoir All the Memories That Remain: War, Alzheimer's, and the Search for a Way Home. His work has appeared in the Military Times, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The War Horse, and War on the Rocks, among others. A former Army Ranger with multiple deployments overseas, he currently lives in Northern Virginia.

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