a starfish for Sally

John's Aunt Jan, placing a starfish in Sally's grave

A few weeks ago we traveled to New York for John's grandmother Sally's funeral. As John's uncle David said at the funeral, we didn't lose her the day she died, but we lost her in pieces--so many pieces--over the years, as the tide of Alzheimer's washed over her again and again, seizing first her passion for travel and cooking, then her ability to drive and whip me at Scrabble, finally her ability to dress herself and remember the names of her beloved children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Elie Wiesel described the process of Alzheimer's this way--if a person were a book, the disease tears out the pages one by one until only the front and back covers are left. I find this description to be insightful but incomplete, because with Sally at least, as the binding broke, and the pages began to tumble out, in the midst of this heartbreaking chaos--some other part of Sally became available, some part of the Sally essence that infused all her passions but also transcended them.

I understand now that it the essence of a person that captivates us. Warren, Sally's husband, taught me that by his devotion to Sally as she withdrew further and further into herself, by the way he would flirt with her and kiss her on the lips when we went to feed her in the nursing home.

I remember how Warren and Sally used to be--they were madly in love with each other, but they were both gutsy and opinionated, sparks would fly sometimes in the car or the elevator or over the chocolate mousse. But as Sally slipped further and further from us, Warren instinctively reclaimed that first language of love, the one I use with Natalie because she responds so openly to it--tenderness. Warren was all tenderness toward Sally, and she continued to lean in toward him to receive his kisses, even after she'd lost the ability to focus her eyes or say his name.

Sally's funeral was beautiful because it seemed to me to be a reclaiming of the woman we knew and loved, and because it was tangible and true, as we scattered sand and shells over her remains, as we remembered who she was to us, and all that was lost and found as her life drew to a close.


Red said...

Oh, Jenny. How lovely.

Jenny said...


Thanks--it is so nice to be heard by you. I barely expressed all that I wanted to about Sally and the funeral, but it is at least a little glimpse.


Anonymous said...

Well done, Jenny. You touched on the essence of Sally, and threw in some life observations as well! It was good to see you and John that day, and I hope we meet under happier circumstances again some day.