“Hi Nora! How are you today?” I ask, closing the door softly behind me while balancing the breakfast tray on my hip. I set the tray down and sit in the metal chair I have designated as my own in Nora’s world. I look at the creased features and wispy white hair I know so well; her eyes are unbelievably blue, even more so against her ashen face. During the past three years, every Sunday morning, I have helped Nora eat her brunch. I have come to learn her favorite foods, her favorite radio station, and the way she likes her comforters arranged.
“Who ah you?” She snarls, showing the few brittle teeth she has that give her painful difficulty when she chews.
“It is so nice to meet you. My name is Jackie, and I will be helping you eat today,” I say, and I show her my plastic volunteer name tag.
Nora doesn’t remember her life and doesn’t know why she is in the hospital. The only piece of her past is a single black and white photo of a young man and woman tacked onto the bulletin board behind her bed. When I ask Nora about the photo, all I get is a blank stare. So every week when I visit Nora, the photo haunts me. I think about my own bulletin board at home that’s crowded with silly pictures of friends and family. I often look at them and reminisce: the photo of me at a kindergarten Halloween party in a teletubby costume, my face smeared with chocolate; the picture of me, age 10, petrified and my arms flailing in the air as my sister pushes me into the water while our entire family poses next to a lake; an action shot of me and my teammates during a field hockey game as we struggle to maneuver the ball down the turf; a group photo of me and my friends in New York City with the infamous “Naked Cowboy.” I look at my bulletin board in a more appreciative light because I know exactly how I feel when I look at these photos, but I can’t imagine what Nora feels when she looks at hers. Her condition makes me wonder, what becomes of photos when you cannot remember your life at all?
Despite the three years I visited Nora, I know nothing factual about her. I don’t know whether Nora had children, attended college, or had a career. And yet I can describe her perfectly, from her hand gestures to the way her eyes would light up when she was in a good mood. I came to know Nora better than I know some of the friends I text every day. During my time with her she inadvertently taught me that in an era of constant communication, sometimes the most intimate moments are spent together face-to-face over a simple meal.
“Hi Nora! How are you today?” I ask, closing the door softly behind me while balancing the breakfast tray on my hip. But then I stop, because her bed is empty. It has been cleared of the layers of comforters Nora loved and I knew how to arrange for her. The windows are open, letting in clean air and rustling the curtains. The room no longer has that familiar musty odor. The radio and my metal chair are gone. The bulletin board behind Nora’s bed is empty, cleared of the one photo that had been pinned to it.
I can’t explain the feeling of not only loss but overwhelming helplessness I felt that day. I felt guilty that she passed by herself, with only a photo she could not treasure and without a single familiar face to offer her comfort. Most of all, I hated that during her time at the hospital, all I was capable of doing was cutting up her brussel sprouts. I regret that I couldn’t do more to help her, and I wish I could have been there to introduce myself one last time. But I can only hope that during our Sundays together I made an impact on her life as she did on mine. I still miss her, and sometimes I can still hear her say “Who ah you?” whenever I walk past her old room. Nora may not have been able to make memories, but she made many for me.
I open the door to another patient room, breakfast tray tucked under my arm. “Hi Alice! How are you today?” I ask. The elderly woman, still half asleep, asks, “Who are you?” So I set the tray down on the table to pull up a metal chair, and I introduce myself. “It is so nice to meet you. My name is Jackie, and I will be helping you eat today.”
I have known someone for almost three years, and she has known me. But every week, like a sand clock, she resets and we meet again for the first time.
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