“The director of nursing said they were concerned,” Mat wasn’t sure if he’d mentioned this to his uncle but continued anyway, “that you’re more tired and less active.”
“Well, there’s that. And my skin’s peeling. Hair’s falling out. Disintegrating, part by part.” Uncle Jack faced Mat with a brief piercing stare before looking down to his dry, bumpy hands. Hearing a TV blaring down the hall, Mat tried to listen for peace for the silence between the two of them. Out of practice with the mantras he’d learned long ago, he sang to himself, three notes up, three down, repeating: accepting whatever.
After some time, Jack spoke: “Seems I’m shutting down. Nurses are trying to take care of me. Now is the time. I hafta trust this is gonna be OK.” Jack paused after each word or two.
Wanting to comprehend the phrase shutting down, Mat held on to his temptation to ask Uncle Jack several questions. Gripping the sides of the chair, he waited to hear the completion of Jack’s words. Noticing that the radio was set to the local PBS station, Mat stood and put the volume up a bit. He offered Jack a section of the newspaper he’d brought, but Jack closed his eyes. Mat scanned the condensed US news and listened to the haunting indigenous Central American music on the radio. Eventually, the sounds were tranquil, even soothing.
When Jack woke up, they took a walk outside under the cloudy sky. Pushing Jack in the wheelchair around the block, Mat felt purposeful. He asked Jack to tell him more about his childhood.
Seemingly tired yet wanting to talk, Jack managed, “I can see pictures from certain scenes. The issue is, I don’t know if they’re from what I was told or what I saw. Was this kidnapping real, a memory of a dream or rom my imagination?”
Mat stopped pushing and crouched down in front of the wheelchair. Overcome with a need to reassure Jack, he carefully took his uncle’s thin-skinned hand. “You’re not alone with that. We’re all uncertain. Memory is fickle, like an inexact science, there’s just so many senses at play.”
“Yes,” Jack’s mottled hand patted Mat. “But I can’t put a time on what I remember, was I three or was I five? And where was I? Birthplace or here? Permanent home or temporary place?”
They continued another lap around the block with the bumps of the wheels hitting the sidewalk cracks.
“I get that. In some ways, I can put myself in your shoes.” Mat spoke softly. “This sounds ridiculous, but a lot of my childhood memories are from photos and stories told to us. Without either of those, I doubt anyone really remembers much from the first few years of life.”
“I read somewhere that memories are shadows.” Jack’s voice cracked. “And the memories are fine to stay in that shadowy space, unless the shadows get jarred. I’ve spent too many years trying not to emerge from under the cloudy shadows, afraid to enter sunlight.”
Mat was clueless. What was Jack saying? Where should he go with this? Surprisingly, his heartbeat was steady, and he wasn’t annoyed or anxious about all the unknowns. Not regretting making this trip, he was strengthened by the steps they were taking in limbo land. Like Jack, Mat was losing his balance, yet they persisted in their pace on the path.
“Oh. Well.” Mat had no words to illicit patience with the fickle nature of mind and spirit. He breathed out, searching for serenity despite a stabbing certainty. Most likely they would never figure out Jack’s real story.
Ruth Ticktin taught in WashingtonDC since 1977. Supporting shared stories, she’s the author of: WasAmGoing (NewBayBooks 2022), What’s Ahead? (ProLinguaLearning 2013), and a contributor of: BendingGenresAnthology (2018–19); Art Covid-19 (SanFedelePress)