Recently we visited the assisted-living facility where my mother spent the last 15 months of her life. We went for an Alzheimer’s fundraiser in the form of a car show, and as we walked around for two hours, those 15 months reappeared as if by slight of hand, memory after memory leaning against vintage vehicles as they both gleamed in the sunshine. The activities director and a 1930 Ford truck, one of the residents who knew us well and a 1950s Jaguar, the maintenance man and a Harley.
We walked inside the facility to see Dan, the weekend front desk man who always had a friendly greeting and a kind word. He still does. In the front lobby we found 102-year-old Maggie who sat, as always, next to the daughter who lives in the facility with her. We walked into the activities room to see if there was anyone else we could visit, but the people there were strangers. Newbies, probably, who were not at the facility during my mom’s time there.
Then I saw the chair. Still in its proper place by the window, the chair was angled the way my mother always positioned it so she could see outside, not around the room where the rest of the residents were. She wanted to see out, I think, wanted to believe there was still a world outside of those walls that she could return to one day. I stared at that chair, as if by staring at it I could will my mom back into existence. I was expecting one of those Hollywood moments when all of the memories I experienced sitting next to that chair would come flooding back to me in a nicely arranged montage complete with appropriately sad music. But all I saw was an empty chair.
“Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby says incredulously in chapter 6 of The Great Gatsby. “Why of course you can!” Oh how I love you, Gatsby Old Sport, but you are so very wrong. You cannot repeat the past. You can’t go back in time and change things, you can’t reexperience events, and you certainly can’t bring someone back to life to sit with her one last time.
We walked around a bit more and found Nancy, or more precisely she found us. She was one of the younger residents at the facility and, outwardly at least, never appeared to be someone who required assistance. She told us, in her honest, let-me-take-you-into-my -confidence way, that the food quality at the facility has gone downhill, that one of the residents had a communicable disease that everyone was afraid of catching, that she had been ill recently but now she’s fine. Nancy then told us about another resident who had told her that she wanted to die. This resident was old and depressed, but Nancy wasn’t having any of it.
“If you’re gonna live,” Nancy says she told this resident, “Live every day.” To me, Nancy’s message was clear: it’s not enough to simply exist. You have to live. No matter that your circumstances are not what you had imagined, or if your life is in a slump of day-to-day monotony, or if you simply see no way out of a situation, you have to live every day. Fully engage with the life before you because someday these moments will be distant memories. Someday all will be gone. There will be more empty chairs in all of our lives and we will stare at them and ask the simple, unspoken questions that arise in our minds in the middle of the night, when we have one foot in this world and one foot in that dreamy state where nothing is real. Did I do enough? Did I arise to the challenge with all I was able to give at the time or did I hold back? Was I strong enough? Was I kind enough? Did I live in the moment or wish I was someplace else? Did I show up for my life? These are the questions that can haunt us. These are the questions that haunt me.
I will now proceed with this day, then tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, while thinking of sweet Nancy and her sage advice. “If you’re gonna live, live every day.” Fully awake and attempting to be present for my life, this is what I will try to do. Because someday I, too, will be nothing more than an empty chair.