Nepenthe and George

Nepenthe:  (Greek: Νηπενθές) is a medicine for sorrow, literally an anti-depressant – a “drug of forgetfulness” mentioned in ancient Greek literature and Greek mythology, depicted as originating in Egypt.

Figuratively, it means “that which chases away sorrow,” or grief and mourning.   So, literally, it means ‘not-sorrow’ or ‘anti-sorrow’. In the Odyssey, Nepenthes pharmakon (i.e. an anti-sorrow drug) is a magical potion given to Helen by the Egyptian queen Polidamma. It quells all sorrows with forgetfulness.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven“:

“Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

My mother has been living at The Hotel (basically assisted living with nicer furniture) since just before Christmas.  She’s adjusted pretty well, given the fact that she’s not a social butterfly.

More like a reclusive caterpillar who’d like to cling to her favorite chair like it was her personal cocoon.

I visit her every couple of days to pick up her laundry and attempt a chat.  Her memory has been coming and going like the Spanish language Tejano music station signal I try to get on my car radio.

Some days it comes in strong, other days it gets mixed up with a hard rock station.  Makes for some interesting song segues.

So it is with my mother’s memory.  People and places get jumbled up in her mind and some get forgotten altogether in the neural pathways of her aging brain.

Last week she was somewhat agitated and confused when I came to see her.  She asked me if I had a boyfriend.  I’ve been married to the same man for almost 36 years now but even with prompting on my part, she drew a blank.

Didn’t seem to bother her though.  To use her favorite catch-phrase:  “Whatever.”

At that same visit I found her almost obsessively pouring over some baby pictures my nephew had sent her of his new baby girl.  I’d looked at them the last few visits, but she must have asked me about five times during this visit if I’d seen them.

So I got to thinking that maybe she might enjoy looking at some photos of the house she and my Dad lived in together in Laguna Beach for over 25 years.  (No, they weren’t rich.  They bought the house for a whopping $22,000 in 1967 when Laguna was still an artist colony, soon to be a hippie enclave.)

The photos were in some of those horrid magnetic photo albums popular about twenty years ago.  You know, the kind where the cover was all poufy and padded and hand-done in material with lace around the edges?

I’d methodically gone through each one and carefully stripped the photos out before they became permanently affixed to the pages like fossils trapped in amber.

I bought a small, modern photo album with transparent pockets to slide the photos in and brought it and a stack of the Laguna Beach photos over to The Hotel earlier this week when I went to visit my mother.

I handed her the stack of photos and after she looked at each one I slid it into a pocket in the album.

Now, when I was concocting this little experiment, I’d had some twinges of misgivings about the whole thing.

What if seeing the photos of her lush flowery garden, with her and Dad smiling as they sat there together, brings back the sadness she must have felt when he died?

(A year later she sold that house to move to Texas, a place she does not like.)

At first, she wasn’t sure whose house and garden she was looking at, but bit by bit, some of it came back to her.  She recognized my father, but didn’t really comment on him.  In one of the photos of them together, she thought I was her, although we don’t especially resemble each other.  (At least, I tell myself that.)

So I left the album with her and after a couple of days I returned for another visit.

The housekeeping gal wanted to clean her room, so we went out to the spacious living room in the front of The Hotel and parked ourselves on a couch and a comfy wing-chair.  I had suggested we take the album along so we could look through it again.

There was one photo of George, my parents’ cat, who lived to be something like 17 or 18, although his exact age was never known.  My folks had gotten him at the Bluebell Cattery in Laguna Canyon Road, a cat boarding place that was run by a little old white-haired lady who always wore a gray cardigan covered in cat hair.

She looked like a cat herself.  Guess it takes one to know one.

George had been left there by his previous owners who’d gone off on a trip to Europe and never came back to get him.  His former name had been “Sundance,” so maybe that gives you a clue about the mind-set of the people who callously left him.

But The Cat Lady kept him and my parents adopted him and changed his moniker to “George.”  It seemed to suit him.

My father was particularly devoted to George, but my mother was almost as attached.  One time, after my parents had given a small dinner for friends, George went missing.  There were coyote sightings in the hills above their house and my mother was frantic.

About eighteen hours after George disappeared, my mother decided she better put the dishes from the dinner away in the low credenza in the living room.  When she opened the cupboard door, there was George, lying on some napkins, blinking in the light as if to say “What?”

He’d gone in there when she took out the dishes and she’d accidentally closed the door on him.  So he just took a nap until he was eventually discovered.

When my Dad died, George was her constant companion.  She would sleep with my Dad’s bathrobe on the bed and George would sleep on top of it.  I know that cat missed my Dad as much as she did.

During the next six months, George started to lose a lot of weight and the vets couldn’t find a reason why.  Finally he became so weak that my nephew had to take George in to be euthanized.

Personally, I think George died of a broken heart.

When my mother saw the photo of George, in his cat collar and I.D. tag (which was still in my mother’s jewelry box when we packed her things), I thought there would be a rush of recognition and sad feelings.  I cringed, waiting.

But, nothing.  “Oh, a pussycat,” was all she said.

I asked her if she remembered George at all, the cat she and Dad had for so long, but again she drew a blank.

She just went on turning the pages.  She did remark that the neighbor just down from them was drunk most of the time.  That she can recall!

Maybe it’s just as well.  You can’t be sad about something you don’t remember.

Dementia, for her, is not unlike Nepenthe:  “That which chases away sorrow.”

18 thoughts on “Nepenthe and George

  1. No, Sweetie you needed to write that and have somebody understand where you are. It’s not pretty, and we all love attend to parent (mom) with pure love, joy, affection and then have to go away for a few days to recover. We have to do it that way. Perfectly normal. My love and heart are sending energy to you as you and your mom move through this transitional phase. You remember her life and she doesn’t. Thanks for posting this, you’re experiences with your mom now might very well become my new “normal”. It’s all different and yet all the same.

    My Mom and I joke about her living in her cute little money pit of a house, I say “sure she spends money, her not living with me, priceless”, she says “I can spend the money, not living with my daughter, priceless!”. We are both right, for once.

    Mom is the youngest of six kids, the three brothers died of a cancer of some form, her sisters, Alzheimers. We are all waiting for the other shoe to drop but mom is feisty and it may not drop that way. Here’s hoping. I hope she dies of old age spending her last dime.

    All in all, thinking of you and your life with your mom. It’s hard enough to let go of big things, harder still to let go of little things. Love, Hon, just love.


  2. such cruelty and mercy in that dementia… what must it be like to only recall pixels of a life lived? you’ve captured it well. the bittersweet. the inexplicable. the randomness of it…


  3. Yes, yes, I have been there with the photo albums. Trying not to rip the photos while getting them off those sticky pages, arranging them by year, etc. in lovely new albums……she enjoyed them by herself for a while. Sometimes she cried before she forgot the people, the “good times,” and finally darkness when glaucoma took her eyesight.
    You have written this so heartbreakingly true. Thank you for sharing these times with us.


  4. About 10 years after my father died (at 55 when Mom was 54) she took up with a “younger” man (by about 15 years). Though they never married, we were all very fortunate that they stayed together until she died at 91. Toward the end of her days, we all came to understand that what happened an hour ago might not be remembered but that 30 years ago was still fresh. It was as if she was living in the past and the present simultaneously when she called my wife by the name of a girlfriend I had broken up with almost 40 years earlier. I found it convenient to think of her as having come unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. But throughout it all, she was always Mom. Never lost her personality and was cranky and mean about the things she had always been cranky and mean about while still doting on her favorite child just as she had always done. And her “younger” man is still the person my children call their grandfather and as he has passed his 80th year we try to provide for him some of what he gave to Mom but as you have noticed, some people don’t make it easy for you.


  5. beautifully written…makes me wish she was here at west rest haven and could enjoy the things we do for the oldies..we drag them out into the activity room, and if they don’t like it after 2 or 3 times we let them go do what they want..but mostly they go ‘hey this aint’ so bad’…and stay and have fun.


    • The manager at The Hotel doesn’t let her get away with staying in her room all day either. Apart from going to the dining room for her meals, she has to go out for at least one or two activities, like the seated exercise they do every day. Sometimes she likes it, sometimes she says “the hell with it.” I leave it up to her and the manager to duke it out. 🙂


  6. That was a beautiful post, bittersweet. It needs to be published somewhere. Get on that!! 🙂

    Hugs to you. It’s a tough road you’re on, but I’m glad you can see the humour in it.


  7. Wasn’t it Bette Davis that said, “Growing old is not for sissies”? My father who is 85 and still has all his marbles loves that quote. Once when he was feeling particularly melancholy he told me that he’s not sure if retaining his sharp memory is a blessing or a curse considering that all of his peers are either dead or “have no idea who the hell they are anymore.” Something about shedding memory strikes me as the ultimate blow, but then again, I would welcome forgetting that George W was once commander-in-chief.


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