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.”