We were standing under a tangled bougainvillea just outside our house. It was afternoon and the summer sky was white. My aunt asked my mother, “Lina, why can’t I remember my address? How will I reach home?”
My aunt sounded quietly desperate. From where I was standing, I could not see my mother’s face or whether she was able to mask her concern. She didn’t reply immediately. But when she did it was with urgency. She said, “Let me come with you. Don’t worry. You’ll reach home before dark.”
During the time, most people reached home from work before dusk. If they didn’t, it was a cause for concern for families. And when that happened, landline phones were rung in friends and families’ homes to check if they knew of the missing person’s whereabouts.
This was a long time ago in Guwahati in the 1990s. It is funny how we remember certain moments with defined clarity and forget so many others that we’d rather remember in their stead. This must have been a disquieting conversation for a 15-year-old girl, but I often use this memory to take me back to the happier years spent at Aunt Runa’s house.
One of my earliest memories was of Aunt Runa steering into the driveway in her little blue car after work. Hearing the sound of the car in the evening, my cousins and I’d peer through the bedroom window and then frantically start cleaning up so that everything was in place by the time she entered the house. But no matter how hard we tried, she’d look at us and instantly know if we had completed our schoolwork or had spent the afternoon dawdling.
Aunt Runa had the kindest set of large black eyes. Her skin was hazel coloured and her wavy hair was often tied in a bun at the nape of her neck. People said she had a restrained kind of elegance, a quiet grace. The kind that takes a while to be recognised in a crowd, but once identified, it made people smile when they thought of her.
Aunt Runa’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s showed when she had barely entered her 40s, but at the time, none of us knew that such an illness existed. Most family members and relatives associated the symptoms with a mild case of forgetfulness. Often, the reactions involved rationalisation, “You know, it runs in the family – this absentmindedness! Runa is just a little more preoccupied than us, that’s all!” Or mild exasperation. “Oh, Runa! Tell me you didn’t forget the house keys again. Why don’t you keep a spare set with you when you know this is bound to happen – you know, the forgetting?”
Aunt Runa took most reactions in her stride. I don’t recall her getting piqued at anyone or saying a hurtful word. My grandmother said she was like that even as a child. She didn’t get into fights, hardly ever argued or threw a tantrum for special treats or toys like other children. She studied hard for school tests when other children had to be dragged from the front yard to return to their books. She was more of a listener than talker, unlike most others in our family.
Some people said that it was this quality of hers, her not being able to talk about her feelings, not reaching out to others during difficult times that had got her to the state she was in. But someone said in an agitated response, “But talk about what really? You tell me. If your husband was seeing another woman, would you go around talking about it? All of us deal with pain differently. That was Runa’s way of dealing with it.”
The 1990s was a time when very few women in our town worked full time or drove to work. Aunt Runa was different and that surprised no one. She worked at an architectural firm, managed her own finances and baked the best gingerbread house cakes I had only seen only in glossy pages of thick cookery books. So when the doctor first diagnosed Alzheimer’s, no one among our family or friends accepted it. One relative announced, “This is all hogwash, I am telling you. These doctors nowadays make up pseudo names for make-believe illnesses so they can make money from it!” Another relative agreeing with him added, “Yes, and Runa is an intelligent woman, an architect. There’s no hint of a chance she could be suffering from a mental illness. Mark my word.” The denial went on for weeks and months. Then when it rolled onto a year, all the talking stopped. By then, even when we tried, we couldn’t ignore the symptoms of the illness.
One afternoon, during my cousin’s pre-wedding get-togethers, the family was huddled over a Chinese Checkers board. Aunt Runa was rummaging through one of the bedroom cupboards. Someone asked her what she was looking for. She paused from her search and turned to us to respond. Instantly, a blank expression crawled across her face. She wasn’t able to mask her surprise at her own lapse of memory. When my older cousin asked whose turn it was to play next, we pretended not to notice -- her forgetfulness and how her face had turned pale when she realised she couldn’t remember.
“At weddings, it was worse. On seeing aunt Runa after a long period of time, neighbours and relatives would excitedly walk up to her to say hello and on not being recognised, they’d pretend that they spotted someone in the crowd they needed to meet and hurriedly disappear into the deluge of people. Later, they broached it to us, the family, and on finding out about her illness, they’d hold the news giver’s hand; with tilted heads, they’d provide consolation in muted voices.
When it dawned on us that it wasn’t just Aunt Runa who was losing her memories, we were slowly losing her to Alzheimer’s, we began talking more often about the aunt Runa we once knew. I suppose that was our way of holding on to what was left of her, her memories. I’d listen to family members' conversations trying to figure if I had any of her traits in me. Although I always liked aunt Runa, I had grown even fonder of her one winter during my school’s annual cultural day. It was the most awaited event at school. Most children had started preparing for it weeks in advance. Since I was ten years old, I was supposed to accompany my older cousin, aunt Runa’s daughter. Hours before the event when I reached aunt Runa’s home, I overheard my cousin telling her that she couldn’t take me along with her because she had other plans with her friends. The announcement led to a heated argument and minutes later, my cousin stormed out of the house leaving me red-faced in the next room trying to hold back tears.
Aunt Runa glided into the room and said, “Forget about the event. We’ll have more fun here, okay? How about we watch the new movie you were talking about the other day?” A video-cassette of the movie was procured from the video store and snacks were whipped up. I don’t remember what that movie was or whether it was actually a fun evening, but I will never forget her kindness to me.
* * *
It has been two years since I last saw aunt Runa. As I sit with my mother in my aunt’s house, the house I spent so many summers as a child, we talk in hushed voices about things that don’t really matter, what my mother would cook for dinner and how warm the weather has been lately. That’s when the nurse brings her in. Aunt Runa clutches the nurse’s arm with both hands and inches her way sideways towards the bed. She keeps her head lowered such that her chin touches her chest. Her eyes dart about the wooden floor. Her hair is in a carelessly tied ponytail, not her old, elegant knot.
My mother says in her best cheerful voice, “Runa Ba, how are you?” No response. “Look who’s here with me?” she persists.
I force a smile and prepare myself for her to look at me without recognition. No response. She then turns her head towards us and looks through us to focus on the open window that overlooks the residential street. My mother slowly places herself next to her and holds her hand. As I sit facing aunt Runa, I try to find traces of the person I once knew. In her faraway gaze, her dark black eyes, wrinkled skin and upturned lips, I don’t find her. What I find is an emptiness I sometimes feel in myself. So I let the sound of the ticking clock fill the silence in the room as she stares out of the open window we once peered out as children.