On Meaning, Memory, and Desire

By Kate Carroll de Gutes

August is the cruelest month.  Didn’t T.S. Eliot write that line?  Oh, that’s right, he said April.   

But for me, August is the cruelest month. It’s the month my mentor and editor, Judith Kitchen, who died two days after the final edit on my first book, Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, was born.  It’s the month my mother died—quickly in the grand scheme of things, but unfortunately aware that we’d moved her from her private assisted living apartment to a tiny room in a foster home for the last ten days of her life. (“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” she said in one of her cognizant moments.)  It’s the month the mercury rises and we watch the horizon for signs of smoke, especially after these past two years.  And this year, it’s the month that I’ve begun hearing and seeing flocks of geese—flying north.  If that isn’t a sign of the Anthropocene, I’m not sure what is. 

Sometimes I don’t remember Judith’s birthday—I just feel my nervous system go all vibrating and shaky.  Then, I’ll look at the calendar and notice that it’s her birthday.  Or that it’s the week my sisters and I moved our mother to her room in the foster home, almost killing ourselves to turn the 10×12 room into a miniature replica of her 550 square foot apartment without her noticing that we were discretely moving objects out of the apartment and feeding her persistent delusion that I moved her to different apartments on a whim.  Or that it’s the week my mom started having tiny strokes that led to a massive stroke that hastened her death at the end of the month.  Then this intense desire to hibernate makes sense.   

So while families and friends swim or float—on giant inflatable unicorns or blow-up slices of pizza—in the Washougal or Lewis rivers, in the Cascade lakes, or even in the Willamette (although I doubt the reports that the river isn’t a Superfund site because I almost break out with some weird skin sore a few days after I fall off my paddleboard into the Willamette), I often stay home binge-watching the latest streaming series or sit quietly, trying not to think at all.   

I live in a three-story townhouse with lots of light and I live an active life, so when this happens—during some of the best, if hottest, weather of the year—if I’m not watching Star Trek Discovery or Queer Eye or some PBS documentary, I’ll sit on my balcony and watch life pass below.  Until my mother spent time here with me, I didn’t appreciate how much life went on below the second-story windows and the balcony of my house.  But my mother, who moved slowly and with great difficulty, whose dementia left tracking conversations or the day’s plan near impossible, found great pleasure simply being in the moment and sitting in the dining room or on the balcony and watching what occurred below.

There, neighbors parked their cars—Oh, that guy can’t parallel park for beans!—or shuffled to the coffee shop that is literally across the street from my townhouse—I can’t imagine walking that far for a cup of coffee!—or walked their dogs—We just let our dogs into the backyard.  I’ve never thought about what you’d do with city dogs. That’s a lot of work!—or any number of other things, including street fights between drunks staggering home from a morning of mimosas or Bloody Mary’s at Slim’s or the line of kids marching from the school on one corner to the Rec Center on the other, and positioned between two adults at either end of the line. 

This, in particular, surprised my mom, that the kids couldn’t walk alone from the school to the Rec Center, could not travel unescorted.  When I said they were Kindergarteners through third graders, she still balked.  You walked home from Kindergarten unless the temperature was thirty-two degrees, real or wind chill.   

I usually replied, “Mom, that was forty years ago.”  

That this happened forty years earlier meant nothing to her demented brain. She would demand, What?  No!?  How old ARE you?  How old am I?  

I’d tell her I’d turned 50 and she’d slap her preternaturally high forehead and shriek, cannot believe I have a child who is fifty! When I look at you, I see a little towheaded child with a mischievous smile, and I just want to wrap you up and hug you. 

Although the neurologist diagnosed my mother with Alzheimer’s, she likely had a multi-infarct dementia from high blood pressure, several head injuries, and diabetes.  We never knew for certain because her artificial hip meant she could not undergo an MRI to map her addled brain.  An accurate diagnosis really only mattered to her children, I suppose, and maybe just me—as if by naming it I could somehow control it.  Dementia, Alzheimer’s, they both eat away at memory and desire, but the great gift of my mother’s memory loss was that she never forgot who her children were or how much she loved us, and she remembered us out loud as we existed in her mind’s eye.  And although we hadn’t always been, now we were her entire world because she’d stopped reaching out to friends years earlier, unsure of her memory, worried about her manners. 

Ironically—or perhaps not—social isolation contributes hugely to dementia and so this August, I’m foregoing hibernation and reaching out to people I don’t know as well, choosing activities that push me into new social situations, even as I’d like to watch season four of Queer Eye.   

So far, I’ve created art with a group of women I don’t know very well and then shared vulnerable new work.  I ate tacos in the park with friend of a friend (because our mutual friend moved out of town and we are left behind telling each other stories about our missing friend).  I went to Shabbat dinner with a circle of people I don’t see very often and listened to the prayers and shared the good, the bad and the surprising of my week.  I invited the most intuitive person I’ve ever met to join me for a beach fire at Cathedral Park and we read the smoke and the flames together and tried to make meaning. 

I guess that’s what I strive for each August—whether I’m streaming videos or pushing my own boundaries—creating meaning. A reason must exist that so much happened in the 8th month of the 15th year of the 21st century.  I think that the mixing of meaning and desire that Eliot spoke of must be, for me, the creation of a community where we tell the truth about our lives.  Where the reality of death and those who died is always with us even as we live, laugh, eat Mexican food, pass the challah, or watch sailboats pass under the St. Johns Bridge.  

In “The Wasteland,” Eliot wrote, “Who is the third who walks always beside you?/When I count, there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road/There is always another one walking beside you.”  There I see my mother, and Judith, and those who died before, even as I am of this world and desire so much to stay here, reaching out and looking for the illuminating gift of connection.   

Kate Carroll de Gutes: Rocking the bow tie

Kate Carroll de Gutes lives in Portland, Oregon, in a house with lots of light, wood floors, and a view of the best bridge in the city.  In the evenings, she sits at her great-grandparents’ quarter-sawn oak table and writes long-hand about grief, the drama of dating at midlife, riding bikes, and the joys and challenges of authentic living.  Also, she apparently uses a lot of hyphenated words. She was lucky that George wandered into the party for the launch of her second book, luckier still that he liked it.  Learn more at katecarrolldegutes.com 

Editor’s note: I was dazzled two years ago when I attended the launch of Kate’s second book, “The Authenticity Experiment,” at a cozy little theater in Northeast Portland that’s next to an upscale coffee shop. I loved the way she strung words together and I loved how accessible, how genuine she was afterwards in talking with friends and newcomers alike. After recently reading her first book, I decided to reach out and invite Kate to write for VOA 2019. To my delight (but not complete surprise), she said yes.

Tomorrow: Nike Bentley |Don’t blink

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5 thoughts on “On Meaning, Memory, and Desire

  1. George introduced me to your writing, Kate, and I’m so grateful he did. Like you, I am an honest and transparent writer (though unlike you, I don’t practice the craft and it shows), and I feel you through your words. I appreciate that you share your heart … its majesty and its flaws … so eloquently. I believe the word you chose is authenticity. I hope to meet you at the September gathering.

  2. Lovely reflections on your mom, and daily life. My mom died of Alzheimer’s and it was a very humbling experience for her, and us all. She died 10 or so years ago on August 17th. So, yes, August can be cruel.

  3. Welcome to VOA, Kate.
    You wrote of your sweet mom, “… she’d stopped reaching out to friends years earlier, unsure of her memory, was worried about her manners.” I could so relate.
    A traumatic brain injury eight years ago left me scrambling through emails trying to figure out who was a fridge friend, who was a Christmas card friend and who was an acquaintance from the gym. I read a blog I used to write to learn about my daily life.
    Memories build our lives. Without them, our lives are very confusing. I’m so glad you were there for her and were attached to memories she got to keep — a great gift, indeed.

  4. Kate
    I am so taken by the courage of your experiment and your writing especially about your mom. I lost my mom unexpectedly more than 40 years ago and missed out on the chance to know her when I was 30, 40 or 50. I hope that if I had the chance, I would have shown her as much love.
    George came to your book launch at my invitation and I am glad it has worked out so well for each of you. I recently recommended that my book group read either of your books for our April Oregon author. I look forward to seeing you at the September gathering. Let me know if you are interested in getting together with 15 wonderful readers this spring.

  5. “Oh, my gah! He got Kate Carroll de Gutes!” Great piece. Appreciated the openness about what happens with dementia and the bravery of having to get out of comfort zones. So. Much. August. Let’s eat tacos and talk about George.

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