What Was Left


Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer


Bookmark and Share

     I remember one of my aunts—I called her Anta, a name left over from my childhood—looking at the flowers in the driveway. They had fallen off the araliya tree that grew by the garage. Flowers fell daily, their petals still plump. After they fell, it took a day or two for the edges of the petals to turn brown. The gardener must have been keeping up with his sweeping duties because most of the flowers in the driveway were fresh pink, recently fallen. He had his broom out, and he had just hitched up his sarong and begun to sweep. It was early. Dew was flying off the grass, brushed off by the broom’s ekel bristles.

     It might have been the rasping of the broom that drew Anta out on to the porch that overlooked the driveway. Her hair was still uncombed, although she was dressed in daytime clothes. She stood looking out at the gardener’s broom whisking the flowers into a pile, along with a few leaves from the mango and rubber trees. “They are so lovely,” she said. “Leave them.” 

     The gardener barely paused to look at her. “Lovely?” he muttered, to the flowers, to his broom. “I can’t just leave them lying there, rotting.”  He looked at me, sitting on the porch with my morning tea and shook his head pityingly.

     Anta wasn’t paying attention to him, or me. Her eyes were fixed on the bruising, crumpling flowers, which the broom was pushing. “What a waste, no?” Anta said.

     It was the odd intensity in her voice, and her sadness about losing those everyday flowers, that make the incident so vivid in my memory. Also, this was one of the first marked changes I saw in Anta. She had always been meticulous in her habits. She had expected no less of her gardeners, who tended to turn over quickly for this reason. She must have gone through eight or nine of them in the time I knew her; they never seemed able to keep her small garden neat enough. And yet, there she was, practically begging the gardener to leave the garden messy.

     By this time, Anta had moved into my mother’s house. She had become increasingly unwilling to spend time at her own house, where she had lived alone, except for gardener number eight or nine. Her house had been sold. Her antique furniture and the wall hangings and vases that she had painstakingly collected over the years, from India and Zimbabwe and the United States, had been put up for auction. As a fairly prominent member of the government service in Sri Lanka, she had earned a reputation for being outspoken. But since her retirement a few years previously, she had become quiet, rustling from room to room like a restless ghost. Her occasional murmurings were full of anxiety and concern, but they didn’t have much semantic content. The doctors we saw thought she had Alzheimer’s disease, although we were told the diagnosis could only be confirmed post-mortem. What the doctors could say for certain was that Anta’s brain had atrophied, and that her condition was incurable.

     As a psychologist, I knew quite a bit about Alzheimer’s disease: its symptoms, what might cause it, how it is treated, the expected course of the illness, and the way it affects people who take care of the afflicted. But I could not find any books or articles that described how people with Alzheimer’s experience the illness, after it has set in firmly. I suppose this is because Alzheimer’s patients would not be able to give coherent interviews. Caregivers might be embroiled in the disease, but they would not have an insider’s perspective on what it might be like to have Alzheimer’s. I wanted to understand how Anta felt and what she was thinking, but all I had were clues, ideas expressed indirectly in what Anta did and in the way her personality changed.

     Several months after I saw Anta looking at the araliya flowers, she began to act more strangely. I had returned to my home in the United States by then, but my mother gave me regular updates on her ongoing saga by email and phone. Anta began hiding things: money and fruit. Afterwards, she forgot that she had hidden them away. When she discovered her money gone, she became suspicious of the cook and the gardener, accusing them of having stolen it. Then small stacks of folded rupees would turn up tucked between towels in the linen cupboard or under the soap dish in the bathroom. As for the fruit, they were not discovered until they began to go from ripeness to decay. My mother or the cook would sniff them out and come across bananas blackened with age and guavas gone soft, stuffed among neatly folded blouses or behind Anta’s still full bottles of expired Oil of Olay. Anta denied any knowledge of these hidden treasures. By then she had lost the ability to manage her own finances, but she must have wanted to protect things of value. The money I could understand; she had given up her house and all the treasures in it, so hiding money must have been her way of conserving something of material worth. The fruit were more mystifying. Then I remembered how Anta used to sit at the dinner table after meals, slowly peeling bananas or cutting up fruit with a dainty paring knife. Fruit was something she had enjoyed, and it was the enjoyment she was saving up.

     In the following months, Anta became aggressive. When visitors came to the house, she sometimes yelled viciously at them. On a couple of occasions, she had, to my mother’s horror, raised her dress up past her naked seventy-year-old hips, exposing herself to near strangers. She had shouted at them, enraged, “Is this what you’ve come to see?”

     Anta had been a prudish woman, so this was especially peculiar. I could only imagine the embarrassment of the visitors as they turned away, not only from the exposed skin, but also the spectacle of Anta’s behavior. In Sri Lanka, even more than in the United States, there is a stigma attached to any condition that affects mental functioning. There have been recent efforts to increase awareness of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, so maybe things have changed now. But in 2006, the people to whom I spoke did not differentiate much between types of psychiatric disorders. Many of my relatives still see these conditions only as qualitative or quantitative deficits; they dismiss the mentally ill as being not right in the head or not all there, although sometimes they might break these characterizations down into a few general categories like retarded (usually reserved for congenital problems), senile (usually reserved for the elderly), or the unlikely catch-all, depressed. Most people I know in Sri Lanka would not want to waste time trying to figure out why the mentally ill do what they do. The implication is that their behavior is random and inexplicable, something to be hushed away. I do not mean to imply that they are treated badly. They are often well cared for, but in the same way that a young child would be indulged, without any attempt to understand the meaning behind their actions.

     It seemed to me that there was meaning hidden in Anta’s behavior, however irrational it seemed. It must have been the degeneration of parts of her brain that led her to be aggressive and impulsive and that altered her personality. But why did her aggression not manifest itself in the throwing of objects, or in hitting people, instead of this odd overturning of her prudishness?  I think Anta knew that she was afflicted with something she found shameful. Her illness must have felt vulgar, like the sexual matters about which she had been so modest. Perhaps she was angry that she could not keep it private. Her flashing was at the same time the revealing of a secret, and a threat: I will embarrass you if you pry into my shameful illness.

     Anta’s strange behavior continued, making it increasingly difficult for my mother to care for her. She acted like a recalcitrant and very young child. She misinterpreted common objects and events and often failed to observe social norms. She poured orange juice over her rice and fish at the dinner table, apparently mistaking it for gravy. She painted her lips with red nail polish, causing my mother to worry that she would be poisoned. It took a long time to remove the nail polish. For my mother, however, the most troubling of the incidents involved a bizarre subversion of Anta’s fastidious nature. In the old days, Anta’s insistence on cleanliness had bordered on the obsessive; she had never worn a factory-fresh article of clothing without first having it laundered, and she had spent hours each day housecleaning. But one morning, my mother found two small objects arranged on a decorative glass tray on the kitchen table. They were round and dark brown. My mother thought the cook had scooped out the fibrous pulp from the hard rinds of two wood-apples. It was only when she picked up the tray that she realized that the objects were balls of feces. There was still shock in her voice when she called me on the phone. I did not know what to say then, but I wondered about why Anta had gone to such trouble. The gift-like presentation had been striking. The objects looked so much like the pulp of wood-apples, my mother said. My mother is fond of wood-apples. She eats wood-apple jam with her bread every morning, she keeps wood-apple cordial in the refrigerator to serve to guests, and she often makes a dessert cream out of wood-apple pulp. Had Anta, herself a lover of fruit, given my mother a gift? Perhaps it was her confused way of thanking my mother for taking care of her, or a gift of apology for her difficult behavior.

     When I went back to Sri Lanka about two years before she died, Anta had abandoned her aggressiveness. She was pleasant and sometimes effusive in her manner. Her comments, though still minimalist and vague, were no longer charged with anxiety, but with a kind of urgent friendliness. Several family members and I sat with her in a room where chairs were laid out in a rough circle. A ceiling fan was spinning, keeping away a few flies that tried to fly in from the heat outdoors. The live-in nurse had pushed a Virgin Mary statuette that had once been a source of comfort to Anta behind bottles of medication, unnoticed, on the side table. We tried talking to Anta, asking her questions about what she had had for lunch and what she had done that morning. Anta smiled and nodded. She took my hand and stroked it. “Yes,” she said. “Of course. But otherwise? Definitely. Yes, yes. Have to, no? Yes.”

     We smiled in return, and tried to pretend that her answers made sense. To fill the awkward silence, we started to talk to each other, with occasional attempts to bring Anta into the conversation. There was a long mirror in the room, next to Anta. She kept leaning forward and looking into it. She did not seem to notice her own reflection. But she kept beckoning eagerly to our reflections in the mirror. “Come and sit,” she said. “Come, come closer. Come, will you?”

     I tried several times to show her that it was only a reflection of me that she was calling, and that I was right there, sitting next to her. But she had lost the ability to understand mirrors. She kept on with her Sisyphean attempts to bring my reflection closer. It occurred to me then that she might have been frustrated by her inability to communicate with us, however unperturbed she seemed. Still, there was a hopefulness to her confusion; maybe it allowed her to hold on to the illusion that she would be able to draw us close even when our efforts to reach her failed.

     Now that Anta is gone, I think about what was left after her ability to reason and communicate was gone. She must have lived as though in a dream. Somewhere in her mind, ideas might have floated, vague, fleeting, along with anger and gratitude, shame and hope. And she might have known, from the beginning, when the disease was still setting in, that she was losing her memories and pleasures. Maybe that was why she’d tried to save the araliya all those months ago. In the crumpling of the flowers, Anta might have seen the incipient loss of her own self. No wonder she had tried to savor them while they lasted.

     I do not know if Anta would have agreed with my interpretations of her behavior. I think what matter are not the particular interpretations I made, but my efforts to understand. She would have appreciated them. It was through those efforts that I was able to honor her for who she was, without condescension, after she had changed beyond recognition; I recognized that she was still Anta, struggling to express things she could no longer say. 


About the Author

  • Photo of author

    Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer grew up in Sri Lanka. Her short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and published in the Notre Dame Review, Stand, Kaleidoscope and Literary Mama. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2004, and was a runner-up for the same prize in 1997. She has also written three books and a number of articles in academic journals and encyclopedias. She has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago, and works as a psychology professor at Felician College in New Jersey. Her website is www.ruvaneevilhauer.com .






    Published: February 16, 2012