How do you take what may be a last journey through 97 years of memories? The last walk through the town you were born and raised in, the bedroom that was yours for more than 70 years, the office where you spent your working career?
If you’re Irene Visintin, you do it with the same patience and gentleness that has characterized your life. This has been, in a way, the farewell tour. For the last two or three years she’s said this might be her last trip home until she comes back in a box. This year she is more adamant, and given the circumstances, she may be right.
So each trip to the cabin and Trout Lake, each walk through familiar old neighborhoods and down the River Trail, every lunch with an old friend or visit with a neighbor, becomes a melancholy affair, an occasion for happiness at catching up, a parting with sadness knowing this might be the last time old friends look on each other.
The house on Fir Street, purchased by her father in 1917, has served as Irene’s home since 1932, its exterior unchanged in more than 50 years, the interior like walking into a time portal. She sits on the porch admiring the yellow roses and lilac bushes that have grown there for all the years she can remember. She comments on how the trees have grown, especially the spreading blue spruce in front of her sister’s house next door, planted around the time of the Second World War. There used to be a twin to it, but my mother donated that to the city for their downtown Christmas tree in 1963 in memory of my Dad, who had died that spring. And while we have another half-dozen spruce in our yard, that one is notably older, grander, more stately and she comments often on how big it’s gotten.
Our conversations have grown more limited; we talk about trees and weather and all the new building going on. Once in awhile a nugget from the distant past will surface, an event remembered fleetingly – who used to live in that house in 1925, a childhood friend, a hike to the Tomboy. But while as recently as six months ago she could recount the event in detail, tell a story about the friend, talk about a dance at the Alta or a mine accident or a picnic with the Paisans in Silverton or a particular fishing expedition at Trout Lake, today they’re just fragments of memories, the depth; detail and color have mostly disappeared. I no longer turn on my recorder for these talks, because it is a source of sadness for me and a source of frustration for her. I’m thankful for the memories I have recorded, because this is a slice of history disappearing.
Frustration seems to be the hallmark of much of what she does, though she bears it with the same quiet dignity that has been her tradition all her life. My mother was the fiery sister, the more passionate one, the more outspoken. Irene was the quiet sister, the reserved one, the caregiver, the one content to let Vera have the spotlight while she brought up the rear.
My mother fought against the decline, became angry at the memory loss, struck out at the restrictions it placed on her. Irene sheds a momentary quiet tear and moves on. She sits quietly while others converse around her – her hearing is 80 percent gone. She feels the beauty of the mountains and the blue sky more than sees it today, her eyesight is 80 percent gone. And she enjoys our walks along the River Trail from her perch in a wheelchair because arthritis has robbed her of the spry walk she was accustomed to taking to the grocery store and the post office just a few short years ago.
John Cougar summed it up more succinctly than he may have realized, when he sang ; ‘Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.’ But for Irene, I’m not sure the thrill is completely gone, even now. She has the companionship of her loving little dog, Monster. Who, knowing The Sisters a decade ago, could have anticipated the delight she feels from this dog, who sits with her and eats with her and sleeps curled in a ball at her head. The pleasures are fewer, they are less tangible, their colors are less vivid, but the spark still hovers just below the surface hoping , hoping for a reprieve.
And at the end of these long and sometimes frustrating days, when I tuck her into the little bed that was mine as a child and then served my grandmother and mother in their final years, she puts her feeble arms tightly around my neck and, with a soft sob, thanks me for helping her experience her life one more time.
Don’t thank me, Sweetie, it’s been my privilege.
Bella Notte, Eenie.