Finding Nancy H.

The portrait is enormous, two feet by three feet, black and white and impossible to hold in his shaking hands.

“She’s eighteen in this photo,” he whispers. Congestive heart disease keeps his volume low and his comments short. “Was building my portfolio in New York.”

“What a face,” I’m enchanted by it: round and milky, it’s untouched by age or experience. Her dark eyes trust the camera unequivocally.

“An actress, she moved to L.A. or Arizona.”

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A life is simply too rich, too nuanced, to convey in six weeks of compressed conversations with a random caregiver.

We’re in John’s spare bedroom in an assisted living facility outside of Chicago, touring sixty years of his work. Some photos are experiments in techniques that were new in 1955. Others are bread-and-butter shots for catalogs. An ad for Sears involves a mini-skirted housewife and what looks like a real tiger.

In the next six weeks I’ll get to know John‘s feelings about hospice, the pope, and everything French; I’ll manage his cranky moods, exacting instructions and occasional incontinence and admire his self-discipline as he forces himself to go without painkillers so he can play a game of Dominoes with his daughter or chat with the woman he loves.

I’ll know him intimately, and yet not at all, because I’ve never walked with him, shared weekly golf games or French conversation classes or a difficult photo shoot with a live tiger. I could ask a thousand questions—Was the tiger his idea? How did he feel when he was sweeping mines in the Far East, and did he tell his mother? How did he meet his wife and how did she die? But I still wouldn’t know him. A life is simply too rich, too nuanced, to convey in six weeks of compressed conversations with a random caregiver. There’s something reassuring in this, and also something frustrating. People want to be known and embraced at the end of life, and caregivers do try—but it’s a blind and awkward dance, complicated by pride, fear, and the indignities of illness.

I slide the photos back into the leather portfolio.

“Can you find her?” he asks. “Nancy Haley. LA or Phoenix. I want to send her the portrait.”

*

Some years ago, my mother found herself in a nursing home, a concept she may or may not have understood by then. When I appeared one day with a twelve-pack of Coke and a New York Times, two of her favorite things on earth, she rushed toward me. “It’s you!” she said. “Oh, what a sight for sore eyes!” I’m not sure whom she recognized at that moment—me, or her own sister, or one of my sisters. She knew I was a relative and a visitor, and she showed me around.

Next to every resident’s door was a glass display case filled with remembrances and photos, a kind of visual biography. I understood why. For residents who could no longer read, the display cases were billboards announcing who lived where. For residents missing home, the cases offered little pieces of the familiar. For visitors, staff, and other residents, the cases served as short introductions to the person within. We paused to look at a few. I was struck by how static and lifeless they were, how closely they resembled museum cases filled with the symbolic artifacts of long-dead pioneers or poets or Victorians. The living threads that connected the objects were imperceptible. I was also struck by my mother’s lack of interest. What she really wanted to do was drink a cold Coke.

We never filled my mother’s display case. She wasn’t there long enough. And I was ambivalent anyway. What should we include? Wasn’t this very process reductive? Doesn’t it suggest that a life can be characterized by its remnants? Wouldn’t it upset my mother to see her own long and productive life encapsulated with a couple of photos, a degree from University of Pennsylvania, and a seashell?

And worse, what if my mother didn’t recognize her own life?

*

On a stray Saturday, I consider what I would put in my own display case. A book I wrote. A picture of my husband. Maybe a bar of dark chocolate.

But what about the ocean—my one lifelong passion? What about my writing friends in faraway places? The three great dogs in my life? And the incorporeal elements that keep me living: wishes still brimming, books to be written, the care I’m giving?

This is a terrible exercise. It forces summary and concrete thinking. It’s a treasure map without the smell of salt water, or the surge of discovery or advice from a friend.

*

A few days later, I start looking for Nancy Haley. I soon discover that Nancy Haley is an artist who has let her website expire, a distinguished alumna from Michigan State University, and a middle-aged designer of stylish golf wear. There is also a deceased Unitarian minister who once produced a film about Hmong refugees, as well as a beautician in Kentucky and a lawyer in Ohio. In L.A., there are seventy-three Nancy Haleys; in Arizona there are five.

For many of them, Haley is the married name, discernable by references to husbands and children. As an actress, John’s Nancy would not have changed her name — good news for me. Nonetheless, none of the Nancy Haleys match the age and location I need.

She can’t have disappeared entirely? Not even an obituary? Not a film credit?

That’s when I remember shooting film footage of random customers in San Francisco International Airport for United Airlines many years ago, and how a crazy woman dashed up to me waving an umbrella. She was plump and dark-haired and angry that we’d taken her picture. “No! No!” she fussed. “You can’t do that! It’s against SAG rules! You have to throw it out. Please throw it out! You promise you’ll throw it out?”

“Yes,” I assured her while my cameraman snickered.

Relieved, she walked away, followed by an assistant carrying four suitcases.

But then she was back again, still with that oversized umbrella. “I’m sorry,” she said, placing it in front of her like Gene Kelly, poised to tap dance in the rain. “You must think I’m a crazy woman.”

“No,” I said, while my cameraman snickered some more.

“I’m Shirley Temple,” she said. “That’s why you can’t use footage of me.”

Then she smiled and sure enough, there was the girl from the Good Ship Lollipop.

SAG. Screen Actors Guild, the union that represents 160,000 actors. Why didn’t I think of that?

But the member directory is protected by a log-in.

*

Back in John’s spare bedroom, I explain the situation. If I knew one more detail about Nancy Haley—that she loved knitting or had a son named Willard — I could find her. But what I know is so limited, bones only, and she’s in her eighties, probably not a big Internet user. “Do you remember anything else?”

We’re inventorying the drawers, a painstaking process. With each artifact I learn some new fact. He used to smoke pipes. He balances his checkbook. He reads the weekly bulletins from Saint Francis Xavier Church. I wonder which of these artifacts would he choose for his own display case?

“You never saw Nancy Haley in a film?”

We’ve moved to the living room. Eight French cookbooks. Two antique chests he refinished himself. A lovely photo of his wife.

“You don’t know anything else?”

He summons his breath. “Hadley, not Haley,” he whispers. “I think it’s Hadley.”

*

Nancy Hadley is easier to find. She was once Joey Bishop’s TV wife; she appeared on Bonanza, Perry Mason, and The Millionaire, and, in 1958, she apparently kissed Clint Eastwood. She appears to be alive and settled outside of L.A.

John is amazed. There’s an address.

We smile together for a very long time. For half an afternoon, we’re partners in the present tense. We’ve shared something outside his illness. Something with hope and connection in it. And generosity. His is a true and generous impulse.

*

Now, in a room filled with children, grandchildren, and neighbors, I sign a guest book, and wonder who will ever read it. Who besides John would know all the names?

A slideshow runs continuously. People recognize themselves or events. Stories are told and retold. Old acquaintances spot each other across the room. French music plays softly. The love and connection in the room are palpable; the invisible threads that connect people vibrate as if the man is still alive and weaving them.

There are artifacts, too. John’s baby shoes are displayed on a central table, along with a pack of cards, a camera, belongings he treasured. Around the room, his photographs are displayed. There’s the one with the tiger. There are several of his beloved Paris. Would he have chosen these things?

Nowhere do I see the portrait of Nancy Hadley’s young, luminous face, and no one seems to know what I’m asking. A few head shakes. Children zoom around our legs.

Maybe the connection was never made. But I won’t mourn that as I squint in the bright light of the parking lot. Mostly I’m grateful to Nancy, for helping me find John Torrigan.

Lee Reilly’s essays have appeared in Hunger Mountain and the Florida Review and she has published two nonfiction books. You can catch her occasional blog about caregiving at www.OtherPeoplesParents.org.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish