My mother did not like washing dishes. She said every drop of dish soap plundered her hands of their youth. So she'd hand the chore off to my father, then me when I was old enough. I'd stand in front of the sink on a kitchen chair, my bare feet sticking to the plastic cushion, my hands swirling the dish soap, sending bubbles scurrying around the water's surface. Since those days, nothing much has changed in this room, except for me, older, taller, married, with a child. As I finish the last dish and drain the sink, an evening breeze sails in through the kitchen window and it is soft, like gossamer. From the living room a TV audience screams out "Wheel-of-Fortune." Pat Sajak introduces the contestants. Otherwise, all is quiet.
We've been here for two days. My daughter, Jenny, has been counting down the remainder of our stay on one half of the whiteboard hanging behind the kitchen table. The number five beams out tonight in mint-green marker. The other half of the board lists my mother's medications, dosing times and quantities. They are written in Mindy's precise, box-like script and every time I see them, my stomach throbs for fear I have forgotten a dose or given one at the wrong time.
Jenny wanders into the kitchen. Her face is weary, etched on one side with pillow burn marks. "Mom, I'm so bored," she says, rolls her eyes and slumps into a kitchen chair. Pink ear buds trail from her ears. She scans her playlist, swipes the screen, then leans back and closes her eyes.
"You're a bored angel," I say, and kiss the top of her head.
"Can I have some ice cream?" she asks, eyes still closed.
"Of course. How's Grandma?"
"Fine." She sounds detached. "She's not really watching."
Opening a cabinet, I choose from dozens of cut crystal tumblers and fill one with ice, tonic and gin. I tip the gin bottle and splash in just a bit more. Next to me my daughter scoops ice cream into a chipped porcelain bowl I remember using when I was her age. When I had told her about this trip, she wailed, brought her hands up in a prayer of supplication to let her stay home. I explained that Mindy, my mom's live-in caretaker, needed a week off, and since my daughter was only ten, she couldn't stay home with her father and his crazy schedule. Plus, it would be good for her to see her grandma.
What I didn't say was that it was finally time for me to come. Back home I'd been telling myself, Mom's in good hands, she knows I have a life. But the words were charlatans: they promised relief but never delivered. What I didn't say was we should come while she still knows who we are.
In the living room, the sharp illumination of sunset cuts around the cherry end tables and crushed velvet couch. On the television, Vanna White glides across the stage in a silky, powder-blue dress. The audience applauds as she touches a white square and a winning letter appears. But Mom is no longer watching the show. She stands before the plate glass window, looking out at the front yard. Leafy sycamores and giant maples shade the lawn, trees I climbed as a little girl. Her hands are shoved into the deep pockets of her unremarkable, brown polyester pants. Three pairs just like them lay folded in a basket of freshly laundered clothes sitting in the kitchen. I wonder what has become of the cashmere twin sets and capris, the dainty sandals and leather pumps she wore all those years. Like old memories, they are probably pressed and boxed, and stored in the deep recesses of a musty, upstairs closet, better forgotten.
In another lifetime my mom had been elegant. On Saturday nights my parents would have parties with card games and highballs. While my dad set up tables in the living room, I'd be with her, picking out what she'd wear. I'd pull out wispy dresses in deep colors that would drape around her body like a mist and classy linen a-lines with long slits that showed off her legs. I'd float them down onto the bed and choose matching heels, lining them up beneath the dresses. She would study my ensembles, substitute one pair of shoes for another, and shake her head at my choice of a certain dress. She'd sweep her long brunette hair up off her neck and twist it into a perfect French knot, then place brilliant chandelier-like earrings on each earlobe. Later, I'd watch the gathering from the hallway in my nest of pillows and blankets. The women assembled around her, offering up their nuggets of gossip; the men watched her like she was a movie star.
Mom turns from the window and sees me watching her. She steps back, her feet stumbling, and lets out a small cry. She seems afraid she's done something wrong and must make it up to me.
"Hey, you watching TV?" I join her and rub her back.
"There," she says, pointing to one of the maples on the lawn. Her southern drawl is still pronounced though mine has disappeared completely. "We used to sit there together." She hesitates. "You had books and …" Her mind clicks away, searching for a word or a memory. She gives up and turns to me with a rapturous smile. "We had such a lovely time together."
Somewhere in this house is a photo album with a shot of us sitting under one of those trees. I have my legs stuck out in front of me; a coloring book on my lap, my head is tilted as I concentrate on the book and my crayon. My mother is an arm's length away from me, wearing a sleeveless cotton dress. She is perched on her heels, a glass in one hand, posing and smiling, making an appearance for the camera. That moment has rearranged itself for her. I forgive this because I imagine that whatever memories are accessible to her are smudged images, appearing in and out of focus, one to the next, until a story is retold.
"My cousin Sheryl sent me a letter." As she says this she takes the letter from her pocket. It's been folded in on itself several times and as she opens it I can see the creases cutting into the words. She starts to read it, her lips move without sound, and she shakes her head. "She was a real pistol, that one. But she's not doing so well."
Mom showed me the same letter yesterday, said the same thing about Sheryl. She's talked more about her cousin in the last two days than she has her granddaughter. Not that they have ever been close. It was my father's face and voice Jenny knew growing up, through the magic of the internet. He never missed a birthday and several times a year he'd fly out, with my reluctant mother, and take her to Disneyland. Just the two of them. He'd kiss her goodnight on her cotton-candied lips, her arms wrapped around a stuffed Winnie the Pooh or Minnie Mouse, as he tucked her in. Two years ago at his funeral, sobs, like ocean currents, pulled at her, wrenched from her body. I held her tiny hand in mine while she wept for her Papa. Sometimes I wonder how she melds together the memories of the two of them, or if she even does.
"Well, I'm just dead tired." My mother puts the letter back in her pocket. She catches her reflection in a mirror hanging on the wall and runs her hand through her short hair. "Oh my, look at me. I can't find my wig anywhere." She pauses and glances around the room. "Where is Mindy? I think she stole it; she's always looking at it."
"Oh Mom, why would Mindy want your wig?" I say. Her hair is cropped short. Tight curls of gray jut out from her scalp at precarious angles. Two months ago I received an urgent call from Mindy. In her musical Philippine accent she told me that Mom had taken the kitchen shears and cut off all her hair, down to the roots. She said Mom looked like an old marine sergeant with a bad haircut.
"She'll need a wig," I said, as I pictured Mom's long hair lying like coils of silver rope on the kitchen floor.
Before Mom goes to bed I pull her into the kitchen for her medication. She complains about the size of some of the pills, so I grind them all up on the cutting board with the back of a butter knife. Then she complains about the taste of the juice I have stirred them into. I finally get her into her room where I know she'll read her letter from Sheryl again, and memories will clutter her head like crows, flapping their wings, battling to be set free.
The progress of the disease can be baffling. Patients decline in a time span of between three to fifteen years. Nerve-cell death damages areas of the brain controlling thought, recollection and the formation of new memories. Basically, the brain shrinks. I'm re-reading the website as I lie in bed with my laptop. I bookmarked it back home before we came. A picture shows two brains: They both look like a head of cauliflower, one white and full; the other, dark and wilted.
My old bed, a lumpy double, still holds the faint scent of my long-dead cat, Nelly. The room is a museum, with the same violet walls and lace curtains. Around the time I was in junior high, Mom taught me how to sew, and the curtains were my first project. I remember my seams meandered and my fingertips bled from needle jabs and she grew impatient with my sloppy work. At one point, she yanked the curtains from me and told me I was doing everything wrong. Tears stung my eyes as I yanked them back and finished. Now, if I look closely, I can see the crooked stitching in the hems.
Jenny lies next to me, her small quiet breaths escaping against the pillow. She read herself to sleep an hour ago, her eyelids drooping over sage-stained irises, and then popping open again, until she finally succumbed. Strands of her burnished brown hair lay plastered against her temple. The window-mounted air conditioner rattles, barely keeping up with the stifling heat of the small room. She's pushed the thin white sheet down around her knees and her small body is curled around an old stuffed bunny she's had since she was three. I think her dreams hover above our home in California, diving down and scooping up images of her skateboard and Sponge Bob on the DVR.
I click through page after page describing the seven stages of Alzheimer's. After two days here, I approximate my mother's deterioration as hovering around the fifth level and creeping into the sixth. All I know is that the decline from my visit a year ago is almost unbearable.
The next morning the number four is drawn in fuchsia marker on the white board. Jenny colors it in with careful strokes while I scramble eggs.
"I did not sleep a wink last night. It was that awful dinner. I must be allergic." Mom sits at the kitchen table nibbling on her toast as hot sunshine pours in through the corner windows.
"The lasagna Mindy made? I thought you liked it," I reply.
"Mindy does not make lasagna. She knows I hate anything with tomatoes." Mom sounds put-out. "What are we having tonight?"
Jenny stops her coloring and looks at me. "You promised the Grand Ole Opry Hotel for dinner, remember?"
"We used to have dinner there all the time. The gardens are so lovely," says Mom.
It's not "your father and I," just "we," and I wonder, would it kill her to mention his name? She hasn't since he died. My chest tightens and I'm glaring at her, as if I can extract the wispy filaments of her memories of Dad and lay them bare on the table and say, "Look, there he is. Remember?" But she's built up a detachment from him, constructed it brick by brick, and moved on. I'd like to believe that any other way is just too painful for her.
An entirely different way of thinking comes out of nowhere and she goes on to tell us how she pumped water from a well growing up dirt poor in Kentucky, how she had scarlet fever at seven years of age; bright pinpoints of memory she clings to and narrates, over and over and over. Mom's world has turned inward. She's trying to hang on to herself. So she doesn't notice as Jenny draws the oversized numbers each morning, telling the world how long until we leave.
It's midmorning and I've been scanning headlines on my laptop, swiping from site to site, checking emails. A mosquito careens around the room and I let it be, too lethargic to get up and swat at it. In the living room, the long gold pendulum of the grandfather clock glides from side to side, emits a soft clicking, and the walls collect the sound, their papered fabric faded from years of sunshine dipping in and out of the windows. From here in the kitchen I can see everything's just grown dimmer, the life that once filled the house almost extinguished. First with my father's passing. He took with him his reassuring presence and boisterous laugh, and now, my mother's bold and shameless passion for life that filled every corner, has been silenced.
Taped on a kitchen cabinet is a list of things Mindy does each day. She clutched the pages against her chest as she was leaving, said they were just little reminders she had jotted down and I didn't have to use them, said I was more than capable of taking care of my mom and the house. I waved her explanations off and pulled the list from her hands. "Of course I'll use this," I said, and thanked her, pushing her out the door towards the blue-and-white taxi that idled in the drive. Looking at it later, I was chastened by what I read, and by the realization of what someone else, instead of me, was doing every day for my mother.
According to Mindy's instructions, today all the linens should be washed. I decide to make a list of this and all the other chores that need to be done. The junk drawer in the kitchen has paper so I open it and push aside playing cards, scotch tape, a roll of twine, old reading glasses. Trapped in the back is a notepad that says, "XEROX Corp," across the top. My father worked there for thirty years. When he retired, he and Mom traveled around the country with their Airstream. Once, on a foray into the deep South, they'd called me from the Miami Hilton.
"Gabriella, we are having the loveliest time here in Miami. Would you like me to put your father on the line?" In the background I could hear Dad approaching Mom, singing "Moon Over Miami," his voice eventually bubbling into the receiver. I pictured him nuzzling her neck before he said, "Miami is hotter than hell. Someone should have told me not to come here in August. But we want to see the Keys so I guess we'll continue on." And then, "Gotta go, Princess, your mother and I have a date." Mom laughed and exclaimed, "Goodnight, we love you," and the phone clicked off. She never spent a night away from him until the day he died.
A magnificent weeping willow stands in the center of the backyard. Its branches, glass bottle-green in the sunlight, hang like long wispy tears, and surround my daughter, curtain her in on the blanket she's spread next to the tree's bent trunk. The roots of all the other trees, mostly oaks, are breaking out of the ground like prisoners, and the grass is cut around them in checkered, off-kilter patterns. Jenny reads from a book in one hand, her cell phone cradled in the other. Every once in a while I can hear a snippet of a song as the cell delivers a text from her friends back home. When she reads her messages, she smiles broadly, and her fingers jump around on the keys as she responds. This makes me smile.
My coffee's grown cold. The kitchen table, a rough-hewn slab of oak my father crafted, is spattered with crumbs from breakfast. So I empty my mug in the sink and wipe it down. When I'm done, the letters carved by my father into the oak, smack in the middle of the table, stand out like a bas relief in reverse. "Gabby eats here." He thought it was a fine joke. Mom sizzled in anger because he had defaced the furniture.
Mom has been in her room since breakfast. She needs to come out. After Dad died she moved out of their master bedroom upstairs and into the unadorned and sterile guest room off the kitchen. She said the stairs wore her out. The first day here, I gathered some gauzy artificial flowers from the back of a closet and arranged them in a crystal vase; found a basket of seashells in my bedroom. I pilfered old black-and-white photos from a dusty album on the coffee table and inserted them into silver frames. I placed them all on the bureau in her room because these were the things she loved; details, embellishments. Later that night I found them all sitting in the hallway, abandoned, like children she didn't recognize or want.
In her room, Mom is perched on the corner of the bed, head bowed over a wall calendar, both hands gripping its edges. Standing in the doorway, I watch her. This is what she is always doing when I come into her room. At first I wondered if she did this because she dreaded the empty hours of the day, until I realized she lives moment to moment, capturing what she can, discarding what has become meaningless. I realized the fear of her empty hours is mine alone, grips only at my insides, and pulls hard.
"Mom, why don't we go work on that jigsaw puzzle in the dining room? You know, the one you and Mindy have been putting together."
She looks up and moves the calendar behind her. She squints her eyes and rises, mumbles an okay, and follows me even though I know she'd prefer to stay in her room.
We sit at the massive oak table in chairs that look like they'll swallow her up because she has become shrunken, tilting forward, collapsible. Before us is a one-thousand piece puzzle, half-finished. Mindy was apparently feeling ambitious. The box shows the completed picture: a rocky hillside covered with banyan trees and flowering vines, a double-decker bus filled with tourists driving up the hillside. After about ten minutes I realize the most Mom can do is shuffle the pieces around the tabletop like tiny skaters on an ice rink. The joints of her fingers are swollen and wrinkled. The movement must be painful, but she never complains.
"I swear, there are pieces of this puzzle that are gone, just plain gone, like they got up and walked away." Mom says this in an almost angry tone.
Eventually she gets up and tells me she's going to fetch some water. I give her a few minutes and then follow her into the kitchen. She's sitting at the table staring at a small yellow Post-it note, her lips moving with the words.
"Hey, Mom, you deserted me." She has no water glass, and her eyes skitter past me as she shoves the note into her pocket. She shuffles to the counter where numerous pill bottles line up beside the spice rack.
"It's time for my pill." She looks over all the bottles as if one is missing.
"No, Mom, not yet. We'll wait for lunch."
The cuckoo clock on the wall strikes eleven. The wooden bluebirds throw themselves in and out of the tiny windows on its face. If I were home in California, I would be trudging across the sand with my beach chair, my books, my towel, following Jenny and her friends as they raced into the surf. I look back at my mom and think of all that she'll never do again: watch a movie and follow the plot, read a book, watch a sunset and compare it to the one from the night before.
I tell Mom to go into the living room and watch some TV while I strip the beds. In her room the air smells dusty and confined. She won't allow us to open the windows. The blinds are closed so the room is dim. I pull off the old sheets, then see empty water bottles on the shelf in the closet. When I begin to collect them, I see dozens of yellow Post-its scattered alongside the bottles. I pick one up and read, "Today is Sunday, July 20 (woke up at 3:45; could not get back to sleep). Had peanut butter and jelly toast for breakfast." On another one I read that her grandparents on her mother's side were Anglo-Saxons. They are all written in my mother's perfect cursive.
The sheets hang like blank pages across the back yard. They are motionless, no breeze to tease them dry. The late afternoon air is heavy and dense, like that of a swamp, and smells vaguely of cut grass. I remember earlier hearing the distant drone from a lawn mower. Mom is napping and Jenny and I have made lemonade and cookies and brought them outside to the back porch. She tells me what her friends are up to in California, what they all plan to do together when she returns. Mom has not spoken directly to her since we arrived, and this is a silent truth between us, not discussed, off-limits. If I ask Mom if she knows who Jenny is, will I be able to accept any hesitation when she answers? Can I concede to my unspoken fear that she might not know, might have forgotten what I so desperately want her to remember?
"So, Grandma's a little more forgetful than she was a year ago." I say this to Jenny as both a statement and a question, hoping she'll understand, hoping she'll know I want her opinion.
"Yeah, she's really quiet. She just smiles at me a lot. I feel bad for her." She munches a cookie and gazes out at the yard.
"Well, she's definitely worse." I take Jenny's hand and we sit there for a moment. Her hands are delicate and pale, her fingers long and graceful, and I look at them in quiet astonishment. The last two nights she has sat in the living room with her manicure set and meticulously groomed her fingernails, painted and repainted them in ivy greens and canary yellows, asking my opinion, until she finds just the right shade. She pulls her hand from mine to take a cookie from the platter and asks me if I'm sad. I consider the weight of this burden I fear placing on her young shoulders versus the relief I might gain by sharing some of the pain.
"It's about what I expected," I lie. "It'll be all right," and I smile the smile mothers give their children when pain is better self-absorbed.
"Look, there's still some housework I need to do this afternoon." I touch her chin and turn it towards me to make her understand how serious I am. "Tomorrow the Grand Ole Opry, I promise. I pinky promise." I hook my pinky around hers and they curl together like pipe cleaners, tight and secure. It represents a promise that can't be broken, no matter what.
Her shoulders sag, the cookie she had brought to her mouth drops to her lap. I put my arm around her bony shoulders and squeeze.
"While we're at the market this afternoon we'll pick out a DVD, anything you want, and tonight we'll make popcorn, just you and me."
She brightens, looks at me and nods, nibbling on the cookie again.
I hear footsteps inside the house. Mom is awake and I wish I could draw her outside for some fresh air. Mindy told me she'd given up on trying to tempt her into walks or even sitting on the porch. It's hard to accept that Mom is housebound now. She lived a good deal of her life outdoors. On the far side of the yard, three rows of gardenias serve as signposts, remnants of what was once Mom's garden. I can still see my mother on her three-legged stool, her head bent and covered with a floppy straw hat, her arms stretched into a sea of petals and stems, hands hidden, covered with gardening gloves, one holding a trowel. Behind her are the vibrant cardinal-red flowers, their long green stems reaching above her with leaves jutting out like stubby hands. Around her, a wild mixture of black-eyed Susans, snapdragons, pansies and wild geraniums bloom. She planted the garden with forethought, mirroring her life and the way she lived it. She didn't just fling the seeds around but purposefully put contrasting colors side by side, placed shapes and heights precisely to interrupt order. She didn't like two days to be the same. The garden died with my father and he would have been disappointed. Sometimes he would set up a lawn chair beside the garden's perimeters and smoke, just watching her work.
Once, as a small child, I ventured into the garden. I ran my hands along the soft velvety tops of the petals when my mother somehow sensed my presence. "Out, Gabriella, now. You know I don't want you trampling my flowers." As I turned I felt a sharp sting on the top of my hand and screamed as I watched the bee take flight. I turned to my mother. "A bee, mama, a bee," I wailed. She didn't look at me or stop her work but simply said, "Well, young lady, what did you expect when you came into my garden?" I ran to my father, who gently chastised my mother. "Helen, she is just a child." He pushed the stinger out with a card from his billfold, kissed each fingertip, and whispered to me that it would be all right, the pain would soon go away.
Yesterday I paced the remaining rows of gardenias, pinched off the smudgy white blooms of the ones that had wilted, and hoped for new ones to fill the air with their heavy, cloying scent.
I tell Jenny I'll be right back and head inside. The door to the back porch leads into the kitchen. It's a sprawling room and was a place of inexhaustible comfort to me growing up. At one point, my father changed out the 1950s appliances with sleek stainless steel and they clash with the dented cabinets and scratched tile, everything in the room that is ancient and yet consoling. Mom is looking out through the large bay window above the sink. From the window, you can spy on the back porch, which I did frequently when Mom and Dad entertained friends. She seems perplexed, her brows knit together, and she's frowning. She must be watching Jenny.
"Mom, how was your nap?" I walk to her side and touch her shoulder. She wears a heavy black cardigan and tennis shoes that are untied. It's 85 degrees outside and the air conditioning is on low. An ongoing battle takes place each day as she turns it off and I turn it back on. She continues watching Jenny.
"She's lovely, isn't she?" I say.
"Yes." Her voice stutters on the single syllable.
"It's Jenny, you know, right, Mom?"
She looks at me. There is a moment of hesitation, as swift and irrevocable as the moment the sun flickers below the horizon. Something inside me breaks.
"Why, of course I know who that is." She is angry now and takes deep breaths, scans the floor with frightened eyes. "Are you trying to tell me I don't know my own --"
"No, no, Mom." I throw the words at her, try to make them sound like an interruption. I cannot bear another hesitation on her part.
She stares out the window again, shaken, and grips the edge of the counter with one hand. Her knuckles strain and turn red. She's holding a glass of tap water with her other hand and I take it from her to gain her attention.
"Let's go outside for a while. Jenny has some cookies she made and we can have lemonade." I take her hand but she pulls it away.
She turns from the window and pats her head as though she is feeling for her missing wig. She's heard me but is ignoring me, a tactic she uses to deflect confusion. Sitting at the table, she begins to pick up some colorful flyers I'd brought in from the mailbox. She studies each one for a moment, places them in a pile, and then repeats the process.
"Where are my magazines? Can you bring them to me?"
She has a stack of magazines. They are ancient. Mindy says there's no use buying new ones because the old ones are still new to Mom. The first day I was here, she asked me for them, and I put the stack in front of her on the coffee table. She picked one up and rifled through the pages, then put it back down and turned her attention elsewhere.
"I'll go get them," I say. I retrieve the stack from the living room, then leave her as I join Jenny outside.
She's attempting cartwheels on the grass. They're not perfect and she laughs at herself. "Mom, look at this." Her lean body stretches, her arms point straight up into the blue sky, and her feet are planted on the too-green grass. She rocks back and forth a few times, and then throws herself sideways, legs twirling. Her white T-shirt creeps up her chest revealing her sweet bellybutton; her long, loose hair flies in all directions like a windmill. One elbow buckles as her palms meet the ground and she crashes down, rolling onto her back, laughing. "Mom, I suck," she moans, but she's smiling. A rippling surge of wonderment and love passes through me. Joining her on the grass, my hand can't keep from touching her cheek, pulling her hair out of her face and tucking it behind her ear.
"I've changed my mind. Let's go to dinner tonight. I'll make Grandma some soup before we go. She won't come, but she won't mind either." I have a sudden need to step away, to take Jenny with me and find a place to digest all that has happened in the last two days. It's a lot like the panic attacks I got right after Dad had his stroke. I'd imagined I was having similar symptoms. My blood pressure would shoot up and I would become light headed, the room would fade away around me and I'd wonder if I were about to die.
We pull up to the white-pillared entrance of the Grand Ole Opry Hotel, and the valet takes our car. The interior atrium is filled with waterfalls and canals that meander through lush gardens. A small restaurant sits right on the edge of one of the canals, surrounded by fountains and foliage. A waiter shows us to a table where we can view the interior balconies of the hotel rooms as they climb toward the top of the atrium. The twinkling lights come to life all around us as evening falls. Before us our waiter lays down white cloth napkins and heavy silverware. Our water goblets are cut crystal like my mother's, only here the crystal reflects the table's candlelight, and seems somehow richer. The waiter hands each of us a menu on a single heavy board. The entrees and desserts are written in fancy cursive on thick cream paper. We feel like royalty. We order shrimp appetizers and sodas while a server pours ice water from a silver pitcher that drips with condensation.
Before we left, I sat my mother down with soup and crackers, watched her dip the heavy silver spoon into the broth and push it around, occasionally bringing it to her lips.
"Jenny and I are thinking of going out for dinner. Will you be okay here by yourself? We don't have to go, you know."
"Oh hell, Gabriella. I am not... I will be just fine. Just get, already." She touched her napkin to her lips and her hand shook as she lowered it back to her lap. "Leave me be." She waved her hand at me and glared, challenging me to defy her. I rose and placed my hand on her shoulder, felt the bones jutting out against her blouse. I kissed the top of her head and left the room. I made sure the lights were on, locked up all her medication, turned the television on, and pulled all the curtains closed. I locked the door behind us. I know Mindy leaves Mom to do errands and shopping, but something about leaving her at night made me feel wrung out and nervous.
Classical music plays. Bach, I think. Jenny thinks it's sophisticated. She loves being pampered and feeling grown-up. We talk about things we'll do when we get home: trips to the beach, shopping. We talk about how we miss her father.
To our right sits a smallish, overweight man, camera hanging around his neck. His feet, dressed in white socks and deck shoes, dance under the table. He watches his wife as she types endlessly into a cell phone encased in ruby sequins. Her heavy arms billow out from sleeves of a clingy t-shirt, her platinum hair is frozen in frothy curls around her head. Jenny and I secretly giggle. Beside them, a harried-looking young couple tries to entertain two children, and enjoy a meal. Neither endeavor is proving successful. Would these strangers criticize me for having left my mother, whose mind is flooded with lost connections, fearful of minutes that tick by unaccounted for? Would they understand my quiet desperation to get away and make sense of it all? Do I even understand it?
Driving home, all that could have gone wrong takes root in my imagination; Mom has lit the stove for some unfathomable reason and set the house on fire, or she suddenly doesn't know why the house is empty. If she wakes from sleeping, will she remember I've been there and not Mindy? Does she know to read the notes I left her in both the kitchen and the living room? I have left alone a child unequipped to deal with the world around her.
When we arrive at the house everything looks the same. The lights are still on, the television drones away in the living room. The kitchen is empty and quiet. No burners lit.
Mom's room is dark except for the night-light she always leaves on in her bathroom. She is in her bed asleep and relief floods my every pore as I lay my hand on her and feel the quiet breathing. She is at peace while she sleeps, no Post-its to read and re-read, no people in her house she can't recognize but feels she should, no grappling with memories that won't quite surface or words that won't quite spill out from her brain at her urging. I close my eyes and remember a life when she remembered.
Thunderheads rolled in this morning and took charge of the sky. They loom overhead like black boulders just above the horizon. Mom is helping me fold some towels and t-shirts. Mindy said sometimes it helps to give her a job, even if it lasts only minutes. It seems heartless to me as she fumbles through the motions and gives up. Mindy never knew Mom as the force of justice and control she once was, and what I remember has left impressions like a hot iron on linen.
When I was seven, Tony Walters slugged me in the stomach so hard I lost my breath as well as my balance, and fell backward into a patch of stinging nettles. I ran home crying and shamed, even though he was just a bully out to get whoever crossed his path. When Mom heard my story, she grabbed my hand and we marched to the field where Tony was kicking a ball around with his friends. She grabbed him hard by the neck of his shirt, and dragged him up into her face. "You touch my daughter again and you will regret the day you were born, Tony Walters. Your mother spends most of her time higher than a Georgia Pine, and if she won't teach you right from wrong, I will." She pulled his little body over to the same patch of stinging nettles I had fallen into and threw him down. My mother was, if nothing else, a fierce protector.
"Where's Jeremy? I haven't seen him. The lawn's a fright." Mom hands me a jumble of towels that she has folded and stares out the window. Jeremy is a caretaker our family has shared with neighbors over the years. He runs the lawn mower in the summer and rakes leaves in the fall. I haven't seen him since my last visit, but I know he still comes.
"You still using him here?" I ask. I can't stop myself from asking, needing to know what she knows.
"Yes, but he's about as handy as a back pocket on a shirt. He never mows the lawn. Look at it."
I look out at a perfectly manicured lawn that stretches out a half acre in all directions. "Some iced tea would be nice, come help me."
On the way into the kitchen, she stops before a painting on the wall of the living room. It is dense with brushstrokes. Some are raised like welts. Colors explode across the canvas and form an image of a forest that rises above a pasture in the throes of springtime blooms. She puts a finger to one of the brushstrokes and follows its path. Then she stands back and continues into the kitchen.
In a room upstairs where the light is always excellent is Mom's studio. I checked yesterday and saw the room still contains her brushes and paints and canvases, some empty, some with tendrils of gray lines that flow across them like cobwebs. Those were her last attempts. It's difficult to see them and know the pain she must have felt when her hands no longer answered the musings of her brain. I shut the door with no stomach to investigate further. When she was good, when she was in love with her craft, she would invade the surrounding countryside where she'd spend hours sketching and painting, alone, never allowing anyone to accompany her. I asked only once and received a definite, measured, "No." I never asked again.
The last morning of our stay, Jenny stands before the whiteboard, cherry-red marker in hand. She hesitates. The night before Mom sat next to her on the couch while she watched TV and asked her if she would like to see some pictures of someone that looked just like her. Jenny nodded and smiled. Mom pulled out photos of herself when she was around Jenny's age. I'd never seen the similarities before, but they were striking. Jenny has the same thick, wavy chestnut-brown hair, the same aquiline nose and full lips, the same earthy green eyes. I realize she will be beautiful, just like my mother, and also know that is where the resemblance ends.
Jenny marveled at the images. The last few days she has listened to Mom's ramblings, showed her pictures of friends back in California, although they mean nothing to Mom. She just nods and eventually walks away.
The cuckoo clock strikes two. Mindy will come through the front door any minute and the time we've spent here will slip away unnoticed, like wisps of smoke as it swirls and disappears into a black sky. I have thought about closing up the house, bringing Mom to live with me and Jenny and her father; we have the room. But to tear Mom away from all that is familiar, from what memories still hover in a landscape that is slowly becoming desolate, would be the cruelest act in this sorrow-laden descent into oblivion.
Mom is sitting on the couch, pushing around the photos still on the coffee table, the ones she showed to Jenny last night. She holds one up and squints, a smile takes root, then falters, a shadow of sorrow passes over her face. She points to something with a shaky, arthritic finger, and her lips move with silent words; my heart breaks. She loves me no less than I love Jenny, but she has always loved me in her own neurotic and overbearing way, and I survived and love her still. Outside the front window, birds swoop from tree to tree, a distant plane wails, and its sound fades as the country silence folds in on itself, waiting.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Laura Stout. All rights reserved.