I was driving my mother from my sister Sue’s house to my own home last June when she said, “Sue has been my daughter her whole life. Why don’t I know her mother?”
It was as if my mother, whose mind had been steadily losing ground to Alzheimer’s, had become a Zen master dispensing koans.
I’d busied myself that spring establishing a sort of monastic discipline of my own, preparing for my mother to move in with my family and me for the summer. In an attempt to shape a habitat that would suit her increasingly unruly mind, I’d come up with a simple creed to which I vowed to adhere, and I’d encouraged my husband, Larry, and our daughters, Maddie and Anna, to subscribe to it as well. That creed was this: Things fall apart. Move on. This philosophy was intended to guide us in the areas of language, cooking, sleeping, bathing, and other daily activities that would be affected by my mother’s presence among us. Exhausted by prior attempts to impose reason and structure onto the madcap landscape that had become her world, I decided to eschew the holy order of the conventional and stop badgering my mother about the facts. Things fall apart. Move on.
“My children are all dead,” my mother told our dinner guests one night shortly after she’d moved in with us. Through a colossal effort of will, I resisted the urge to correct her and continued refilling her iced tea. She meant (I think) that her siblings had all died, but nouns shape-shifted on her these days, and pronouns changed places shamelessly and unpredictably. One June evening I found her standing in the living room of a lake cottage we were renting. She was clutching our cellphone and aiming it at an ugly lamp on the end table. “Where’s the TV?” she asked.
I couldn’t resist. “That’s a cellphone, Mom, not a remote. There is no TV here.”
She locked eyes with me. “That’s because she doesn’t like the TV,” she said.
“She” was me, and my mother was right about that, at least; I don’t like television.
Subscribing to a new orthodoxy of mayhem, my husband, our daughters, and I were determined to tolerate and even uphold a gentle anarchy that I hoped would allow my mother to feel comfortable. I saw us as inhabiting a sort of cognitive antigravity chamber, a cerebral space-station summer camp where none of the usual rules applied. I hoped we would float about and not knock into one another too much. We could return to solid ground in September, when I would go back to teaching high school, and my mom would go back to my sister’s house. With luck we would all remember how to walk again when the time came.
This was the third summer that my mother had lived with us; the third summer since she’d lost her husband (my father), her house, her community, and — lobe by strangled lobe — the ability to articulate her thoughts. My failure to demonstrate a steady patience and affection over the previous two summers had registered as “sin” in my Judeo-Christian-inspired Index of Impossible but Absolute Principles by Which Good People Live — a Talmudically detailed reference manual that resides in my head and remains open, year after year, to chapter 1: “Good Daughter/Bad Daughter.” One day, during the first summer she’d stayed with us, Bad Daughter had barked, “Mom, you can’t swallow your car!” (She’d meant her pills.) Immediately afterward, I’d bumped my head — hard — getting groceries out of the van. Well, I deserved that, I’d thought. Deserved? What was next in the way of self-recriminations: a hair shirt hidden beneath my clothes; sharp stones in my walking shoes?
My compulsive need to make my mother stick to the facts hadn’t worked for either of us. So, to the best of my ability, I was declaring a fact moratorium this time around. Because a freewheeling attitude toward the facts does not come naturally to me (I require my American-lit students to use a template for their thesis statements, and I slap automatic C’s on papers that slip even once from the third person), I’d prepared backup in the form of alcohol, tobacco, and Xanax — “the triplets,” as I liked to think of them. It helped just to know they were there in the pantry, ready and waiting. I expected to call them all into service before the summer ended.
When my sister had delivered our mother into my care, she’d assigned me a number of tasks, to which I’d raised no objections; Sue handles virtually everything during the nine months that I teach school. “Here are mom’s doctor appointments,” she said, handing over a list that included dates with a cardiologist, a neurologist, a podiatrist, an internist, a urologist, and an ophthalmologist. I pictured a giant Lazy Susan on which elderly parents under their children’s care could be positioned to revolve every twenty minutes or so, stopping before specialists who would minister to their brain, heart, feet, eyes, or teeth. “Also,” Sue said, “Mom needs new bras.”
My mother is from an era when sturdiness rather than sexiness drove the underwear business, so I took her to JCPenney.
This assignment turned out to be trickier than the assorted doctor visits. To begin with, my mom didn’t know what size she wore. Then there was my own prudery regarding parental nakedness, which made me reluctant to get right inside the fitting room with her; I set her up with a half dozen brands in a few different sizes and took a seat in the stall next door. But the real challenge was the impossible design of bras themselves. She muttered and sighed and finally wailed, “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
My first response was irritation: My mother can’t even put on a fucking bra. I stepped crossly inside the stall with her, and there she was, looking old and small and defeated, with a too-large bra on upside down and unfastened. Grief struck first, followed sharply by recognition, and I saw in her myself. Who is less capable than I am of operating any tricky apparatus? I have yet to discover how to work a turnstile in any city subway. (Where does the token go?) I can’t replace an ink cartridge, hang a picture evenly, or reset the clock in my car to daylight saving time. I can just barely manage to put on a bra myself. All those loops and straps and hooks — it’s like playing cat’s cradle in the dark just getting dressed in the morning.
I glimpsed my own future in that fitting room. In fact, I see it all the time in my mother’s confusion, like déjà vu in reverse: these things have not happened to me yet but are eerily familiar. Not long from now — in roughly thirty years — the fabric of my mind will likely unravel in much the same way hers has. It’s no wonder I’m crabby when she asks me, in a plaintive voice, where her mother and father are, and then whispers, “Am I an orphan?”
“She’s moving in the wrong direction,” I complained to my friend Jeanne one day as we were walking on the campus of the nearby university. (Taking a long, fast walk every morning was a nonchemical strategy I was pursuing to reduce stress.) Jeanne’s precocious two-year-old granddaughter, Sophie, on the other hand, was moving in the right direction, becoming increasingly fluent and dexterous and independent. If you asked Sophie where the birds in the zoo live, she would tell you, “In the aviary.” If I’d asked my mom where the birds lived, she’d likely have said, “In my father’s house,” by which she’d have meant her husband’s house, which is to say her own lost home, where they’d never even kept birds.
She was advancing toward entropy, all her systems shutting down — which, in the larger scheme, I knew was the right direction. New forms emerge from old, and we are all made of used parts temporarily assembled — carbon atoms that once constituted barbers and bakers and cabdrivers who sang and suffered in their turn. We must give up our form so others may have their turn at consciousness and flower pollinating and ballet. I understood this, but it still felt wrong. Individual existence is not easy to give up.
I don’t think my dog Buddy, as he lay dying, grieved the imminent loss of his singular self. It’s self-consciousness that plagues us, the awful knowledge that I am now, but someday I will not be. My mother is now, but someday she won’t be. It’s this awareness that, according to the familiar myth, got us thrown out of Eden: suddenly we knew we were, and God showed us the door; or, more rationally, our emergent self-consciousness was irreconcilable with a life of perfect joy and ease. We fret and grieve because we are self-aware. Eden is restored only to the rare mystic who glimpses everything as a selfless, seamless whole. My mother is, in fact, moving in the right direction; it just feels wrong as hell.
These insights, correct as they might be, would have done nothing to comfort my mother, so I kept them to myself and tried to loosen up and let things slide. And I am proud to report that by mid-June my elderly Presbyterian mother and I were meeting each evening with cocktails in hand and, as an additional racy treat, going joy riding. Larry had secured us a golf cart for the summer. The Tibetan prayer flags strung along the top, which flapped merrily as we rode, were my idea. Tibetans believe that the wind catches the prayers written on these bright strips of cloth and carries them Godward. So as we motored around our suburban neighborhood each evening before dusk, waving at our neighbors, we were also effortlessly petitioning whatever forces of benevolence and mercy there are in this world. If the temperature was below eighty, my mother wore her winter parka, zipped to the neck, and we brazenly carried our drinks with us on these breezy excursions. I’d whip up strawberry daiquiris in the blender and give one to my mom without telling her what it was, a nightcap to her lifetime of temperance. She’d eat it eagerly with a spoon. “Delicious!” she’d say, occasionally adding, as she grew companionable, “When did your mother die?”
Near the end of August I began packing up Mom’s belongings in preparation for delivering her back to my sister. The new school year was at hand, and Larry and I still had to get our daughters, who’d seen the summer through with patience and flexibility, back to their respective colleges. Anna was returning to Chicago, but Maddie had decided to begin graduate work in southern Mississippi, a place the New York Times had called the “Redneck Riviera.” Her decision to move to the deep South threw up a whole new set of hurdles for my mind to negotiate. Falling into the same sort of stereotyping I condemn in other people, I fought off images of my daughter run down by a pickup truck with a gun rack or hassled by itinerant oil-rig workers. As we emptied Maddie’s closet, I complained to my mother, “I may as well just print up a bumper sticker: ‘Bubba done got my baby!’ ”
“You have to let her go,” my mom said, suddenly lucid. “It’s time.”
She was right, of course. I dragged Maddie’s suitcases to the top of the stairway, and Larry hauled them out to the van.
The anything-goes attitude I’d cultivated that summer was a means of coping with daily life, not a solution to the undoing of my mother’s mind, nor a remedy for the pain of her steady losses. The daiquiris, the golf cart, the outlaw levity had distracted us from our distress and infused a little lightness into the tense days. Those strategies certainly did not dissipate the hopelessness that loitered at the end of every evening — just where I knew it would be — hungry for our minds and hearts.
There is nothing left to hope for except, perhaps, that my mother should die before she stops knowing us altogether, before incontinence and confusion and fear win the day. Until then I’ll try to turn up some small treats for us each weekend: a movie, lunch at the Irish pub we both like. And we’ll face next summer when it comes, if it comes. My new creed — neither complicated nor the least bit ambitious — is simply this: until things fall completely and irrevocably and heart-wrenchingly apart, we’ll move on.