from Conversations with My Mother
A typical conversation with my mother these days goes something like this:
She will say: “Where’s my purse? Do you have my purse?”
And I will say: “It’s over on your dresser. See?” I point.
“Is my checkbook in it?”
“No, you don’t have a checkbook anymore.”
“Well how do I pay bills? I have to pay my bills.”
She’s anxious, so I say brightly, “You don’t have bills anymore, Mama! Everything is taken care of. It’s like you live at the Hilton and have servants!”
“It’s just like being a Communist,” she says.
I look around at the swanky “Best of the Springs” spot we landed her in for her final home and argue, because she taught me to, “It’s exactly like being a Capitalist, actually.”
She ignores this.
“Well, I’ve paid for things with my own money my whole life and this is just torture.” Last week she called going out to get a pedicure “the lowest level of Hell.”
“It is your own money.” I look up at the ceiling, practice my Zen breathing, think she has a funny idea of torture.
“How can that be when I don’t record anything in my checkbook?”
I explain that we are paying for everything out of the money she and my dad saved. When I finish she says, “Now, what did you say about my checkbook? Where is it?”
“You don’t need one anymore.” I hear the edge creep into my voice. I try to change the subject by opening the Macy’s bag full of new nightgowns and a black fleece (which I hope she’ll exchange for the cardigan she’s worn every day for six months so I can sneak it out and wash it).
“What are those?” She says horrified, looking at the pile of nighties.
“Your new nightgowns Diane and I bought you!”
“Those are not my nightgowns. I don’t own any such thing.” She holds up an offensive cotton Henley.
“We thought you needed a few new ones for winter.”
“My old ones are just fine.”
“Your old ones have holes and are covered with blood.”
“If your father were here everything would be different.”
“He would want you to have new nightgowns,” I say, thinking of my father’s last, anguished weeks as a cancer sufferer. I am glad he’s not here.
She gets up to use the restroom for the sixth time in an hour, her ruined knees nearly buckling with every minute movement to push her upright. When she returns five minutes later she says to me, “Isn’t this place wonderful? I am so blessed.” She smiles at her good fortune, then we go through it all again, our interactions reduced to petty grievances and minor joys.
She has Alzheimer’s Dementia. Always hard on the loved ones, research shows that AD is particularly hard for caregivers who experienced a high degree of intelligence in the patient prior to disease onset. This is true for my mother’s five children. In addition to having spent her life reading all the lesser classics, my mother could once talk with passion about books like The Life of Doctor Johnson, War and Peace, Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury. She read Proust—all of him—twice through and worshipped Dickens. My childhood is peppered with memories of her spouting off lines of Shakespeare in response to whatever I was going through. For example: when a boy arrived at our house to take me out on a date, she said, in front of him, “Be thou fair but temperate—thou hast witchcraft in thy lips, Kate.”
These days, I am the mother, signing forms, talking to doctors, buying her new underwear, watching with tender amusement as she happily spoons food into her mouth, eating whatever is put before her, a weird kind of toddler, diminished and in clothes four sizes too big for her. I have seen every part of her body naked (but that’s a whole other essay), and feel only compassion for the tiny, shriveled material that now imprisons a fading mind. She is just shrunken bones and wrinkled skin, this small person with her wobbly gait, but she was lovely once, with big, brown eyes and ink black hair, this Indiana farm girl who lived through the Great Depression, the rise of the automobile, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, TV, Civil Rights, the Sexual Revolution, Watergate, Carter, Reagan, Iran and Iraq twice, Hippies, Yuppies, Millennials, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Springsteen and the Sex Pistols; she is the matriarch of a tribe that includes five children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. She made us nuts, our intelligent mother with her whiplash tongue, but she taught us to think and argue and laugh, to love life and people and beauty.
When I visit her now, I find her by the fire in a small parlor, leafing through the New York Times. She has limited attention span for reading, but I perceive she likes to hold that great paper, locating in it a secure link to her fading past and a comforting mask for her baffling present.