I was taking my mother to live with Saint Monica, my sister. My mother would live with her while waiting for the “home” to have a spot for her. Could be a day, or weeks. (Someone had to die first, and there were many distinct possibilities. One guy was 104.)
The “home” is a few miles from my sister’s house. My mom couldn’t live in my sister’s home because Monica’s husband had said no. He didn’t like mother-in-laws. He’d had one before and she’d run up a thousand-dollar phone bill. Back when long distance was long distance.
He had good boundaries now, he said.
My mother had tried living with me, but it had been a disaster. She had become a sleepwalker, snuck out at night, gotten picked up by strangers in cars. I couldn’t handle it after six months. My mother didn’t listen to me. She listened to Monica.
Monica had told me we were allowed to say assisted living, not nursing home. “Mom will freak if she thinks she’s going into a nursing home.”
“But that’s where she’s going, Monica.”
“She’s going into assisted living. Let’s be on the same team, Addie. Positive, and respectful, and most of all, smart.”
She said this softly, a little cajolingly, but not so you’d cringe. She said it the way she said other things, with disarming grace and her native cheerfulness and this odd accent that was all her own, as if she’d held onto the speech habits of the planet she’d come from—that kinder, better organized place where everyone was a ballerina like her, and practically nobody had a drug addict (like me) sister. Though I’m clean now. Have been clean for seven years. But you know what they say about that.
I’d really cleaned my car, shined it up, even vacuumed. I was still wanting to impress my mother at age forty-nine. I was never the clean-car type and I wanted to pretend I’d changed. I’d changed a little. I was off fast food, so there were no wrappers on the floor, no dented cups.
Sure enough, as soon as my mother got into the car, she said, “The car is clean.” This was not a compliment. This was a statement that contained a hint of astonishment that served as a critique of all the times she’d seen my car unclean. She had always been the type to give me compliments containing insults. “Your hair looks nice. I was wondering when you’d cut that mop.” “That skirt is very flattering, really slims down those hips.” “I hear a big improvement in your voice.” That last one she’d said as soon as we started driving, since I was singing along with the radio.
My daughter Layla was in the back seat for moral support. I was trying not to be hurt and mad that my mother was having me drive her all the way across the country so she could live near Monica. Well, okay, halfway across the country. Or maybe just over a quarter. Pittsburgh to New Hampshire. We started to lose the radio station, with the Allegheny Mountains on either side of us, closing in. Soon every station would feature a certain kind of raging Christian minister. It’s a frightening country, but there are worse places, and I make gratitude lists to stay focused on. Things like the Allegheny Mountains. And the sky. To the left the sky was a wild array of purple, backlit clouds sailing east.
I stuck in an old Glen Campbell CD I’d ordered especially for the trip to surprise my mother. I wanted her to be touched, wanted her to think of me as considerate. The first song was “Galveston.”
I looked over at her, and she was smiling, her face devoid of tension and softened and lit up. When had I ever seen such an expression on her?
“I know this! It’s—it’s that man. That man named—”
I kept stealing looks. She had early dementia now, she was preparing to sail away, she was being replaced by this other person, and it was terrifying. Inside me was a small child screaming for the old mother to come back right now. The one who used to wear a bitch is a verb apron. The one who did a lot of karaoke, who’d raised five kids, who chain-smoked, who worked in my father’s restaurant, who referred to anyone she didn’t like as a horse’s ass.
She and my father used to sing along to this Galveston song in that old living room with the pale green rug and the brown-and-beige record player in the corner and the stiff green couch in front of the picture window. I was only five or six, listening, but when Glen and my parents sang I am so afraid of dying I’d run out of the room pretending I needed a Dixie cup of water. I remember standing on the step stool, reaching for the cup, looking into our backyard and praying that nobody I knew would ever die, especially not my parents, not ever, God, please, and, being a first grader at Immaculate Conception, I believed my prayer had a decent chance of being answered.
I like this memory. I like knowing how completely uncomplicated and dire my love was at one time.
“Poor Glen Campbell got Alzheimer’s and sang a terrible song about it on TV,” my mother said. She pulled her crystal blue rosary beads out of her pocket and gripped them in her hand.
“I remember when I was eight years old I thought he had the best hair,” I said.
“Very nicely combed,” she said.
“The only part I didn’t like in the Galveston song is when he cleans his gun. But maybe some people like the gun-cleaning part.”
“I liked it just fine,” she said. “You argue about the silliest things, Addie!”
“Was I arguing?”
“Maybe the word is nitpick.” She was waving to a blond child who was facing the back window of the car in front of us. “Wave, little fella!” she says. “Why won’t he wave?” She sounded bereft.
“Cause he a little white bitch,” Layla said. Layla was white too, but she liked to talk like the black kids she goes to school with.
“What did she say?” my mother said.
The word nitpick brought back a memory. Once, my younger sister Bonnie and I brought home lice. We scratched our heads like maniacs and my mother spent a week or so telling us to just cut it the hell out. She believed we were neurotics. Or itching on purpose just to drive her crazy. Then the school sent home a lice alert. For several nights, my mother soaked our heads with olive oil, and tried to comb out the nits, crouched down behind us on the floor like an impatient ape, while we watched What’s My Line? and ate potato chips dipped in ketchup, which we considered “a recipe.”
The third night she showed us two old wigs. “Aren’t they pretty?” she said, “Wouldn’t you love to wear them?” We were only eight and nine, so of course we said yes. One was long and “frosted” and one was a black pixie sort of deal. We had vague memories of her in these wigs. She took us into my parents’ bathroom and cut off all our hair, and then shaved out heads with my father’s electric razor. We thought this hysterically funny and extreme, and screamed throughout the operation, our brown and auburn locks falling in long clumps around our bare feet. I began to cry halfway through. “Oh, please, ” she said. “Are you starving in Africa?” We faced our bald selves in the full length mirror and screamed again. Then she gave the long frosted wig to me, and the black pixie to Bonnie. Bonnie didn’t look half bad. I in the long frosted wig went to school and became known as Sick Horse, since Eddie Capellini, who would grow up and become a congressman, said this was exactly what I looked like. It only lasted a few weeks, but still, to be called Sick Horse for two weeks when you’re eight years old and wearing a frosted wig to school leaves a dent.
I told Layla this story as I drove, and she kept saying, Wow.
My mother smiled and said, “What was I thinking?”
Layla said, “You should write Congressman Capellini a letter and sign it ‘Sick Horse.’”
Why didn’t Monica get lice? She was a year younger. She went to the same school. The other kids in her class got it. She had the most beautiful shiny yellow curly hair in the town, or maybe the country. Did even the lice of the world love and respect Monica? Did they say to each other, We don’t deserve her. She’s a ballerina, let this delicate dancer be, this child who will never do drugs and who will graduate summa cum whatever from an almost Ivy. She’s too good for us lice. On some kind of mystical cellular level this must have happened, since just about every other kid in the school got lice. My mother suggested it was Monica’s “impeccable hygiene,” but guess what, Mom, lice has nothing to do with hygiene.
I reminded her of this as we drove and she said, “Hmmm. I don’t know anything about that.”
I put the window down again; the rain had backed off. The cool air was something to love unequivocally. I think I heard crows—a lot of crows. Maybe they were hiding in a tree somewhere.
She wanted to stop in Maryland, at my brother Eddie’s before we got up to New Hampshire. Bonnie had agreed to drive in from D.C. Eddie’s new wife—a woman who changed her name from Marcy to Mercy and corrected you each time you got it wrong, had a son named Ebenezer. She said Scrooge was a under-valued person and represented transformation, and no she did not plan to call him Ebbie.
Eddie led us into the downstairs apartment, and said, “Ta da,” and there she was, Mercy, sitting cross-legged on a bed. In the room where most would have a living room, they had their bedroom. She got up from the bed and walked over to us. She was barefoot, in a kind of blue-grey gas-station jumpsuit, with curly dark hair. She was a stocky person with bright dark eyes and I noticed her feet were especially small.
“I- am- so- very- glad- to- meet- you,” she said, and my mom gave me a mildly alarmed look that meant, why- is- she- talking- like- that?
Then my sister Bonnie burst in behind us. “I hate people!” she announced. Traffic was bad, and we were going to hear about it.
After Mercy shook our hands, we all headed back to the kitchen, Bonnie railing against humanity, known in her lexicon as stupid motherfuckers on their cell phones. Mercy went to the back door and called out into the evening, “Ebenezer! Ebenezer!” and my mother said, “Who’s Ebenezer?” and Eddie said, “Her kid. I told you about Ebenezer, Mom.”
“Oh no you didn’t!” Her face was flushed, her eyes wide.
Eddie looked at me and said, half under his breath, “Oh yes I did,” and Mercy left the kitchen to walk around in the dusk calling “Ebenezer!” while my mother said no child should ever be stuck with a name like that, and was Eddie sure this woman deserved him? He was the other favorite—the only son—the boy child who could do no harm, even as he’d done a lot of harm. Like dropped blotter acid at age nineteen and spray-painted our parents’ house with a Gandhi quote in orange. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win!
We ate some hippie food with them—including a bad dandelion salad and tofu hash and pots of green tea—while Bonnie told a story about her friend who opened a wing business. She made beautiful strap-on wings, and these wings were really selling, and in D.C. you could see some winged people walking the streets now, as if they needed to dream they were birds.
When my mother asked for a Coke, they said she should never drink Coke, that it was toxic.
“Too late,” she said. “If they ever open me up they’ll see I’m 90 percent Coca-Cola.”
I laughed. Then Eddie got up from the table and started pacing, saying, “That’s why you’re aging like this, Ma. All that shit you put in your body! It’s making you sick!”
“People do have to get older,” she said. ”Don’t they?”
“But they don’t have to—” He stopped himself. He opened one of the cabinets, and came back holding a very large jar of coconut oil. He placed it on the table. Really he kind of slammed it on the table. “Merry Christmas,” he said.
I said, “Why did you just place a large jar of coconut oil on the table and say ‘Merry Christmas’ in April?”
“Because she won’t buy it for herself! And it’s anti-dementia food. And I’ve only been saying this for two years now.”
“I tried it,” my mother said. “I tried it last year. But it gave me Montezuma’s revenge.”
“That’s not true, Mom,” Eddie said. “You didn’t try it! You told me you had no interest in changing your diet at this late date and that you didn’t even taste it much less eat a tablespoon. Just like you wouldn’t try learning Spanish.”
“Really?” She looked confused. I looked down.
“We had a whole conversation about it last month,” Eddie said.
“We did?” She looked kind of scared. This stabbed me. “Well, I thought I tried it,” she said. “I guess I only imagined I tried it. I get confused.”
“I do too!” Layla said emphatically, coming to her rescue, reaching her hand out toward her grandmother and grabbing onto her arm. “I pretty much live in a constant state of confusion. I think anyone who doesn’t actually has a serious problem.”
After dinner, Bonnie had to run. “Have a conference call at eight tonight.” She was just that person—she always had to run. She always seemed to be dangling keys in the air even when she wasn’t. She said she’d visit my mother soon, goodbye and good luck, let’s not get emotional.
She zoomed off in a tiny Toyota car with its honk if you don’t exist bumper sticker.
Layla slept upstairs on what Mercy called Blanket Mountain. I took my mother to sleep at Eddie’s friend’s house—they were out of town—in a real bed, after she played two rounds of Go Fish with Ebenezer.
Her night started out smoothly enough, even if she stripped naked like a child and wandered around picking up the penguin figurines all over the sills and bureau. Dementia hits, and suddenly it’s like Adam and Eve never had the fall. No attempt to hide any so-called private parts, no shame whatsoever. This after a lifetime of extreme modesty. I was almost used to it. She wandered around naked picking up penguins while telling me a story she likes to tell frequently about Monica. How all the neighborhood kids ran outside to look at the astronauts walking on the moon after drinking Tang in their honor all year. One of the kids, Kenny McGee, started jumping up and down saying I see him, I see him! And Monica, who was eight, really knocked herself out as if she thought the astronauts could hear her. I love you, Neil! I love you Buzz! I love you both so much! She wouldn’t stop. She shouted so loud she cried. She had lost her mind.
Great story, but that was the 103rd telling of it. “Let’s get your pajamas on, Ma.” I was not a fan of her nakedness. I know this is a character defect, but I blame society. If magazines were filled with old bodies and we saw them year in and year out selling products, it would be easier.
“Do you think your brother Eddie has found himself a nice gal?” she said, sitting on a wooden chair, allowing me to help her into her pajamas. She was a bit short of breath. Her face was still beautiful.
“Is she a gasoline station attendant?”
“No, Ma, she told you, she’s teaching pre-school.”
“That’s right. And Eddie’s a—what the hell is Eddie again?”
“Part-time physical trainer, part-time night auditor, part-time life coach, part-time music man.”
“That’s very enthusiastic of him.”
“I think it would be good for you too, don’t you? To be enthusiastic?”
“What? I’m plenty enthusiastic.” I almost laughed. “I’m learning computer skills. I walk all the dogs in my neighborhood.”
“And Eddie’s so cheerful.”
“Yeah, well so am I, cheerful,” I said. “So am I.”
She was all dressed in the blue pajamas. I helped her in the bathroom. She brushed her teeth without assistance.
“Good job,” I said.
“Spain sent a picture of her cats on the balcony,” she said, through the brushing.
My mother never said my older sister’s Angela’s name—after she moved to Spain twenty years ago, and only visited every four years or so, my mother called her Spain. Spain was the only sibling lower on the totem pole than I was, so I liked her. I’m sure she had her reasons for abandoning us. My parents were wonderful, as was Cholly’s, their restaurant that put us through school, but like most people of their time, they didn’t think of children as fully human, and one time they forgot Angela at the racetrack, and she was taken home by people who kept her for three days, and all of us siblings figure it scarred her for life, even though the people seemed nice enough. (But how nice could you be, keeping a three-year-old kid for three days, telling nobody?)
“And how are the cats in Spain these days?”
“How would I know?”
“You said Angela sent you a picture?”
“Oh. I’m tired.”
She woke up at two in the morning, confused. She called my father’s name. She shouted, “What if there’s a fire, Cholly?”
I sprung up. I told her, “Remember, Dad graduated.” (Her word for his dying.)
She didn’t hear me, and kept talking to him about the old restaurant. She told him Restaurant News had stopped coming in the mail. Then she said, “Don’t look at me like that, Cholly!” And laid back down.
An hour later, she was up again. “Let’s go for a walk, Bonnie!”
“I’m not Bonnie, and I need to sleep.” I’d been lying awake for an hour, trying not to think.
“Let’s go see Bonnie.”
“Go to sleep! Please, please, please! I’m gonna die if I can’t sleep.”
“Someone’s getting awful feisty!”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
I got up and went to the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Someone’s getting awful feisty!” then drank water from the spigot. Then sat on the toilet and looked at the moon. Then went back to bed. She was snoring.
She woke up two more times, both times to talk to my father. Finally I slept a bit.
I was not my best self in the morning. My mother said whenever she got “blue” (I was not blue, I was mildly enraged to be so fatigued with a seven hour drive ahead of me) she remembered Christmas in Miami.
“Oh, yeah, that was fun,” I mumbled. It happened about forty years ago. We all got sunburned and my parents got drunk at the pool-side bar all three nights. We’d snuck into one hotel room—all seven of us. It really was a great time, and it actually did make me feel better to remember it as we headed to see Monica. I remembered jumping from bed to bed, the ice machine and the ice bucket, the candy machine in the lobby, my father shelling out quarters. Bonnie and I in sleeping bags. The one trip to the beach where we saw a jellyfish the size of a car and refused to go into the ocean. The feeling that we’d all go on like that forever. Every one of us young enough to have that feeling. After you lose that feeling, you become a different person altogether.
I told Layla all of this as I drove, and how the sunburn was so extreme we all had to take turns sitting in a tub of vinegar. That my father got so drunk he cried and made a speech about how we were all the greatest kids on earth and he was the luckiest man on earth. And how we were all freaked out because, really, a crying dad? On night three Monica entertained the people at the poolside bar with a ballerina dance, and then sang “Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” with a microphone, and got a standing ovation and offers to be adopted.
Did I want to be her? No, I wanted to be myself, only adored as she was adored. Or like Eddie was worshipped by my mother and respected by my father—just for being a son. Bonnie not so much, although she was the family photographer. Angela, before Spain, had been right up there with Monica. So I grew up knowing something just wasn’t right about me. They were so happy that Monica did her ballet through the years, in tutu after tutu, while I was in the basement with Bonnie doing the bump. Remember the bump? My sincere condolences if you do.
My mother had her head against the window now, was sound asleep.
“Can you turn off this WPGTF music please?” That was Layla—meaning White People Gone Too Far music. She was right—it was Rush, or some band like Rush, playing now. I turned it off and Layla started rapping. When my mother woke up she said, “She’s so talented at that rap singing, isn’t she? Does she get that from her father?”
“I was in bands, Ma. I’m musical. Don’t you remember?”
“I never understood the words you were screaming. We in the older generation like to understand the words.”
“I also play the bass. Remember?”
Layla’s rapped some Chance. She was young enough to sincerely argue that Chance could save the world if everyone would just shut up and listen.
Monica greeted us at the door in faded jeans and a lavender sweater. She looked anxious, seeing my mother’s unsteady gait as we approached. “Mom!” she cried, and rushed toward her, embracing her. And then us. And I saw tears in her eyes.
“It’s so good to be here,” my mother said.
The level of unadulterated love and sincerity changed the atmosphere. My mother seemed to breathe deeply.
They linked arms, and Monica asked me if it had been a rough ride.
Monica looked about ten years younger every time you saw her. Her long gold hair had highlights now, and was pulled back in a neat ponytail.
“I kept Addie up last night,” my mother said.
“It’s all right, Ma. I’m fine.”
“You got dark circles, and that’s my fault.”
“No, Ma, it’s fine.”
But I fell asleep early that evening. Monica could be in charge now. I told her to lock the front door, and she did.
I had a dream that night. My mother snuck out, down to the highway, stood on the side of the road, almost got hit by a car. I screamed her name from up on the hill and she couldn’t hear me. Then a truck stopped. She climbed in. She rolled down the window and shouted up to me, “He’s a handsome fella, go home.” But I chased them. Then I had wings, like people in D.C. Bonnie had mentioned. Fantastic multi-colored wings, and I flew in the dream, parallel to the truck. But the truck, the driver, and my mother, disappeared. I walked on the ground, talking to all of my siblings at once, even Spain. We were frantic, tearful, bonded by worry as never before. How would we ever find our mother? I woke in a silent, thick-carpeted guest room, alone.
The very next day she went into the home where they put a medallion around her neck that said flight risk .
“Ha!” she said—no dummy. “I wish I could fly. I’d fly so far away from this place your heads would spin.”
The director was kind, competent, fiftyish, warm-faced, in tasteful tweed. “We’re so happy to have you,” she said. “Hopefully after a few weeks, you’ll be happy too.”
“Never thought I’d end up in a place like this. I guess it’s the end of the road, here.” She looked into space as she said it.
“And the beginning,” said the director, and she took my mother’s hand. My mother gave it to her. We followed them now.
She was going into the Memory Room. In the Memory Room, they had objects to remind the old of when they were young. Records by Elvis nailed to the wall. Photos of the World’s Fair in Chicago. President Kennedy and Eisenhower. An enormous wedding dress hanging in the corner of the hall, big enough that several average-sized brides could fit into it.
The people in the memory ward looked terrible. I don’t want to describe them. I saw that my mother would be the sharpest one by far. One aide, beautiful and in a hijab, sang to herself, rinsing glasses in the corner kitchen. I tried to catch her eye, I wanted to tell her my mother liked attention, to please keep an eye out. Another aide helped feed a woman hunched over in a wheelchair and making animal noises.
“I think maybe this is the wrong wing and—”
“Most everyone feels that way at first,” the director said. “We don’t like to move people twice, it’s too hard on them.”
As we walked down a carpeted hall to see my mother’s room, she told the woman, “Five kids, and not one made room for Mom. Oh, well. Thems the breaks.”
Monica said, “I’ll be here every day.”
I said, “I tried to make room but it just didn’t work. Remember? And I’ll come visit and you’ll get sick of me, I’ll call so much.”
Layla said, “Eddie’s got four jobs and Bonnie’s got those wild stepkids and obviously some kind of mental issues, otherwise maybe—” Layla, saying this, was working hard not to burst into tears. The director opened the door to her new room.
My mother said, stopped in the doorway, “And I guess I can’t live with Spain.”
And told the director about our lost sister, Spain, and the director, listening, mentioned how some of the residents loved to Skype.
We entered and raved about the little cell with the single bed in the corner and the fresh white walls and the plastic flowers on the ledge above the bed and the hand-printed sign that said welcome, mary!
My mother didn’t say a word. She did not make eye contact.
After the director told us about the meal plan and a few policies, she calmly reminded us that we should go now. That we could come back in a few days, but it was better for our mom if we let her start to adjust.
We didn’t want to go!
We really, really did not want to go.
“Come back later this week,” the woman said, and she was still holding my mother’s hand. My mother, I could tell, liked her. But none of us moved.
“She’s ours now, and we’ll take excellent care.”
Had she been trained to say, “She’s ours now,” to drive home the awfulness?
We walked out the door into blue spring air. We had coffee with Monica in a place called Coffee Fix, our faces stunned, our voices strained as we reminded each other that poets came in and worked with the old people, and sometimes a choir, and college girls gave manicures on Tuesdays. Then Monica said she was finding it hard to love her husband, who wouldn’t let our mother move in. “I could have hired an aide,” she said. “I feel like I won’t be able to look at him tonight.” Then she took a breath and shifted gears. “We’ll get through. So he’s not perfect.” Her wide eyes got wider. She gave us a smile. “She’ll be fine.” It touched me, this hard swerve she made away from heartbreak. I knew I loved this person more than I knew.
“I’ll visit in August, and definitely at Christmas,” I told her, and she said, “Great.”
We hugged goodbye in front of Coffee Fix.
And Layla rapped and cried, rapped and rapped and rapped, pretty much all the way back home.