MONDAY WOULD HAVE BEEN my mother’s birthday.
In 1993, her brother, my uncle, took me to lunch. We hadn’t seen each other for a while. I was newly sober and raw as a razor burn, but pleased to be coherent and in his company. After some minutes of chit-chat, he leaned forward and said, “I think your mother has Alzheimer’s.”
People emerge from addiction like newborns. I got sober for this? was my immediate, shameful thought. And then:
“Yes,” That Voice Inside Me replied, “you were saved, in part, so you could be present for your mother in her illness.”
And was I present enough? Thirteen years on from my rebirth and my mother’s death sentence, six years on from her passing, I am as confused as any survivor who loves and cannot save.
It is a lousy disease. Especially when you know you’ve got it.
There’s realizing, by the strained smiles that greet you, that you must have said the same thing more than once.
There’s the stage where you’re upset but can’t say why, and people who love you are looking at you with pity, and their pity frightens you and hurts your pride.
You fabricate conflicts with old friends until they stop seeing you, so they will not be there to witness your decline.
Later there is running out of the house, pursued by ghosts.
Then forgetting your grown children’s names. And your husband’s.
Then comes a hideous second infancy.
Then you don’t eat.
At that point you must be placed in a facility. The transition from your home to a “home” is accompanied by the grief, guilt, mourning, rage, and regret of those still actively living. But you are not aware of it.
Or so I hope.
I do not live in the same city as my parents, so showing up involved air travel and schedule coordination — afflictions of the living.
Sometimes my mother came to my city.
The misery was like a layer cake.
There was the time I arrived at the unveiling of my dear aunt’s tombstone to find my mother and father already at the graveside. My mother was crying but did not seem to know for whom.
“Look,” said my father, pointing in my direction in hopes of cheering her up.
My mother looked right at me.
“I know that man,” she said.
A year later she could not talk.
Finally she was like someone in a near-coma. She could sit up. You could wheel her around. That was about it.
“Look, it’s spring,” you would tell her.
“Look, it’s fall, the leaves are changing,” you would tell her.
Near the very end, her hair turned white and she bloated after a lifetime of elegant thinness.
About a month before she died suddenly in her sleep I was visiting her in the Home. She had not spoken for a long time. She did not look you in the eye or notice if you were there. She had stopped eating the ice cream and other treats my father was always bringing her, which she used to eat like a baby from his hands.
Her stereo from home was in the room — another of my father’s ideas — and I popped in a CD she had owned and loved when it was an LP, Frank Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours.” Not that it would do any good. But you keep trying.
There’s this haunting bluesy saxaphone riff on one of the tracks — a sad, brief volley of notes. Suddenly, as it played, my mother gripped my arm. Then she was gone again. Had it even happened?
Maybe one day I will see her and maybe she will be able to tell me.
She died before September 11th, 2001, and I remember thinking, Well, at least she did not have to see this.
It is a lousy disease, and one of the lousiest things about it is the way it displaces the memories one would prefer to hold onto. My mother was shrewd, smart, compassionate, hilarious, political, artistic, lively — and loved her family almost to a fault. Those are the things I want to remember, and do, when the damned disease isn’t obliterating all memories not related to death and decline.
I am blessed with a wife and daughter. My mother, who would have adored them, does not know them. My daughter resembles me as I resemble my mother. My daughter’s hands and feet are like my mother’s. Her face is like a bust of my mother my grandfather made. I never knew my grandfather although his photograph smiled opaquely at me from my mother’s piano. A painting of my mother adorns one wall of our apartment.
Will my daughter know my mother as anything besides a painting and a ghost? I think so. For there are things I will teach my daughter that only my mother’s son could teach.
A dollar short and two days late, happy birthday, Mom.