By Jacqueline Doyle.
“Where are these from?” my mother asks, reaching for another cookie. She’s had her silver-gray hair permed in honor of our visit, and she’s wearing brown polyester slacks and a coordinating gold and orange blouse. I suspect she rarely wears anything but dingy cotton housedresses when we’re not here. Even though she has two walk-in closets crammed with clothes, she prefers to save them for special occasions. She’s been sleeping a lot since my father died, complaining of colds and headaches, too tired to bother to get dressed.
“They’re from Panini’s. You know, the place where we had lunch?” I try again. “You know, the place where we had lunch today?” After a pause, “You know. The sandwich place. By Walgreen’s. Today.”
My mother stares at me. Wide-eyed. Blank.
“They’re good, aren’t they,” I say nervously, wondering whether my husband Steve and son Ben have noticed. Mom isn’t reacting to her lapse at all. But then she has always shifted quickly into denial when something uncomfortable comes up. I wonder how she’s managing to take her medications, pay her bills, how long she can get by like this.
Our conversation keeps drifting off track. I’m used to her digressing and spacing out on the phone. But today, in person, it seems so much worse. She is really only focused when she talks about “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s hard to go very far with that, since I don’t watch it.
“You should have seen them. Unreal. It’s incredible, the way the two of them can dance. They all think so. The judges too.”
I nod, trying to look interested.
“She’s the cutest little thing,” she adds. “And he looks just like Clark Gable, but blond. Very handsome. They make quite a pair.” I’ve noticed lately that my mother describes all men under fifty as handsome. Her doctor is handsome. The UPS man is handsome. The taxi driver who takes her to the hairdresser’s is handsome. The cook in the dining room of her Independent Living complex is handsome.
“Didn’t you say you have a video? We can show you how to use the VCR again.”
“Gladys down the hall made a tape of the first show. It’s over by the TV. It was ridiculous, all that extra security. I don’t know who was paying for it.”
“They had to have all kinds of security because of that woman who wants to be president, you know, the one who’s so dumb.”
“Yes, Sarah Palin. Her daughter is one of the celebrities, though I certainly don’t know how having a baby with no husband makes you a star. Her mother was there the first night. She’s kind of heavy and she can’t dance. She tries, poor thing.”
“No, the daughter. I want you to see the one who was in that movie, you know that dancing movie with the one who just died of cancer. Darn, what was his name? That was a real shame. Cancer of the pancreas, not like your Dad’s.”
Yes, Patrick Swayze. So handsome.” My mother shakes her head. “And young. She was crying about it on the show. One of the judges told her that Patrick was looking down on her from heaven. And it’s true. I think he was.”
“Wasn’t that movie a long time ago?”
“Yes, she’s older than she looks. She’s been in and out of the hospital for all kinds of problems with her neck and her back. She says she’s tired of it. I know just how she feels.”
“Yeah, I think I read about that. A car accident or something. Did you see the movie?”
“Heavens no. Your father and I stopped going to movies years ago. Do you know what a movie costs these days? It’s highway robbery.”
The four of us are sitting around two circular, white plastic outdoor tables pushed together in the dark, windowless dining room of her apartment. Though she and my father moved in more than five years ago, they never got the dining room light installed. The large brown shade is in a box in the corner. Everything has been odd about their decor since their move to Florida when my father retired. Maybe it made more sense there: white formica cabinets, white metal outdoor couches and chairs with cushions that can be wiped clean with a sponge. Living near the beach, in a complex with a swimming pool, maybe it was practical. But in this very upscale Independent Living apartment in North Carolina, it makes no sense at all. It looks makeshift.
“We spent a lot of money on that furniture,” she tells my brother and me when we bring it up. “Everyone raves about how comfortable it is.” It isn’t really. She frequently tells a story about their neighbor’s reaction to the North Carolina apartment. “‘How refreshing,’ he told us, the first time he walked in.” My mother loves repeating that comment, interpreting it as high praise. What would you say if you walked into a fancy condo furnished with outdoor patio furniture?
They discovered Dad’s cancer shortly after their move from Florida to North Carolina. The move had already exhausted them. Nothing was unpacked during his year-long illness or after his death. Four years later there are still boxes everywhere, stacked in corners, filling the walk-in closets, many taped shut, others half opened and overflowing. My mother doesn’t seem to notice them. Once in a while she frets about a missing knick-knack, darkly hinting that she may have been robbed. “I’ve looked everywhere, but I just can’t find the ducks.”
The recessed bookshelf niche in the dining room wall next to our table is jammed full of souvenirs ready to be arranged elsewhere, including the ducks, along with stacks of smaller boxes. One of them holds a pewter urn with Dad’s ashes. Another holds a matching empty urn for hers.
“So do you call in and vote, Mom?”
“Why don’t you call in? You watch it every week. You should vote. I’m pretty sure it’s free.”
“I don’t know.”
She can’t seem to imagine voting for her favorite dancers. Maybe it requires too much energy. I seem forever to be getting into conversations with her where I tell her what she “should” be doing. I try not to, but she complains so much. It’s hard not to give advice.
She shrugs and dismisses the idea of calling in to vote. “My back’s been so bad the past couple of weeks. It’s hard to think about anything else.”
“Why don’t you call the doctor, Mom? You should call Dr. Murray.”
“He’ll just send me to a specialist. I can’t face surgery right now. It seems all I do is go to doctors,” she adds with a dramatic sigh. In fact she thrives on doctors, but she doesn’t like to drive, and hates spending money on taxis.
“What makes you think you’ll need surgery?”
“They told me that before.”
“Who told you that before? When?”
“Them. The doctors. When I was in training.”
“You mean when you were a nurse?” In her early twenties. She’s in her eighties now. “They referred me to the specialists right there in the hospital. They did exams and x-rays. They were all talking about it. They couldn’t figure it out. They just couldn’t find what the problem was.” She says this with some pride, as if she is a special medical case, one for the textbooks. “‘You’ll just have to live with it,’ they finally told me. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ And I have. I’ve lived with a bad back all these years.”
I know she hasn’t had a bad back all these years. For as long as I can remember, she has detailed every ache, pain, and symptom she is experiencing. Lower back pain may have come up occasionally, but not often.
“You should buy a new mattress, Mom. Remember we talked about that? It really might help your back. Did you get the materials on the Tempur-pedic mattress that I had sent to you?”
“Oh yes, they’re around here somewhere.”
We look around at the drifting stacks of papers on the couch and bookcases and chairs and buffet. It’s obvious we’ll never find the Tempur-pedic brochure. I couldn’t live for a day in this state of chaos. I feel closed-in here. It’s unbearably cluttered and too warm. The blinds are drawn, the windows shut tight. Mom is adamant about that. The air will bother her allergies. The sun will fade the upholstery. Why would anyone care about the upholstery on this crummy furniture? It’s hard for me to breathe, but maybe it’s because I’m so unnerved by how vague Mom has become, what a mess the apartment is. I’m trying not to think about the future.
“There was a record, too.” Probably a DVD, but since she doesn’t have a DVD player, there’s no point in looking for it.
“I’ll look it up on the computer, Mom. We could go buy one tomorrow. They’ll deliver it the next day and take your old mattress away. I think it’s going to cost a little more than a regular mattress,” I add tentatively, “especially if you want the kind where you can raise the back.”
I know this is going to be a problem. It’s going to be a problem getting her to spend money at all, though she has plenty in the bank.
If I’m not careful, we’re going to get into one of our escalating arguments about money. First I’ll complain about her refusal to spend money on things she needs. “Of course you should spend forty cents extra for the low sodium soups. Forty cents is not very much. I know Dad would want you to put your health first, Mom.” Then she’ll lecture me about understanding the value of money. “It all adds up. We didn’t pay for your college by spending money on ourselves,” she’ll say, triggering a spate of reminiscence about their cost-cutting measures and careful budgeting. And next, “You and your brother spend money like there’s no tomorrow.” Followed by a resentful litany of complaints about my brother’s new house, our son’s private school tuition, my brother’s partying and extravagance when he dropped out of college years ago.
If I’m lucky she’ll stop before she begins to air sixty-year old grievances about the financial irresponsibility of her sister Mary (now dead) and her sister-in-law Marie (now suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s). “That’s just not the way I was brought up,” she’ll congratulate herself. “I know the value of a dollar, and your father did too, bless his soul.”
I take a deep breath, already feeling the familiar tension in my neck and shoulders. Breathe out. Try my best to be patient. I feel so sorry for her, alone and helpless without my father. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without Steve. But my mother and I have never gotten along. After two hours with her, I’m no longer a 58-year-old competent professional and loving wife and mother, but instead the resentful, angry teenaged daughter I once was. The one sent to her room for calling her mother a hypocrite. The one who moved to Europe to get away from her family and now lives on the other side of the country.
My brother was always her favorite, but their relations and past history aren’t much better. We’re both anxious about the future. I live 3000 miles from North Carolina. He lives 1000 miles away. We lead busy lives. Who’s going to take care of her when she gets worse?
“A Tempur-pedic might be a few thousand dollars,” I say. “They’re memory foam.”
“You’re kidding.” Her tone is aggrieved, her expression set and belligerent. “Well, I’m not spending that.”
“Your old mattress might be bothering your back, Mom. They don’t last forever.”
“Your father and I bought that when we moved to Florida. Your father just walked in and said, ‘Give me the firmest mattress you have. We’ll take a floor model.’ And it was worth it. We would have had to pay for a hotel that night, but we got to sleep in the condo.”
Although I’ve heard her repeat this story countless times, it’s still somewhat surprising to me. Other people just go out and buy mattresses, but my father used to pore over the Consumer Reports before each purchase. He wasn’t an impulse buyer. I’m hoping I can talk Mom into going into a mattress store and asking them to just sell her the firmest mattress they have. Since Dad’s died, she insists on doing everything exactly the way he did it.
“Why don’t we go tomorrow? We’re only going to be here until Saturday.”
“Yeah, Grandma, let’s go in the morning,” Ben says. My husband murmurs assent, eager to help. I know they’re both feeling trapped in this claustrophobic apartment. Thin lines of blue sky glimmer between the horizontal slats of the closed venetian blinds. We could step out into the sun and fresh air, actually get something done. But maybe this is my own form of denial, imagining that a Tempur-pedic mattress is going to improve my mother’s life, stave off the decline that’s already begun.
“We’ll see,” she says, unconvinced. “I wish your father were here. He’d know what to do.” Changing the subject, she says, brightly, “These cookies are good. Where did you get them?”
Steve and Ben look at each other.
“Panini’s, Mom. That place by Walgreen’s.” I see a brief flash of fear in her eyes, as if she’s wondering whether she’s supposed to have known that. I stand up and rub her back. “Maybe we’ll get some more tomorrow.”
That night the four of us watch the “Dancing with the Stars” videotape, Mom, Steve, and I squeezed together on the uncomfortable couch, Ben sprawled on the floor, lounging on the couch’s throw pillows. I lean my head on Steve’s shoulder, tired after a day of doing nothing, and he puts his arm around me.
“I used to go dancing every weekend when I was in training,” my mother tells us. “Of course your father was never a dancer. He didn’t like it. You won’t believe the ballroom dancing on the show. The celebrities are all beginners, you know. They help them learn how to dance. It’s amazing how much they improve. Just unreal.”
We watch a clip of a studio rehearsal. My mother can’t remember the dancer’s names and I don’t catch them. The couple falters and repeats a routine until the female star can remember the steps. She falls and gets up. When she’s mastered the choreography she spins in place and laughs, then drinks from a bottle of water and towels the sweat off her face. They hug each other, all smiles.
Finally the emcee announces Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough’s dance, a Viennese waltz. They appear at the top of a long stairway on the stage. He’s handsome in black trousers and a black tie and white shirt, if not exactly Clark Gable. She’s wearing a long formal gown of pale dove gray with a glittering bodice and spaghetti straps. Surefooted, they descend the stairs arm in arm. A hush falls over the crowd.
The music starts, Otis Redding’s romantic “These Arms of Mine” from Dirty Dancing.
They wrap their arms around each other and execute a series of intricate twirls. Dipping and swaying, the two of them begin to waltz, dancing in ever-widening circles, gracefully turning again and again, their gazes angled over one shoulder, and then the other as they trace arcs under moving spotlights on the dance floor. Her chiffon skirt billows, sequins sparkling in the lights. He looks like a combination of Ashley Wilkes and Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. My mother claps her hands, enchanted.
“Aren’t they just something? It really takes me back.”
“They’re great, Mom.”
“Beautiful,” Steve says, and Ben agrees. “Pretty cool, Grandma.”
The music ends, he lowers her almost to the floor, her silvery chiffon skirt trailing, and the crowd erupts in cheers and applause. We all clap too, gathered for a moment into the warm circle of family, blinds closed against the darkness outside.
Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. A recent Pushcart nominee, she has published creative nonfiction in many literary journals, and has a Notable Essay listed in Best American Essays 2013. “My mother died of Lewy Body Dementia last year. This essay, originally published in The William and Mary Review, chronicles the first signs of her disease, and a moment of transcendence before its rapid advance.” My website: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle