The door buzzer goes off on my way in, I’ve forgotten again to key in the passcode, but the patients are not rattled, only the nurses notice the piercing sound as loud and long as a siren.
The unit is locked so patients don’t get out, don’t get lost. My mother has a bracelet around her ankle now, prisoner style, just in case. She wanders, my mother. Wandering is what got us here. The time just nine months ago when she left her condo unit to check the mail and instead walked to the post office, lost. That was the day we knew. We just knew.
Dirty carpets line the hallway, chipped radiators hiss with heat, but it is always cold here. And every one is old, so much older than Mom who is turning 74 next month. She’d been diagnosed with early onset dementia on her birthday two years ago.
The woman I know as Gladys, wears her usual knit hat and scarf with her striped pajamas; she startles me as I walk down the hallway. “My baby!” she says, “My baby!” speaking to the doll cradled in her arms.
“Looking for Mary Blue Eyes?” Nurse Kelly says, “She’s in her room.” This is what all the aides and nurses call my mother. When I peek in Mom is in her bed, sleeping. She is always in bed now, her long days distilled to a haiku.
Her usually chestnut hair is flat and dyed too black, I reach out for her hand that is thin as crepe paper, and her eyes open.
“Marci,” she says, and I tear up, because she remembers me on this particular morning.
“I brought you raspberry yogurt,” I say in a sing-song voice, ever upbeat when I am with her. I sit on her twin bed, I always sit on the bed, never on the upholstered chair next to her. I want to look into her eyes and see what memories are there today, maybe a short sentence, or a lyric from her life, or nothing.
“Aunt Anne has a pool right?” Mom says.
“She does,” I say, though it was my grandmother who had the vinyl pool we spent our childhood jumping in and out of, the pool that was covered over decades ago.
Mom’s nurse peeks into the room. “She’s a witch,” Mom whispers. “They hate me. They all hate me.”
This is the tunnel I cannot pull her back from; this is the delirium that can come with dementia, a disease where there is no IV, no drugs, no treatment to make it all better. Her decline has been rapid and heart breaking. So much so that I save old prescription pills in a Band-Aid box in my bathroom so I can take them all at once if my memory goes. I do not want this for her. I do not want this for me.
A widow since she was 56, my mother’s life has been dragging behind her ever since Dad died. When she lost interest in everything, a withering blossom, in the aftermath of his heart attack. I wonder now how much she remembers of my father, the love of her life, the slow drip of his final days. I wonder what will happen to Dad when the woman who loved him most has no memory of him. What’s it like Mom? I want to ask, to lose your place in the story of your life?
“She says the name John in her sleep,” Mom’s night nurse told me once, asking who John was.
“He’s my father,” I said. “My father.”
Mom starts several conversations, stumbling over each syllable, plugging in the wrong names; it was my sister Linda who was homecoming queen not me, I have the MFA, not Linda. I place a spoonful of yogurt in Mom’s mouth and some spills on the too big stained sweatshirt. I think of the last I saw my mother dressed up, able to feed herself.
It was only six months ago, Linda and I picked Mom up in a white stretch limo at the assisted living home where Mom was living at that time. The small pearls on Linda’s gown glinted in the sunlight.
“My two girls,” Mom said the three of us in the back seat. “Where are we going?”
“To the wedding Mom,” I said. “We’re going to the wedding.”
When we arrived I walked Mom to her seat, wisps of June air blowing through her curled brown hair. Before we sat down for dinner Mom said, “I want to go home,” beautiful but shaking in her navy dress. Dinner had not yet been served. I kept her company at the table, whispering names into her ear as a guest came near. Her memory was skipping, a scratch in the record. But Mom could still walk then, she could feed herself the parmesan-crusted halibut.
Next to her now I read a few lines from Jane Eyre, our favorite book, while she stares intensely at something on the blank beige wall in front of her. The space I tried to decorate with frames when she first moved here. “Take them away,” she had said. “Now!” And I packed them back in the box, wondering, why Mom?
She always loved to read, and I think back to her seated on her plaid chair next to Dad’s recliner in the house on Brooks Avenue where they read hard-backed books by DeMille and Michener, while we kids did homework. Imagine not remembering a single book you’ve ever read? I think, as I turn the pages now and know each chapter is brand new to her.
“You can stop now,” she says. “That’s enough.”
“OK Mom,” I say, “Let’s look at your photos.” The reading and photo albums are part of our Sunday routine. I take out the small photo album that we keep in the nightstand by her bed. I flip and point out her six grandchildren. “This is Johnny,” I say. My son Johnny, named after my father, has my mother’s eyes; blue wool.
“And this is you Mom,” I point to the photo of her holding her first grandchild, my daughter Sophia, minutes after the birth.
“No it isn’t,” she says. “That’s not me.”
Stacy, the aide I like best, stops in and I ask if she could get me a soda from the machine, I pass the change to her and remember Mom’s coin collection, her “mad money.” When my siblings were at college, and Dad went out drinking, it was just my mother and me, her “bonus baby,” then fifteen. If it was after 7:00 p.m. we knew Dad wasn’t coming home any time soon, so Mom would make a show of tiptoeing into her bedroom where she’d pull her jar of coins down from the top of her closet. “Lets go out to dinner,” she’d say. And we’d speed to Carvel in the white station wagon with the duct-taped glove compartment and get hot-fudge sundaes for dinner.
I hold up a nickel now, roll it between my fingers. “Your mad money Mom,” I say, “Remember your mad money?” And though she sometimes remembers her line for this absurd magic trick, today she does not.
I’d taken Mom to Carvel a year ago, my last trip to see her when she was still living in her condo. The two-hour trip from Connecticut to Long Island, where everything about my mother seemed to have slipped.
I took her to her doctor appointment that day and then for groceries at Stop n’ Shop down in Huntington Village, where the Hamburger Choo Choo Mom always took me too used to be, the burgers arriving at the table via tiny toy trains.
Walking down the dairy isle Mom said, “I need salad dressing.” I put one bottle of Wishbone Italian in the cart. “I need more than that,” she said. I added three more bottles.
I tossed in a dozen cans of baked beans and Campbell’s soups and felt more in control as each can hit the cart. There Mom, I thought, See I can take care of you; this is all going to pass.
Later unpacking groceries, I opened the fridge and saw three bottles of open Wishbone salad dressing.
“Your sister must have bought those,” Mom said.
Leaving cans of soup on the kitchen counter, we walked into her small living room. She was shaky among solid things, the coffee table, the overstuffed couch. She knew then that something was wrong. “I’m scared,” she said.
Mom has fallen asleep to the sound of my voice reading again. I get up to leave, tucking the yellow comforter tight around her, the way she always did for me in my childhood room with the butterfly wallpaper. I kiss her on her cheek. “I’ll rub it in,” I say, rubbing the spot where I kissed her, “So you have it until next time.”
I open the curtains a bit more, the sun shines through a sky that seems to be held up by the pending snow, the light in the room iridescent like my mother’s memories splintering into a thousand shiny pieces.
Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, and the author of An Iridescent Life: Essays on Motherhood. Her work has been published in The New York Times, NPR, Salon.com and others.