“Hello,” I say softly but startle her anyway, lost in a dream state the doctors call dementia, hovered over an eternally unfinished crossword puzzle. She stares at me a second, her eyes owl like behind large lenses, wondering who I am, then something flickers.
“Hello yourself,” she said. My mother never calls me by name, that fact lost along with so many others, but there is something familiar about the face of her first born.
“How are you?” my clever opening gambit. She thinks and then gives her standard response.
“Bored.” Her housemates, she explains as if I didn’t hear this every week, are old, anile and constantly reciting current ailments and past hurts.
“So you never complain?”
“Who would listen?” she snaps, though she’d have a captive audience.
“Not I – I have problems of my own.” She barks a laugh, a new trick she’s learned, where once I would have heard some caustic rejoinder and a litany of woes to make sure I knew who suffered most. Mothers always win, relying, if necessary, on the old chestnut about the day you were born, the pain of which you can’t refute since you were barely there.
Each Saturday begins this way, a dutiful visit to remind me that she is, though she is not who or what she once was. Sometimes I miss the harsh, judgmental tone, the attacks launched from an alcohol fueled aerie, criticisms, past slights recalled, anger still seething at the objects of her hatred, most of whom are dead. “Good,” she says when I tell her that they’re gone.
A few years ago, as her besotted mind was rotting rapidly and, of course, she was still driving, my brother thought it would be fun to send her back to where her old friends lived, sparking memories and wistful reverie about good times when my father was alive. I was volunteered to finalize the details of this folly, wondering who’d put up with her and why. Fortunately, I think, one of her drinking buddies stopped things in their tracks.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but your mother is a drunken, self- centered bitch.”
“How could I take that the wrong way?”
“Your father was a wonderful man,” she continued. “We all loved him, but they came as a set. Now they don’t, so I can finally tell you I can’t stand her and neither can the other women you want her to visit.”
“So I should cancel the trip?”
“You always were a wise ass, just like your mother. Do you have any friends?”
“Not like you,” and I hung up.
I wasn’t surprised, really, but appreciate the filters and coded language normally used around me. I find it forgotten, actually abandoned, by the geriatric generation, who now have less to lose and fewer who would notice.
My mother didn’t have a firm grasp of time and reality at that point, but since the doctors forced her sobriety she had more lucid moments.
“What about my trip to Chicago?” she suddenly asked me one day.
“They can’t bear the thought of seeing you without Dad.”
Silence. She looked down at her gnarled hands, clutching a plush bulldog toy I’d given her A shadow crossed her face and then, in a barely audible voice, she said, “I think I understand.”
It was that same look my father had when my brothers and I told him he’d have to stay in bed and ride out his remaining life there. His face had flushed with anger, hurt and pain. He started to speak, but then his eyes dimmed, his head sank into his chin and we sat there, looking anywhere but at him. He died in his sleep a few weeks later, but I saw him die in front of me that day, just as I watched my mother make her final retreat into what I hope is dementia’s blissful gift.
That was years ago, and she still resides in what my brother calls “Hell’s waiting room.” The staff is cheerful and dotes on all their denizens, but you can’t help but notice the turnover rate. Still she slogs on, burning through our inheritance and refusing to succumb to the cancer they allege she has. “Too mean to die” is the needlepoint message I’m dying to put on her pillow.
She would laugh at that, and then tell me to stop being a wise ass.