“Thank God we’ve never had any of that in our family,” your mother tells you for the umpteenth time, though her own father had dementia when he died, and by now she’s moved from Independent Living to Assisted Living to Sylvan Glen’s Long-Term Care facility for dementia herself.
“You should see some of the patients here. Unreal.” She thinks they’ve stolen her possessions, and searches in their closets and drawers for missing clothes and knickknacks. “My things. All my beautiful things,” she wails.
Most days she believes she’s one of the nurses. “We’ve got our hands full, let me tell you.”
You live on the West Coast and your mother’s on the East Coast, so when the doctors start calling every day they call very early in the morning. 6:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., even at 4:00 a.m., when you sit straight up in bed in the dark, confused and disoriented, your heart pounding.
That time they wanted permission to send her to the ER, but most of the time they want to talk about your mother’s refusals. Refusal to take medications. Refusal to eat. Refusal to allow blood to be drawn. She rages against her caregivers and nurses, prefers sleep to waking, and her elaborate fantasy life to the everyday reality of the nursing home. Bingo! Crafts! Sing-alongs! Who can blame her, really.
The phone calls become progressively more pointed. Do you want your mother to be comfortable, or do you want to continue the trips to the ER and aggressive testing and treatment? The doctors and nurses and social workers tiptoe around euphemisms, language a minefield of unexpected surprises. Comfort is code for just letting her be, it seems, and you favor letting her be, but when you consult your brother he calls it unethical since her dementia isn’t terminal, after all. Each time the phone rings at 5:00 a.m. and you drag yourself out of bed you think of comfort, and wonder whether it’s your own comfort you crave, or your mother’s, and what comfort means, really, when someone’s as old as your mother, who hasn’t known comfort since your father died seven years ago.
She no longer answers the phone, which she keeps under the covers in her bed, and it’s hard to ask her anything anyway. “Imagine, I just had another baby,” she exclaimed last week. “At my age! Another woman on the ward had fourteen babies. They thought she was finished but then another would come, and another. It was just unreal. Can you imagine!”
You keep thinking of Faulkner, and “My mother is a fish.” How the brain spawns stories in a world devoid of narrative. Naturally. One, and then another, and another!
“I’m pregnant again. Jim can’t believe it,” she announces the next time you call. She chuckles, delighted with her fertility.
Your mother is in labor. All week while you’ve been immersed in the quotidian, brushing your teeth, showering, getting dressed, making coffee, slicing bananas on your cereal, driving to the university, teaching classes, eating your lunch, having conferences with your students, teaching more classes, driving home, making dinners, eating with your husband and son, washing dishes, paging through books and magazines, changing into your pajamas, turning out the lights, tossing restlessly in your sleep, she’s been giving birth to death.
You knew. The seemingly endless series of daily phone calls culminated in a call from her general physician. Compassionate but blunt, he said, “Your mother is dying. The best thing we can do now is allow her a natural death. I would strongly advise against sending her to the hospital at this point.” And you’d agreed with him, and hadn’t even bothered to consult your brother, just called to say, “Mom is dying, and she’s comfortable, and not in any pain.” She’d stopped speaking or opening her eyes. The doctor thought she could hear. That was Monday.
Monday afternoon in your restorative yoga class you lay in the dark breathing deeply, wondering whether this was what it was like to die. You took a long walk that evening, and the next, and the next. You looked down at your black tennis shoes, putting one foot in front of another, walking faster and faster, filling your lungs with air. Was this what it was like to live?
The street in front of your house was littered with yellow leaves. Brown leaves crinkled underfoot as you strode along the sidewalk. It was cold. In the fifties, but it felt very cold to you. You put up the hood on your sweatshirt and jammed your hands in the pockets, kicking at the leaves as you walked.
You remembered raking the leaves in New Jersey when you were a child. Your mother wasn’t there—probably inside in bed, nursing one of her chronic complaints. You and your brother jumped into huge leaf piles, excited, laughing. Afterward your father set the pyramid on fire and the three of you stood around the bonfire in the chill autumn air, watching sparks and curled skeletal leaves floating upward in the blur created by the intense heat. The fire crackled and your face was hot in the glow of the flames.
It isn’t until Saturday, six days later, that the phone call comes, from a nurse with a heavy Filipino accent. “Your mother died at 2:05 p.m. We’re sorry for your loss.” At least you think the nurse said 2:05 p.m., not realizing until you begin to fill out lengthy forms for the death certificate and the cremation that you’re required to know the exact time of death. Many other facts have died with your mother, such as where she was born. Was it Denville or Boonton or Morristown or Newark or Jersey City? Somewhere in northern New Jersey, and you won’t know until later when you can open the safe-deposit box and find her birth certificate and passport. By then it won’t matter. You say Denville, pretty sure it isn’t true.
Your mother once told you a story about the hospital in Denville, before her dementia became acute. A true story about her own mother going to the hospital with some other women on a charitable errand that involved a dance with the inmates of the mental ward. She’d danced with a perfectly charming man whom she thought was a doctor and it turned out he was a mental patient. When would this have been? The thirties, the early forties maybe? Was it a widespread practice then, bringing suburban housewives to hospital dances to cheer up the mental patients?
“Unreal” was one of her favorite expressions. “Just unreal,” she’d say, shaking her head. And it seemed that even before her dementia your mother lived in a surreal universe where everything, from the most mundane to the most outlandish, was equally unreal.
After her obituary appears in the local New Jersey newspaper, you begin to receive condolences. A few cards from older relatives, in elegant, spidery, Catholic school handwriting. A scattering of e-mails from school friends you can barely recall. “I remember your mother as a very sweet and caring woman,” one writes, and you’re astonished. You search your memory for a time when your mother could be described as “sweet” or “caring.” Have you lost some crucial piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the past, or is this just a common platitude in notes of condolence?
“Was your mother sick?” a good friend asks when you e-mail her about your mother’s death. You’re not sure what to say. She was stubborn, self-absorbed, truculent, and serene by turns, delusional. She could be vindictive and judgmental. Deceptively jolly, especially with non-family members, particularly with men. She was sociable, far more so than your father, and always enjoyed a good party. Her ill health was her main topic of conversation for sixty years, but even at the end, she wasn’t suffering from any serious illnesses. No, she wasn’t exactly sick.
In the months before her death your mother dreamed of what she liked to call “galas,” public celebrations, lavish ball gowns, life in the limelight. “Just turn on your TV tomorrow night,” she’d say frequently, her tone mysterious. “You’ll see.”
The screen on your TV is black. You unearth the control from under a pile of pillows on the couch. You don’t know what to expect. A woman with fourteen children telling her story to Oprah Winfrey? “So many mouths to feed,” she’ll say. “One, and then another, and another.” Your mother in Oscar de la Renta, ascending the stairs with fourteen beauty pageant contestants? Or will it be an inaugural ball in the capitol, your mother in Versace, fourteen waiters dancing on tiptoes holding silver trays with glittering glasses of champagne aloft as they weave through the crowd? Is that your father in a tuxedo on the other side of the room? “Come dance with me,” she’ll call over the music, though your father never danced. Perhaps she’ll extend a foot coyly and say, “These are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned.” The band will shift into a new melody as your mother twirls away, lavender taffeta skirts billowing. “I could have danced all night! I could have danced all night! And still have begged for more.” Your mother’s singing along, head thrown back, like she always did. You can hear her warbling above the violins, until the full orchestra comes in, and her voice fades away.
“It was just unreal,” she’ll tell you tomorrow. “You should have seen it. Unreal.”
Jacqueline Doyle’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Confrontation, South Dakota Review, Southern Indiana Review, South Loop Review, and Cold Mountain Review. A recent Pushcart nominee, she also has a Notable Essay listed in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online here: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.