Harry Marten


SHADOWLANDS


“They are strange prisoners. . . . they see only their shadows, or the shadows of one another.”
      Plato, The Republic, VII

      “Who is this?” my mother whines peevishly into the phone that I have just answered. It’s suppertime and she has called me for the fourth time in 15 minutes. Yet she seems surprised when I pick up in my kitchen, as if I have unexpectedly interrupted her in the middle of some important action.
      “It’s Harry, mom – your son.” A few months ago I might well have laughed and begun jokingly to explore my hidden self. “‘Who’ in what context? Are you asking about the nature of my inner being? The ‘me’ I keep secret from all but my most intimate friends? It’s your son Harry, mom, whoever that is. We’ll probably never know. What’s up?”
      But now, with the calls getting wilder, more frighteningly bizarre day by day, there is no banter possible. The sad fact is that my mother, three months from her 93rd birthday, has few lucid moments in any day. My dad used to laugh about being plunked in his old age on the downside of the slippery slope of time. But when he died suddenly, nearly nine years ago, he hadn’t yet lost too much footing. My mom’s slide into confusion, though, became unavoidably visible to the family nearly four years ago, and has lately become an avalanche.
      The earliest rumblings sounded at the time of her first and only auto accident. Thirty years ago, having come to the warmth and ease of Southern California from the wearying weather and daily hassles of life in the Bronx, my mom had been forced to make learning to drive one of her first priorities. My dad had just taken a lifetime’s accumulation of unused sick leave and retired early at 62 from the NYC school system; but a heart attack a few weeks after they’d arrived in the land of lollipop palms had temporarily immobilized him and forever after slowed him. Faced with the endless freeways and car-filled avenues that encircled her gated community –pathways to supermarkets, banks, doctors’ offices, anywhere else she might need to go in a place where nobody walked – she called on the Good Driving School (“Good Driving is No Accident”) to get her roadworthy. With my father hunkered down in the passenger seat to offer commands and advice, she logged hours of practice miles in the empty streets of her new home – on the safe side of the fences that separated Leisure World from not-so- leisure world.
      Predictably, my mother turned out to be a nervous driver, showing a kind of methodical caution at the wheel that fit her personality and my father’s to a T, and tended sometimes to move other drivers to a shrieking rage. Still, she managed alright, though never on the freeways, which remained my father’s proprietary space. For twenty years she specialized in driving the two of them in the late afternoon to pool # 4, which was out one gate, in and out of shopping center traffic, then back through another gate into a controlled calm for seniors. Occasionally she took trips by herself to department stores; all other outings were my father’s responsibility. But when he voluntarily stopped driving suddenly in his mid 80’s, after a frighteningly close call in which he stepped down on the wrong pedal and nearly hit a child crossing the street in front of him, my mother was drafted and ready. After all, my father was still in the passenger seat to offer a voice of experience and encouragement. With my father’s death, she was left to cope by herself with all oncoming traffic, and for a few years she negotiated the twists and turns of her world’s highways without incident. But cataracts, ever slowing reflexes, diminished mental agility, and some arthritic weakness in her hands and legs, made driving difficult, especially left turns into oncoming traffic. And when one day while concentrating intently on traffic ahead so as to plan her left turn properly she failed to notice a car stopped before her in the turning lane, her little-old-lady Honda was crumpled and her driving came to a quick stop. Though nobody was hurt at the scene, the driver of the front car thought better of it later, deciding to sue my mother’s insurance company for whiplash and emotional damages.
      Assured from the start by her carrier that there was nothing to worry about – that they’d handle it all from beginning to end, and that even if they had to pay out it was very small potatoes, my mother fretted uncontrollably nonetheless. I’m sure that having my dad to talk with would have calmed her. But alone in her apartment, she lost sleep, could hardly speak for fear and aggravation, avoided opening her mail, fluttered at any knock on the door which she was certain would be the long arm of the law reaching out to grab her. She recognized that she was behaving irrationally, but couldn’t control herself, and so tumbled rather than slid down my dad’s “slippery slope.”
      Over and over again she would call my sister in Virginia or me in upstate New York to tell us that she had gotten a legal letter she couldn’t understand. Though it was stamped “copy for your records,” she regarded it as a puzzle that just had to be solved. The type was tiny; it was filled with Latinate phrasings; there was a summary of a police report offering facts about the roadway she’d been on, about her car speed, about her sobriety; there was an insurance assessment of the value of her car and the car of the other driver; and there was a list of accident related ailments that the other driver claimed. We’d tell her that it was of no consequence, that her insurance company was just sending along a copy for her files as a matter of company policy. We offered the simplest advice we could: “They’re sending it to you to keep you up to date, darling. No need to do anything with it. It’s between lawyers, between insurance companies. If it bothers you to have it around, just toss it.” But the calls kept coming – and the lamentations, sometimes two or three times a day: “What can I do? Come here right now to read the letter and tell me what to do. Do I have to go to court? I don’t think I could do that. I think it would kill me. What can I do? What should I tell them? You must come here now. Oh, I can’t stand it, I just can’t stand it.”
      My mother’s nervous energy had always been a given of my growing up. Famous in family lore for clearing away the dinner plates before diners had finished eating, never allowing herself to sit down at a meal, forever vacuuming hardwood floors or washing window blinds, balancing the checkbook, shopping for bargains at the local butcher shop or bakery, she had always defined herself through her loving control of all domestic tasks. A child of the depression, she knew uncertainty and loss. She had seen her father out of work and the family barely surviving. She had outlived her first husband, dead in his twenties of cancer, and her brother who had been machine gunned in the Battle of the Hedgerows. But she had taken control of the things that could be controlled, had made it her goal to maintain order in the manageable details of her life. The fact that now she seemed to have no more domestic purpose was devastating enough. Add to that messages that made no sense, could not be classified, needed no response but seemed to imply serious consequences if ignored, and my mother’s stomach-clenching anxiety bubbled over.
      Worried, my sister and I began to call my mother several times a day. Every conversation measured diminishment. When she wasn’t fretting about imagined court dates and cross examinations by Perry Mason-like lawyers, she was summarizing physical complaints. She seemed unable to read, or even concentrate on TV. She’d announce repetitively how many toilet stops she’d needed to make that day, and where. She’d had to stop twice in the ladies room at Lord and Taylor’s when the Leisure World bus took a group shopping – and the stall door, which went all the way to the floor, had jammed, trapping her until a cashier finally heard her cries for help and released her. She’d excused herself twice at lunch. She hadn’t been able to take her walk down to the laundry room because she felt an urge. Sometimes she’d put us on hold while she went for one more turn in her bathroom. Did we think she should she see a doctor? Of course she’d been to the doctor about this. For years she’d taken Ditropan for what her internist had called a “nervous bladder”; but now it was clear to us that her bladder wasn’t just nervous, it was hysterical.
      Once in a while she’d begin a conversation by describing her vaginal burning, announcing the emollient she was using, then cutting her listener short with a hurried “well enough about that” and moving quickly to hang up the phone. Or it was her teeth – she was determined not to lose any of her teeth, so she was going to get a new bridge. They’d start excavation soon.
      Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep she’d call after midnight, but wouldn’t stay on the phone long enough to enable any kind of exchange. At all times we could feel her restless distraction as she hopped from subject to subject. She’d often start with the kindness of her neighbors, who were, by the way, talented beyond measure. Had she told us about the man who lived across the way? Though they’d been neighbors for years she just couldn’t remember his name. But he had fixed her TV remote by putting a battery in it, had set her clock, had changed the light bulb that was so hard to reach in her bathroom. He used to be a school principal. He had turned his sun porch into a computer room. He clipped supermarket coupons for her, for all the neighbors. His wife, oh, what’s her name? didn’t have much education, but she had been an officer in a major bank. When she retired, they’d bought a white Cadillac for her. Imagine – and without college. The man who lived above her had died – just like that. She’d seen him getting out of the car just before. He’d left a wife—she was from some foreign place where they speak Spanish – and a noisy parrot. Had she told us that someone was taking her underwear out of the washing machines? Why would anyone want her bras? They couldn’t be that hard up. And none of it could possibly fit them. These people, she’d say, they do things like that.
      Had she eaten, we’d ask? Had she taken the Leisure World bus to the grocery stores? Did she have food? I don’t know, she’d say. I don’t remember. I’m not very hungry. Don’t worry dear, I get plenty of food. I like a good muffin. Or oatmeal.
      I began to picture my mother’s kitchen – the toaster oven, the four gas-flame burners, the hot water tap, steak knives, heavy pots and pans, high shelves full of saved peanut butter jars – hoarded against the time when storage units might be scarce, all sorts of disasters waiting to happen. My sister and I talked often. Feeling like conspirators, we agreed that mom would have to give up her co-op apartment in Leisure World to come east to the world she’d left behind a quarter century ago. We had first raised the subject when my dad died. But she’d put us off, firm in her determination to stay put until she herself died. Soon, though, there would be a health or emotional crisis and no choice. Like a small but devastating army, my wife, sister, brother-in-law, and I made our battle plans.
      We came west for a visit at Christmas armed with glossy brochures, floor plans, and cost summaries for what are called “Independent Living Communities,” but whose real selling point is the congenial way independence is closely observed and controlled for most residents. The fliers that we plunked down on her coffee table pictured couples sitting around a crackling fire with a lovely snow scene glimpsed through a picture window behind them, or showed smiling seniors looking trim and vigorous as they headed out for a summery bike ride. We expected my mother to resist the whole idea, and we knew that she had enough of the skeptical New Yorker left in her to not be fooled by pretty pictures. The winter wonderland would be a hard sell for a woman who’d become used to perpetual sunshine in southern California, but all of these places were in the great northeast, after all, and the photos put a best foot forward. And while it was dead certain that she’d never be one of the cheery group heading off for a spin on the bike path, it stood to reason that there was sure to be space on those paths for seniors out for a three-wheeled-walker-supported stroll.
      The essential fact about these places, besides their location near me or my sister, was that each offered three meals daily, transportation to medical appointments, and monthly activities like concerts by a local tuba band, or trips to K Mart. My mother could participate or not as she chose, but at least she would no longer need to shop for groceries or cook. If she had a health crisis someone would be there to notice it, and we hoped that she might find a way out of loneliness in a community of like-minded oldsters and regularly visiting children, grandchildren, and, only lately, great-grandchildren.
      “Look at this, Mom, almost all your things will fit,” my wife said as she showed off the display of small paper furniture she’d made to scale and placed on a floor plan of a prospective apartment, hoping to reveal some sense of the proportions of the rooms. There were little bookcases in the corner of the cardboard living room floor, a sofa and comfy chairs with reading lamps, even a round coffee table in the middle of the thick paper where schematic lines crossed to represent a rug. My wife had had fun with it. My mother looked on perplexed. “The apartments in Virginia are only 25 minutes from our house,” my sister was saying – that’s a whole lot closer than a six hour plane ride.” “And the best senior-living village near us in New York is only 10 minutes away,” I added. “The weather is colder than down south, but we’d love to show you the northeast again.” My mother’s ready compliance was a shock. “Everyone I know is dying or moving back east with family,” she said matter-of-factly. “If I’m not going to die right now, I might as well move too.” She preferred the warmth of Virginia to the chill of upstate NY, and we would arrange it.
      A month later, a space having opened up at “Providence Village,” our first choice for mom’s new home, we were all in California again to supervise the great eastward migration. Once started, everything moved with the relentless speed of a late train trying to make up for lost time. The old co-op apartment was gobbled up by a ready realtor who regarded it as prime property to be spackled, painted, and resold for a substantial profit. The breaking down and packing up of the household goods was over in a flash – a tribute, perhaps, to my mother’s lifetime obsession with getting rid of inessential possessions. Plane tickets were produced, and hotel rooms were booked for the night before the flight back. But nothing was quicker at this time than my mother’s descent into a terrifying confusion. Though she had agreed to rejoin her family on the other coast, the reality of leaving seemed almost unbearable to her. First there was the matter of my father’s ashes, a small container of which had been saved for her after his cremation and scattering at sea. Although they’d been unobtrusive for years, at rest inside the top right hand drawer of her Welsh dresser, their reappearance at the time of leaving threw my mother into a state. She talked to them as if they revealed my father’s living presence, apologizing for going away, reassuring him that he’d be coming with her, explaining the fates of their friends who’d left before her, asking if it wasn’t all for the best. She lost her grasp of what part of the country she’d been living in and what part she was going to. She seemed unable to say the word “Virginia,” which became in her monologues, “that place where Beth and Harry are taking me.” She spoke less to others than to herself – a sad isolating phenomenon that worsened as nighttime came on.
      Much later, in the hotel at 1 a.m., I was awakened by a call from a kindly man who had found mom wandering and weeping in the hall, holding my name and room number as I’d written it the evening before on a piece of notebook paper. She told me that she had gone out to find suppositories to relieve her constipation, but finding everything closed at the front desk and the hotel quiet, she’d tried to make her way back to her room only to get totally lost. She thought she would die there in the empty hallway, alone and frightened to death. She really couldn’t remember her room number, and wondered why she was in this place. Where was she? Was my father there? What was happening?
      Her coherence collapsed completely on the plane the next day. She’d always hated enclosed places, having spent years working in a closet sized office with no windows, often having been trapped on stalled IRT subway cars, and occasionally, but traumatically, stuck on elevators or in public toilet stalls that wouldn’t unlock. And what was a six hour plane ride if not a claustrophobic woman’s most dreaded nightmare? Restlessly sitting between my sister and brother-in-law, she announced two hours into the trip, that she didn’t like this place and she was getting out. She had no recognition of where she was, what she was doing, or why. But she let my sister cajole her back to her seat, and stayed put unhappily until arrival in Washington’s Dulles International Airport, gateway to her new home.
      For the week she stayed with my sister, waiting for the movers to drive cross country, my mother hardly slept. Wandering at night from room to room, she attacked the kitchen, emptying the refrigerator, leaving milk and meat to warm on the counter. In the study, she pulled household records from filing cabinets, turned on radios, left lights blazing. She woke my sister and brother-in-law repeatedly, pushing open their door to complain that she couldn’t find her oatmeal, her diet Pepsi, her tax records, or to ask if they’d seen my father who had gone out hours ago to mail a letter. Many times she was soothed back to bed, reminded that she was in Virginia now, and would soon be in her own lovely apartment. But Virginia was a blank space on her map, and like many escapists before her, my mother was looking for California’s golden hills and wouldn’t settle for less.
      On moving-in day, three young lifters loaded all my mother’s worldly goods onto a freight elevator which immediately broke down, setting emergency bells clanging loudly enough to be noticed even in this home for the hard of hearing . Having no choice after that but to stack the stuff conspicuously in the lobby where it pretty well blocked the comings and goings of the frail and unsteady residents who lived in Providence, the movers spent a very long morning attacking the pile chair by chair, lamp by lamp, box by box. They rode the main elevators up and down with octogenarians who needed minutes not seconds to maneuver onto the elevator as they went to the Bingo game in the lounge, the hair dresser on the mezzanine, or the nail salon connected in the podiatrist’s office. Later in the day, after the furniture had been placed in my mother’s room, after the cartons had been opened and the books put on shelves, the family photos and knickknacks placed on end tables, and the much loved print of Degas’s dancers hung over the bed – after my mother’s world had been somewhat reassembled with hopes that she’d feel less anxious once she was surrounded with familiar possessions – I made my getaway, heading down to the now emptied lobby and the street beyond, where my rental car waited patiently.
      My travel companion from the second floor to the first turned out to be a thin, hunched over senior citizen, dressed in electric blue and yellow striped nylon workout pants with a color coordinated matching jacket. He came in at a snail’s pace, pushing a standard issue walker with two front wheels and two tennis balls stuck on the back legs for ease of maneuverability. He spoke with a soft rasp, looking down at the metal frame of his walker: “Are you moving into Providence? I’ve been here, well, I’m not sure just how long – but a long time, I can tell you. Televisions in every lounge, and the food’s not bad. We had some chicken today with mushroom gravy, and you can get any salad and dessert you want. All you have to do is ask. Bet you couldn’t get that where you’re from. Where did you say you were from?” These didn’t seem to be questions to be answered, so much as an occasion to allow my new acquaintance to talk on, so I simply nodded congenially. Without a pause, eyeing my all purpose jogging shoes, he continued: “Say, what brand are those? Do you like them? Do they feel good on your feet? I got these expensive shoes, paid a fortune for them, and they won’t stay on. Every step I take, they fall off my goddam heels. The SOB who sold them to me didn’t measure my feet right. I tried to walk to the library yesterday, and I’ll tell you it was just awful every inch of the way. But yours look good. I have to try a pair. What’d you say they were called?”
      My new old friend talked standing directly in front of the floor buttons, with the aluminum frame of his walker lodged between us. After a bit he leaned to the side and announced that you have to push the down button to #1 if you want to go anywhere, as if perhaps I’d failed to notice that the elevator wasn’t moving. “I’d like to do that,” I explained, nudging him slightly further to the side so I could reach the down buttons. Smiling at me sadly, as if I was a hopeless case, he explained that he was sorry for having excited me. I suppose he meant sorry for distracting me, or perhaps for confusing me. As we descended at last, he asked if I thought we’d missed dinner by now. My guess was that the meal was long gone, but I couldn’t see the point in worrying him for the extra minute that it took for him to get to the dining room below. What he wanted to hear was what I told him – that the food would probably be there, same as always.” His smile broadened. On the first floor without a word or a backward glance, he was off in a fast shuffle, working his workout shoes for their full worth, hurrying away as if my inaction and lack of certainty might be catching. Met by one of the Village care givers, he was escorted round a bend and out of sight. “Well you’ve come to the right place, darling mom,” I thought as I went through the automatic doors and out into the southern sunshine.
      A month later I was back to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. A lot can happen in thirty days, and I was hoping that I’d find her calm, if not content. But many strange phone calls, and the fact that my sister, often having come back from an outing with mom, was invariably sitting down with a recovery glass of Sherry when I talked to her, did not bode well. For weeks my mother had been phoning my sister or me in the deepest part of night. “It’s 3 o’clock,” she’d say, unable or unwilling to control her anger, “why haven’t you come to take me to my doctor’s appointment? I’ve been waiting here, waiting and waiting.” “But mom, it’s 3 in the morning, not the afternoon,” we’d say. “Your appointment is tomorrow afternoon. Don’t fret, darling, we know the time and we’ll take you.” After a few times, realizing that the inability to comprehend time was profound, not just momentary, we’d skip immediately to “take a look outside your window, sweetheart. Is it dark or light? If the sun is up, it’s the day. That’s when your appointment is; that’s when we’ll pick you up.”
      “But I don’t understand,” she’d say, childlike: “my clock says three (or one, or two) – isn’t that when I’m supposed to be there? It’s the new one you bought me. It has big numbers and letters and it says right here 3 o’clock.” “Light or dark, darling? Light or dark?,” I’d answer. “Look outside just before you call, ok? Then you’ll be fine. Or if you just can’t sleep, maybe you can watch a little TV.”
      “I don’t like that thing anymore,” she’d say. “When I play it after supper, I can’t understand what they’re saying. The voices speed up. They talk so fast. It’s just gobbledygook. I don’t understand why they do that. Who can they be talking to so fast?” “That’s unusual for sure, sweetheart,” I’d say. “I don’t understand it either. When I come I can check it out. In the meantime, just watch it and do the best you can.” We were all sharing my mother’s sleeplessness, all on our ways to becoming troubled sleepwalkers like Lady MacBeth – no telling what we all might do if deprived every night of rest.
      So I can’t say I was surprised, but amazed and disturbed nonetheless, when I stood in my mother’s kitchen the day of her big birthday bash. Her calendar was so full of written notes that the printed dates were all but invisible. And her refrigerator had turned a rainbow of colors with post-its stuck on every bit of the door and sides. In her desperate attempt to make sense of her elusive reality, my mother had copied out every name, every date, every event, every appointment that seemed to relate to her life. My wife’s name was noted in pink, my sister’s in pale green; the names and ages of my sons, nephews and nieces, their spouses and girlfriends, their pets, the cities they lived in, were up there in red and baby blue, yellow and white. Again and again, she had written “Harry says, when it’s light out, it’s day. It’s nighttime when it’s dark outside my window. Call Beth and Harry when it’s light. When it’s day. ” And then, next to these notes, “What if I can’t tell? Not dark. Not day. I’m dizzy with it. Famisht.”
      When I came that afternoon, she was standing at the kitchen counter, reading aloud, but in a muttering voice that didn’t stop even when I put my hands on her shoulders to turn her around for a hug. Tightening, refusing to budge, she exclaimed with exasperation, “In a minute, in a minute, dear. There’s just something I need to do now, something I need to know. Harry gets in today at 10 a.m.. He flies United. He will rent a car and come right over. Harry gets in today at 10 a.m. . . . Harry gets in. . . . He will rent. . . .” The best I could muster was “Sweetie, that’s me up on the fridge, Harry. Relax. I’m here already. No need to read it in the notes.”
      “But wait, wait, there’s something I need to do,” she said. “Come over here, there’s something I want to show you.” Together we walked into her bedroom where she picked up off a dressing table a very old, sun-blanched photograph of a young man in a military uniform. Blond, blue-eyed, his hat tipped rakishly down toward his eye, he looked like he’d stepped out of an MGM World War II movie. “I just want to ask you something,” my mother continued. “Is this you? This is you, isn’t it? It looks just like you.”
      “No, I explained, “it’s your brother, Harry. He died right after the war – killed by war wounds. I’m a different Harry. Red hair, freckles. Brown eyes. I’m your son, Harry.” “My son.” She said it slowly, tasting the word in her mouth. “My son. Harry.” Turning to the photograph again she exclaimed, “you look just like him.” Yes, we’re both men, I thought, hugging her hard. Then slowly, steadily, unflappably, she went to the kitchen, tore off an orange post-it, wrote fast on it, and went back to the photograph where she stuck it right over my uncle’s chest, like a huge garish medal. “This was my brother,” it said. “I have no brother. He’s dead. Harry is my son.”
      “Ninety,” my mother said as I guided her from the car to her table at the country inn where the family was meeting for brunch to celebrate. “I can’t believe it. I never wanted to last this long. If I could, I’d call it quits right now. I’m ready to go. Phooey. Who needs it.” Of course I tried to kid my mother – “come on now, darling, you wouldn’t want to leave us alone NOW, would you? The country has gone to hell in a hand basket, not to mention that the stock market’s down; I can see why you’d want to leave it all behind, but that would be so cruel to us. At least hang on until the next election. Every vote counts. And besides, you have heaps of great grandchildren that you need to watch grow up.” But the truth is that all the family gathered for the occasion knew that it held little joy, knew what my mother’s rare moment of lucid complaint had made terribly clear – that one shouldn’t have to outlive one’s life.
      If I had really grasped how weeks would become months and years of diminished awareness of reality for my mother, I wonder if I might have tried harder to face her honestly on the subject of such loss before it was too late, trying to take advantage of her perception to salvage for a moment her dignity as well as my own. Or was I simply determined to protect the two of us from the darkest truths by speaking to her with a silly sweetness, as one might address a frightened child? Later that morning after we’d lifted our coffee cups to toast my mother’s longevity, she looked toward my nephew’s three month old baby asleep on the table in his child carrier seat, like a wondrous center piece, and observed to no one in particular, “oh, that boy, I could eat him up he’s so sweet. Isn’t it a good thing that little ones are so beautiful that the whole world wants to take care of them? Too bad old babies aren’t so pretty.” Then turning to my nephew and his wife of many years who had been chatting with her about the pleasures and problems of being new parents, asked them their names, and if either of them were dating anyone special.
      It’s a common story, a common fear. An old person, fragile and unsteady, falls one day in the bath or kitchen where the tiled floors are hard as granite, and slips into a nightmare of pain and decay despite the best efforts of orthopedic surgeons, internists, and nurses. It seems as much a psychological problem as a physiological one, confirming a new twist on an old adage: “It’s never too late . . . . to give up.” My mother’s fall took place in the early evening just after dinner, almost a year to the day that she moved into Providence. She’d just come back to her apartment, and as usual had put her walker aside, claiming as always despite her family’s great concern and consternation, that in her rooms there were plenty of things for her to hold onto. But one of those things slipped away when she grabbed at it, and she broke her hip in the hard fall that followed. Unable to reach the alarm bell that hung in every room, and forgetting about the lifeline emergency call button that was on a bracelet she always wore, she lay on the floor until breakfast next day, when someone at the front desk noticed her missing and went to find out if she was alright. Taken to the hospital, she was diagnosed with a nasty hip fracture that would require a full hip replacement. The operation itself was fairly commonplace, but her age and weakness put her at uncommon risk. My sister and I had no idea how this woman who couldn’t negotiate the annoyances of constipation with any equanimity would be able to cope with the extreme discomforts of post-operative recovery. But cope she did, with a host of hospital nurses to help – until she was transferred to a rehabilitation home that the inimitable Dickens would have had a hard time doing justice to.
      The problems were apparent when I came south to visit my mother for a week, spelling my sister and her husband who were taking a much needed R&R break out west. The place had the grand and literary name of Locksley Hall Rehabilitation Hospital, but its urgent need for its own rehab matched that of any of its patients. Up in the full care wing I found my mother semi-asleep in a wet bed, her nightdress soaked with her own urine. Her roommate, a small belligerent woman who was watching I Love Lucy reruns with the volume turned to ear shattering levels, said I didn’t look like her son. Where had I left him? She wanted him, now. The call button for help wasn’t bringing any to her or to my mother, and when I went to the nursing station to mention my mother’s condition, I was told that they’d be in to see her as soon as they could. I was referred down the hall to the shift supervisor for further complaints. In the hall, a row of patients were lined up in their wheelchairs, heavy headed and vacantly nodding, an honor guard to greet me as I marched off to battle. Somewhere in a distant room a man was calling “Nurse! Nurse!,” stretching the words for emphasis, over and over, over and over. The rooms up the hallway gave off the acrid smell of piss, the foul stink of shit. As I went looking for someone answerable, someone in charge, I knew I couldn’t get what I wanted most – my mother out of there and “home,” whatever that meant now. And I certainly couldn’t help the other patients I saw, heard, and smelled around me. But I wasn’t leaving the supervisor’s office until I had extracted a concession, however reluctantly delivered, that my mother would be cleaned up immediately and promptly cared for during the rest of her stay.
      “Oh yes, HER, I know all about her,” the woman said to me when I inquired about my mother’s situation. I’d always pictured women like this one in the mold of Big Nurse – heavyset, ugly, and crude. But this arrogant lowest level administrator was a small woman, meticulously dressed, ready with a neutral smile. “Your mother,” she explained to me, “is willful. She refuses to follow rules, won’t help us help her. She wants the attention of the whole staff all the time, and when we’re busy elsewhere, she’ll do anything to bring us back to her room. We take care of her the same as anybody else, but we can’t always drop everything to rush into her room.” “My mother,” I said, “is helpless. She can’t move from her bed. She needs assistance for every necessity of life. She was always fastidious, but for now she can’t even sit on a bedpan without someone to help her. Would you, would any adults you know, choose to foul themselves and sit unattended in their own excrement in order to make a point? Maybe in your world that would be an option. Never in hers.”
      “Well look, ok, you’re the boss,” I said, toning my anger into irony, “what can you do about this situation?” She offered no apology, but she gave me something of far greater value – Romero. An overworked, sweet young man, he must have been the lowest worker on the night shift totem pole, his job being to clean up patients after their “accidents.” He wheeled his cart of clean bedclothes and linen into my mother’s room, lifted her gently into a sitting position, and closing the curtains that ringed her bed, washed her and helped her into a new hospital gown, a task he was to perform many times that week while I stood outside the room door.
      Once the day shift dawned, and I was able to confer with my mother’s physical therapist, I learned the lesson of “Depends.” Taking me aside, she explained to me that while my mother’s incontinence after surgery was no surprise, it was making it impossible to complete her therapy sessions. Why didn’t I get her some panty diapers? A whole new world opened in an instant. I hadn’t thought about buying diapers of any sort since my sons, each now thirty something, had been toddlers. I knew that adult diapers existed, but it was an aisle of the supermarket that I was pleased not to go down. “Depends would give her enough mobility to make it possible for her to leave her room,” the therapist explained. She said that she worked at, but not for, Locksley Hall, and she wanted me to understand that a bed filled at Locksley Hall is an income source that they didn’t have to worry about. My mother would probably be out in a few weeks if she could perform her life skills independently, or she could be a resident at the Hall for months. She had seemed better, more hopeful, when she first came from the hospital, but she seemed to be slipping. “Depends” could be a start.
      Locksley Hall was ringed by large chain drug stores that I figured should be filled from floor to ceiling with aids for the elderly. But I felt awkward about having to ask to be shown to the incontinence aisle, not wanting to be mistaken for someone in need, and feeling oddly, too, that I was crystal ball gazing into my future. So, absurdly, like a teenager trying to be inconspicuous while buying condoms, I wandered around nonchalantly looking for the sign that read “diapers.” Not surprisingly, I found myself in the section of the store that offered help for infants not ancients. “Huggies Body Shaped Jumbos” sat stacked on the shelves alongside “Pampers Cruisers.” But my mother wasn’t cruising, and her body shape looked nothing like the sweet babe who was being called “Jumbo” by the manufacturer. Back at the cashier’s where I went at last for directions, I was taken under wing by a sympathetic seventy something, who called me “honey” and told me not to worry, that these things happened, and the products they made these days just couldn’t be beat. “Follow me,” she said, and in a booming voice explained that "we live in a remarkable world, and the things they sell, why you won’t believe how comfortable and absorbent they are. You won’t even think about it in a few days; it’ll be just like stepping into your own underwear.”
      I had not realized there would be so many choices: “Refastenable Underwear with Grip Tabs” or “Pull Ons”? “Extra Absorbency Absorption” or “Super Plus Absorbency”? What about size? What did my mother weigh? How big were her hips? Was there anything smaller than the unfortunately identified “S/M”? How could the same size fit someone whose hips might be 34” or might be 46”? Someone who might weigh 115 lbs or might way 190 lbs? Who might have a 28” waist or a 40” waist?
      Not only did one size seem to cover many body shapes, but the items were apparently unisex. Fair enough. But what would my already confused mother make of the instructions on the front panel of the package that declared in letters large enough for any bleary eye to read: “Men: for best results point the penis down into the center of the garment”? And would she be able to decipher the much smaller instruction on the back that said “Dark waistband and thread indicates the back of the product”? Would she be able to “Tear open sides at perforation to put on or take off while sitting or lying down”? More to the point, would the nurses at Locksley agree to help her into and out of the “product”?
      Thinking that my mother could never handle the Velcro-like fasteners, and absolutely persuaded by the “gentle leg elastic” that “helps provide a close fit for secure protection,” I opted for the pull ups, and filled my cart to the brim with what I estimated would be a two week supply of the ultra plus absorbencies, chock full of “Absorb-Loc Protection” that would “Neutralize Odors.” Thanking my store guide as I left with my treasure, I headed back to Locksley to begin what I hoped would be a new positive start for my mom, for the therapists, for the nursing staff, and for Romero. If all did their jobs well, perhaps my mother would soon be back in Providence.
      “You stay away from me, you big fat. Don’t you dare touch me. I know what you want. I know you. I’ll hit you. I will.” I heard the shrieks as I came near my mother’s room, my arms full of diapers. My mother’s roommate, whose name I’d found out was Margaret, was up on her bed, making pushing motions with her hands to keep the nurse at bay. She was right about the nurse’s bulk. Even standing at Margaret’s feet, the nurse was huge by comparison, a whale beneath a seabird. Margaret must have been a small woman in her younger days, but now she was shrinking down to nothing but a shadow of her former self. Still, tiny Margaret was making a big noise. “You,” she yelled at me, “help me. Bring my son. He’s right outside.” “Now Margaret,” the nurse said looking over at me, talking in two directions at once, “calm down. You know we can’t get your son right now.” Then speaking past Margaret as if she was stone deaf, she explained to me, “he hasn’t been here for a year. That’s why she’s here.”
      Margaret’s television was on full blast, and my mother was staring intently at the midday news, trying to ignore the ruckus but clearly upset by it. With my super absorbent Depends held in front of me like a protective shield, I watched the drama as the nurse finally enfolded her small patient and half led, half carried her back to bed, promising to look for the wayward boy as soon as Margaret took her medicine. I’d been hopelessly rooting for Margaret, but I was relieved when the scene was played out and the room was calm again, save for the braying of the other sports news that was being delivered on TV by an animated, clean cut newscaster. My mother seemed not to notice me as I was explaining to the nurse that we wanted her to substitute these Depends for the paper thin diapers that seemed to be the standard hospital issue. But she reached her hand out across the bedsheets as I put down my packages and sat beside her, quietly holding her hand through the long afternoon.
      With uninterrupted therapy at last possible, my mother’s physical progress was steady and quick. But though she worked hard at rediscovering how to dress herself, put on shoes, walk with a walker, stand up and sit down, wash and brush her teeth, her mental rehabilitation trailed slowly behind. Even when she was declared fit to go home by her team of physical and occupational therapists, it was clear to all of us that she’d need supportive home care, day and night, for the foreseeable future. Some part of her that had been slipping away even before her accident was still in hiding – an ability to understand and connect with her surroundings.
      I generally distrust “facts,” but these were plain and unavoidable. My mother could no longer remember to take her medicines. Suffering from a bladder infection shortly after her return from rehabilitation, and prescribed a common antibiotic for 10 days, she announced matter-of-factly on day two that she had finished her medicine and felt much better. Her weekly dose of Fosomax, a pill taken to offset osteoporosis, was often skipped because she did not like to take her medicines standing up, as she thought the instructions demanded. Some pills disappeared from their bottles, perhaps overzealously swallowed, perhaps simply dropped or inadvertently thrown out. Other medications simply languished unnoticed. Too, my mother had difficulty showering, and as a result would go days without cleaning up. Dressing was a burden that led to the same outfit being worn day after day, often week after week, stained and odorous. This woman who had been obsessively organized and neat for all the decades of her life, was becoming a derelict. And though meals were taken downstairs in the Providence dining hall – no cooking required – my mother was beginning to skip her lunches and dinners. She didn’t seem unhappy about all this, which we took as a further sign of the trouble she was in; any outsider could see that her life of “independent living” was spinning dangerously out of control.
      When my sister found Florence and Cynthia, two kind and competent women from Ghana, to be with my mother for hours during the day – helping her with tasks of daily life, the family breathed a deep sigh of relief. We were pleased that we would be able to have my mother at home, but for her it was simply another torturing reminder of her deep confusion. “Who are these women?” she often called to ask after their visits with her. And we’d tell her over and over and over again, like a record stuck on a turntable. “They're lovely women we've hired to spend some time with you, mom. One will come in the morning, one in the evening. Both will help you do the things that need doing. They’ll pick up the apartment; they’ll help you with your shower when you need it, and your pills, and they’ll walk you down to the dining room. Florence will be there in the morning, Cynthia in the afternoon.” Try as she might, my mother simply could not remember their names or what they were in her apartment for. She’d leave herself notes explaining that one woman was fat, the other thin. She’d start many of her sentences with “the fat one, what’s her name?” She tried to repeat sound signals: “Florence is the fat one. Fat Florence. She’s the first one.” She had no memory-boosting alliterations for Cynthia, and when I spoke with her on the phone it was clear in her summary of the same facts about the two women, read with numbing repetitiveness from her refrigerator notes, that she had no idea what the words said: “Wait, wait. I have something I have to get straight. Something I need to tell you. Florence comes in the morning. She gives me one pill. Cynthia comes at 4. She will walk me to dinner. Florence is the fat one. Cynthia is the pretty one. Florence comes in the morning. She gives. . . . Cynthia is the pretty one. . . . Florence comes. . . . “
       “Do I have the beginnings of that sickness?” my mother asked, never mentioning it by name, although, oddly, it seemed to be one of the words that she did have in her vocabulary, and it would pop up in conversations when she talked about others living in Providence. “The lady at the table near me when I eat –I can’t remember her name – I’m sure she has Alzheimer’s,” she’d say. “She hardly talks at all; just stares straight ahead all during the meal.” About herself, she’d only say, with remarkable understatement, “my memory is lousy. It drives me crazy.” Gradually, though, she began to bring back table talk about her own situation. It slipped into her phone calls, clearly causing her great distress. “Someone here says there’s a test for that thing with bad memory. She thinks I should take it. Do I have it? Is there medicine?”
      “There is medicine for memory loss, sweetheart,” I reminded her, also avoiding that fearsome word,” “and you’re taking it, darling. Cynthia gives it to you every day.” We agreed without much fuss about it, that even if there were a non-invasive and accurate test, taking it would serve no purpose except just knowing. “We don’t want to be like Irwin, Mom,” I said, bringing up the name of one of her former California friends. “Remember him? How he used to go around after his kids had him do that brain scan, saying to everyone, ‘they tell me that my brain is shrinking – I only have ½ of my brain capacity. What can I do?'” My mother may not even have remembered Irwin, but she had enough focus and fear left to recognize that it had been wrong to make Irwin jump through that medical hoop, that such knowledge did not set him free.
      “When my time comes,” my mother used to say when she was relatively healthy, “I want it to be fast. Anything but hanging on helpless.” But the slow crawl of her decline had become relentless. She seemed to shrink into her self, more each day. Occasionally she tried to participate in the group activities that made Providence seem like a day camp for the elderly – bingo and crosswords, giant jigsaw puzzles, cupcakes and punch. She said the activities made her feel uninformed and dull, and dinner conversations about travel and current affairs made her feel stupid. She often said she was so tired that all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep. It was clear that Providence was overmatched, and that we’d have to find a more complete-care living facility for her where she could be looked after more attentively.
      And so a year and a half after my mother’s eastward lurch, the family again was in the market for a senior living facility. We would have to move my mother, and soon, if there was going to be any choice in determining which Assistive Care facility would be the best one to look after her properly. She was not yet a candidate for what is often called, sweetly but absurdly, a “Memory Gardens” facility. Of course it’s a garden where memories never take root, and no flowers bloom. But some of the greenhouses are bright and sunny, some dreary and befogged. We hoped to get my mother into a senior center that had both individual apartments where she could have care and medical attention as long as possible, and a bright and airy intensive care wing where she would be looked after with kindness when she could no longer take care of herself at all. Some places, like highly selective colleges – institutions now of “unlearning” – had many more applicants than could be admitted, and we worried that the steep curve of my mother’s decline was rapidly putting her out of contention for admission in this last competition.
      The most appealing place by far was the exceptionally expensive Eagle’s Roost, a facility set up for retired Air Force families, but recently opened to a select few from the less militarily inclined general populace. My mother would have to be interviewed and placed on a wait list with other applicants, to be invited in as apartments opened – that is, as residents died or moved to the Alzheimer’s wing. The criteria for admittance into this club for the infirm weren’t made clear, but we could assume that a reasonable level of intellectual clarity and emotional stability was basic. The essential part of the application form, of course, was a financial reckoning. Here we were on firm ground; my parents’ Depression-born care with money had enabled them both to retire comfortably. But the interview was unpredictable and potentially dangerous terrain. On a good day, my smart and lovely mother would be a shoo-in. On one of her increasingly confused and confusing days, who knew? Sadly, like anxious parents of a promising but under-achieving child, rather than like ordinary children of an exceptional parent, we waited my mother’s call to performance.
      “I just want to stay here,” my mother said, repeatedly, when the subject of moving came up. “I just want to be in this place until I die. I’ve had enough anyway. I’m tired of the whole thing. I wish it would happen soon.” But staying put was not an option. Even my mother agreed, on lucid days, that she needed more help than she was getting. Which is how we found ourselves on a late spring day that was as clear as my mother was foggy, sitting in office of the Director of Residential services at Eagle’s Roost, watching and listening as my mother undertook the dreaded and dreadful interview.
      The room was dominated by a large sign in bright, cheerful, Sesame Street colors that read “Be Kind To Your Children, They Will Pick Your Nursing Home.” In the semi-circle of comfortable armchairs beneath it, tests and measures would be applied. “Welcome all of you. I’m Samantha and I’m pleased you could come over for a visit to Eagle’s Roost today; it’s a place we’re proud of. I’m the residential director; Christine is medical administrator at the Roost; and Cathy is our dietician. Between us, I think you could say we have all your needs pretty well covered.” “Right,” I thought sourly, “Eagle’s Roost, good for what ails you. Let’s hope so.” Perhaps my grouchiness had been set by the odd sight of the trees that ringed the main Eagle’s Roost buildings being filled with turkey vultures. The branches were black with them. “Waiting for death,” I thought as we parked the car, “and not an eagle among them.” I didn’t like the feeling that we had come as supplicants to the palace, but I didn’t see that there was much to be done about it. This was the Samantha and Co. Show and we had our roles to play.
      I doubt that my mother had much idea of why we had gathered here, but she spoke when spoken to, and surprised us all with the directness of her conversational answers to an assortment of inane questions that seemed designed to reduce a coherent person to blather. As if filling out a survey, the three women took notes on sets of papers held in large clip boards. They asked about my mother’s birthday and age. She couldn’t remember, exactly, but she thought it was over 90 and that that’s an age where one might be expected to stop counting. “Why would I want to think about that?” she asked. “Who was the President?” they wanted to know. Well, she wasn’t sure. She thought it might be Bill Clinton, but maybe not. She didn’t think any politicians were very memorable. Had she worked when she was younger? Yes, she’d worked in a school, she said. She couldn’t remember exactly what they called her, but she typed, made phone calls, kept records of things for a man who was in charge of a department. “Ah, a secretary,” Christine suggested. “No, not that,” my mother insisted. Some things she did were like that, but she did other things, too. She was trusted, had responsibilities. “Like you,” she said, turning toward Samantha. “What do you do? What are you called? An administrator? That’s it. I administered.” She had, in fact, been a school secretary with the title Administrative Assistant, and given the collective effort to reveal her weaknesses, I silently cheered her insistence on her full rights and privileges to the title she couldn’t quite remember.
      There were many things she couldn’t remember, but her answers made sense nonetheless. Where was she living? She couldn’t remember the name Virginia, probably had it confused with California anyway, but her answer, “near my daughter” was reasonable. Was there any food she didn’t eat? “How can I know that for all situations?” she said. “Put something in front of me and we’ll see. Anyway, I’m not very hungry.” What medicines do you take, they asked, and why? “I take something that keeps me from needing to go to the bathroom all the time when I go out,” she said. “I can’t remember what it’s called. My daughter knows all the facts, if you want to ask her – that’s good enough for me.” What about hobbies, they wanted to know, things you do just for fun. “I used to do lots of things,” she said, “played the piano, loved to travel, to read books . But at my age my energy is just for getting through the day. I don’t really have time for hobbies.”
      My mother’s triumphant moment came when she was asked what she probably hadn’t been asked to do since grade school, if then: would she count backwards by 7’s from 100? Astonishingly, without a blink she did just that, hardly pausing for breath. She probably did it better than Samantha, Christine, Cathy, or my sister or I could have done, exhibiting a rote skill pulled up from some recesses of childhood education and a lifetime of balancing the family checkbook. Why it should matter puzzled me, but it did the trick. She would have to take a physical exam within two weeks of moving-in, we were told; and she’d need to provide a financial disclosure, making clear that she had the wherewithal to pay her way for years to come. In the meantime they had an apartment that would be available in a few weeks, the former occupant having just gone to live with her daughter’s family. This information, delivered with a kind of polite wink and nod, I understood to mean that the former resident of the soon-to-open apartment had died, but death, while commonplace at the Roost, was not a fit word for utterance.
      Outside what was to be my mother’s new apartment, the public space of the Roost seemed designed to offer its residents emotional as well as physical comfort. A pair of caged lovebirds stood prominently outside the dining hall, with the birds preening and chirruping for the amusement of all passersby. Nearby was a large rabbit cage, a small rabbit munching or snoozing within, gloriously soft and gentle. A salt water aquarium packed with dazzlingly colored, constantly moving, exotic fish stood in the lobby center. In the Roost’s sitting room, a gas fire flamed throughout the day in a large stone fireplace. Next to it a huge sign announced the day of the week, the day of the month, the season of the year, the weather outside, and essential wisdom like “IT IS STILL COLD OUTSIDE DRESS WARMLY.” Spread out on the coffee tables were magazines, puzzles, Reader’s Digest books, newspapers. In an entertainment lounge across the hall, a large flat screen television was tuned to CNN’s account of the day’s exciting news stories. It seemed a promising environment, but as it turned out, my mother would spend little time at the Roost mixing with others.
      Moving again meant consolidating again, the new place being half the size of the old. It could have been worse. My mother had run a tight ship her whole life, regarding clutter as the first step on the road to a ruined life. Having lived most of her adult life in small apartments in the Bronx, she had grown merciless at paring down the things that families spend decades collecting. Layered over the years in a NYC landfill were her contributions in things once belonging to each of us: Oz books, mint condition Topps Baseball Cards, 45 rpm records, 33 1/3 rpm long play albums, Heritage Club books, sports equipment, old toys – including a beloved orange- haired rag clown and a Jerry Mahoney ventriloquist’s dummy, stacks of Action Comics, the odd yoyo or two, dresses, shoes, ties, gloves, hats, used up umbrellas, golf clubs and balls, tennis rackets, floor lamps, desk lamps, desks themselves, radios, televisions, towels, blankets, sheets and pillow cases, lots and lots of family papers and letters. Her California co-op must have been a cleaning woman’s delight, and her place in Providence was set up for extra easy maintenance.
      But if much was gone, much remained – usually small things wrapped individually in silver foil and plastic bags, bound tightly enough to discourage all but the most eager from reaching the contents. These were moved undisturbed to my sister’s basement to await further attention – toothbrushes, bars of soap, combs, washcloths, stacks of cotton buds, skin moisturizers, boxes of Tabachnik’s soups, tins of Trader Joe’s coffee, boxes of Quaker Oats, rolls and rolls of toilet paper, enough paper towels to soak up Lake George, salt, sugar, English muffins, loaves of partially started bread.
      Our hope, given the reduced space at Eagle’s Roost, was that we could transfer enough of my mother’s familiar things from one world to the other for her to feel comfortable in her new surroundings. We carried in framed photographs of her life with my father, my sister and me, showing us at all ages and all sizes. In albums, there were dozens of snaps of smiling and drooling grandchildren and great grandchildren. Small tables and bookshelves displayed travel mementos featuring a small donkey and owl in fired clay from Mexico, a large brass dish from Morocco, art reproductions from Florence and Venice. Though my mother was no longer reading, we moved a few books that had been gifts and were lovingly inscribed. Again, we hung the art she had been looking at for half a century – ocean scenes in oils and watercolors, Brahms as an old man at his piano, post-impressionist posters. We brought in one comfortable chair, the television, a small CD player and a few albums featuring Rubenstein’s Chopin and Horowitz’s Beethoven. Though her electric blanket was against the rules of the Roost, we bought new bedding in cheerful colors for the twin bed that took up much of the space in the apartment. In her chest of drawers we placed some of her most beautiful scarves and sweaters, a spectacular array of rich blues and sunburst yellows, the bright colors of clear skies and hope. And in the top drawer, her jewelry and the small decorative box containing a portion of my dad’s ashes. But we were probably fooling ourselves from the start. My mother no longer took much notice of her surroundings, didn’t recognize old photographs, rarely turned on the TV, never took down a book. She would sometimes pick up one of the pottery animals and admire it as if seeing it for the first time. Mostly she stared out into space at a landscape we couldn't imagine, or slept away the days.
      In the weeks that followed her move, we tried to will her back to the world, but my mother’s waking became inseparable from her sleeping. Her dark dreams entangled her, often leaving her confused and frightened, in the grip of hallucinatory waking nightmares. She got up, groggy from her daytime naps, to one powerfully felt crisis after another. “The children are dying,” she said. “All around the little ones, the babies, are dead. You have to do something. You have to come right over. Now.” Or she’d call to say “there’s blood all over my bed. I don’t know what to do. What should I do? I need a doctor, I think. Right away.” As if talking to a child we’d ask, “what children, sweetheart? There are no children where you live. You must be having a bad dream. It will go away; it’s not real; it’s just a dream.” Or, “what blood?” we’d say. “Have you hurt yourself? Is there blood on your hands, darling? On the phone? Did you cut yourself? Look at your arms and legs to see. If you need to see a nurse, one is just down the hall, remember?” Angrily, plaintively, she’d say, “I don’t know. I can’t remember. I just woke up and saw it.”
      One day she called five times in as many minutes to tell me that she couldn’t reach me on the phone.” Is that you?” she exclaimed fretfully. Why hadn’t I answered the phone right away? With each call she read out all of the emergency numbers she kept in a pad on her bed table, repeating them over and over, as if someone had hit the redial mechanism on the phone. With each call I assured her that the numbers were right, and that she had, in fact, reached me. Abruptly she hung up the phone, only to repeat the process a few seconds later. At some point, as if the madness was burning itself out with each redial, the veil would lift for reasons that I could not understand, and she would regain the calm that had deserted her.
      But my mother’s progress into darkness was cumulative and steady. I found that I had no way of holding her in the world that I knew, after her moments of lucidity. In my mother’s land of shadows, terror was her constant companion. Often she told us that she was scared to death – that they had kidnapped her and wouldn’t let her go home, that her keeper was punishing her, that federal agents were after her about the money. Each time, my sister or I tried to talk her back to a reality we could all measure. “What money, Mom? Darling, you don’t have a keeper, you must mean the care worker who walks you to dinner, or who helps you into your night dress. Or the nurse who brings you your medicines. You haven’t been kidnapped, sweetheart, you’re calling from your room – look around, can you recognize your paintings on the wall? Your books on the shelves? Your chair and your table? You’re having a waking dream. You fell asleep in the afternoon and now that you’re awake, you’re carrying that sad dream with you. Maybe if you tried to get some rest you’d feel better.” It was false hope at best, but sometimes it seemed to work, and she woke refreshed with no memory of the fear that had gripped her.
      The saddest confusions involved birth and death. One evening when I called after dinner, I could barely get a sentence in before my mother declared the end of the conversation. She was talking simultaneously to someone in her room – a helper? a nurse? a phantom? I couldn’t be sure. What she said into the phone left me both exasperated and shaken. “I can’t talk now,” she said, “I’m having a baby.” Just before the phone went dead, I could hear her explaining to someone, “it’s just my brother.” Had I misheard this one? I wanted to call back immediately, to speak to the silent listener in her room – to find out what my poor mother had meant. Was it somehow a coded language? Then what could “baby” mean? Had my mother hurried off the phone because she was having “a bath”? A “bowel movement”? Was “having a baby” a weird catch phrase for having too much to do? I was baffled. Sadly, having a baby was one experience my mother had never had, having married my father a few years after the deaths by cancer of her first husband and my dad’s first wife, and having gained in an instant two small children already clamoring for her attention. She’d been the stepmother, not wicked but generous, kind, forgiving. Faced with her own and my father’s medical bills – tens of thousands of dollars that would take decades to pay off – they’d decided that to have children together would jeopardize the well being of the already growing, emotionally needy brother and sister. Her time had been filled to the brim with mothering tasks, but her sacrifice seemed to have returned to haunt her in her very difficult old age.
      As quickly as it came, the childbirth delusion vanished, replaced by an even more wrenching dislocation. “I’ve lost my husband,” my mother began to exclaim one night in our phone chats. “He just went out to get something, oh I forget what, and he hasn’t come back yet. I’ve been looking for him for hours. I can’t understand what’s keeping him. Why hasn’t he called, at least, to tell me if he’s held up? I need you to come over now to find him.” I simply didn’t know what to say. Never had my mother been so far from the world as I know it, and never had she seemed so desperate. Should I vaguely humor her, urging patience, suggesting that my father, nine years dead, might show up again? Or should I try to wrestle her back to reality, explaining my father’s death and the life she has been leading without him for nearly a decade? Unable to sustain any charade about this, I tried slowly, carefully, to explain why my mother’s lost husband, the man whose name she couldn’t even remember for the moment, wasn’t with her. “You mean Pop, darling? Your husband Abe? But he’s gone, sweetheart. He died nearly ten years ago. You’ve been living alone, in California, and now in Virginia.” “What do you mean he died?” she asked in an urgent voice, “I just saw him before he went out for the newspaper.” “I’m sorry for it, darling, very, very, sorry. But he’s been dead for a long time now. You couldn’t have seen him lately. You’re wishing he was here with you. I wish it, too” “How long?” she asked me, her voice rising in astonishment . “How long did you say?” “A very long time, mom. Don’t you remember? Years and years ago.”
      Of course she didn’t remember anything of the sort. And in telling her this truth, in making her discover my father’s death each night anew, as if for the first time, I felt that I was bringing her first news of his death each time, and each time compelling her to relive the moment and grieve again with the shock of his collapse and sudden death. Over and over I felt that I was consigning her to a circle in hell that even Dante would find too terrible to observe.
      I remember my father’s death day vividly. On April Fool’s Day my mother called to tell me that he was dead. Through her sobs, I learned that he had gone to the hospital earlier in the day because he was suddenly having trouble getting up from his chair. In the emergency room where he was waiting quietly to be seen, his blood pressure plummeted; he seemed to have trouble clearing his throat, and then he was gone. When we talked much later, my mother, having heard a tale of the medical neglect of the husband of one of her acquaintances, wondered if my father might have been saved by a more attentive response when he first came into the building. She was looking to place blame, to ease the frustration that was part of her deep grieving. But we both knew that she was on a path to nothing good. His death was the one that anyone would wish for someone loved – quick at the end.
      On the Sunday before he died, I spoke with my father as usual. Our weekly calls had gotten more somber lately, as my Dad, immensely frustrated by the arthritis that was slowing him down, and the heaps of medication he had to take for a steadily worsening heart condition, would declare in a tired voice that he was just a shadow of his former self. Gone were the kidding jokes we shared regularly about the delights of being buried in your car (“man, that’s living”); about finding yourself visited by a recently dead friend who would announce that he’d been to Heaven and there was good news and bad: the good news was that there was baseball in heaven; the bad news was that you were starting pitcher tomorrow. Gone was the Woody Allen line that one or the other of us pulled out somewhere in the conversation when we found that we were dancing too near the subject of mortality: “I have nothing against death. . . . I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
      He really didn’t say much about his health conditions at all this time; he didn’t say much at all, in fact, except to ask after a recent trip I’d taken with my wife to celebrate our 30th anniversary, and to inquire about the boys – one slogging through a lingering Russian winter in Moscow, the other contemplating a job change or a return to school in Boston. I made a mental note to call again in a few days to see if he felt less weary of spirit, or at least more willing or able to talk. Over the years I’d discovered that my father, while immensely gentle and absolutely forgiving to those he loved, rarely forgave himself any failings. And his need to swallow more than a dozen pills each day – he had taken to announcing that he had more pills in his drawer than a druggist – his increased slowness of movement, his fragility, had become an affront, a source of self-recrimination and self-punishment that left him brooding. Still, as we talked, no special warning bells were sounding, and I turned toward preparing classes for the start of the new trimester.
      The morning after my mother’s call, my wife and I took a plane to the only airport I can think of named after a movie hero: John Wayne, in Orange County. After some negotiation, the last minute tickets were purchased with the airline’s special death-in-the-family rate. Having provided the name of the mortuary where my dad was held, I was granted the most expensive roundtrip flight I’d ever paid for; more expensive than a roundtrip to Paris, to London, to Zurich, to Moscow. I wasn’t bothered so much by the cost, as by the hassle and the pretence required to achieve corporate sympathy. But by the time I was booked, I felt grateful to have gotten a flight at any price.
      My sister and her husband, my wife and I, and my niece, a newly minted lawyer, arrived at my mother’s immensely tidy co-op apartment within an hour of each other. Friends of my father who had been visiting greeted us kindly, awkwardly, then left us to our own devices. We took turns alternating between trying to get information, trying to distract my mother, and trying to distract ourselves. We heard the story of my father’s last moments many times, as if somehow the repetitions would keep him alive for us, even as they confirmed the finality of his death. Over the next few days, weeping was gradually replaced by dry-eyed and laughing recollections of my father’s delight in his marriage, his children, and grandchildren. Our grieving must have been textbookish, but it was ours, and we clung tightly to its changing shape and to each other.
      Much of our time was taken up with the business of dying. Somehow, my father’s remains had landed at the New Comer Memorial Home, whose large sign, painted in letters that resembled wind blown flower blossoms, declared “A Focus On Families, Not Profits.” I suppose you couldn’t argue with the fact that all the deceased were “newcomers” to death. And almost all residents of this part of Southern California had “newly come” to the land of sunshine. But the self conscious cleverness of the name – with its absurd hint at new beginnings – struck me as offensive; and the advertised claim for “Affordability Without Sacrificing Quality” made me feel that my father’s corpse was being peddled like a major household appliance.
      Of course first impressions are often wrong. But our talk with the mortician about the viewing of the body and the arrangements for cremation confirmed my discomfort with this “Home” to which we had all temporarily come. Although my mother had persuaded herself for comfort’s sake that the mortician was a good man, doing a good job, I loathed him instantly, directing much of my helpless anger at him. Looking for an object of scorn to relieve my sense of the injustice of my father’s death, I fixed my attention immediately on the Funeral Manager’s Uriah Heep-like oiliness, his insistence on talking about costs, but with what he must have seen as a comforting softness and vagueness. Although my father’s ashes were to be scattered at sea, my mother wanted some small container of them as a remembrance. It was surely not the first time that the burial man had heard such a request, but he treated it like a lunatic desire. Or, rather, he treated it with cool, legalistic dismissiveness.
      Like a Dickensian usurer who blames a mysterious friend in the city for all indecent and inhumane actions made to bolster a loan sharking operation – “Of course I’d be pleased to do that, but ‘my friend’ would never permit it. What can I do?” – the death man said that the crematory had its rules, and he “didn’t know if . . . didn’t think that . . .,” and besides, there’s the law. Ah, yes, “the law.” Making politely clear that my niece, though she looked young and lovely and girlish, was indeed a lawyer, and so by definition must be dangerous and had best be taken seriously, I reiterated my demand on my mother’s behalf, making clear that our trump card was a simple one. Though it would be disconcerting, if we had to we’d simply ask for all the ashes and scatter them ourselves, thereby costing the mortician a tidy chunk of his fee. Even in this dark place of death, the Death Director saw the light.
      My father’s refrigerated body was absurdly described as “being at rest” in a viewing room, and we were left alone with him to say goodbye. My mother wanted us to have the chance to see him one last time since we hadn’t been to the hospital with him. She felt that we’d need this to achieve a sense of finality. Perhaps she was right. But faced with my father on a gurney, covered with a sheet, none of us knew what was proper to do, to say, to feel – as if the choreographed dance of our lives had suddenly stopped, leaving us awkwardly without steps, but with the unsettling feeling that there must be a “right” way to be – one that we’d all read about somewhere in a book, or seen in a movie or a play, but just couldn’t quite bring into focus.
      Tentatively kissing my father, and talking to him, crying, wanting to hug him into a response, wanting to leave the room and not look back, wanting to fix a memory and erase one, I moved away to allow my mother privacy. I could not bear to overhear the private loving things she had to say to him, could not stand the rawness of her pain and exposure after a lifetime in which the roles were clear, and she was the comforter who could, and would, make all problems solvable.
      In the Men’s Room afterwards, alone but very self-conscious, I found myself shaken by the finality of this parting, crying and talking to myself about how absurd a figure I’d become as I observed myself in the large mirror behind the sink. Perversely, I wondered if there was a hidden camera behind the glass – part of the mortician’s dirty secret. But as I washed my face and opened the door to my brother-in-law who was patiently waiting in the hallway, I felt that I could begin to put the moment behind me. As we walked away from the tidy brick house and its tidy parking lot, we agreed with my mother that, after all, it had been done as well as could be expected. In the rented sporty van – the only available car that would hold us all – with the air conditioner kicked on against the southern California heat, we headed home in comfortable discomfort to figure out where we’d been and where we were headed.
      The road that my mother traveled from Brooklyn and the Bronx to California and, finally, to Virginia, had never been willfully hidden from me. Yet with her memory being wiped clean of all its loving associations, I came to recognize and accept, sadly, that I had rarely paused in my own life to find out who my mother was. In this I was probably like most children, too busy discovering and defining myself to pay attention to the adults nearest me. But even if I had, I doubt I’d have penetrated the cultural baggage that turned their roles and behavior into clichés. I could always hide my unknowing behind the words of the great writers from Sophocles to Freud who had wrestled with the subject of parent-child relationships and identities. But would that bring me any closer to recovering the woman who was born Anna Rutkoff in April, 1912, grew up in NYC as daughter of Simon and Yetta, sister of Harry, eventually wife of Abraham Marten, and mother to Beth and Harry? She was disappearing from my view and I could no longer ask her to unlock the secrets of her days and ways.
      For years I carried in my wallet a small, torn, and faded photo of my mother, probably taken in the Catskills when she was about twenty. In it, she’s sitting on a rock with pine trees behind her, one hand cupped over her eyes against the sun’s glare. Her long black hair, tied behind, is a sharp contrast to the white of her pullover shirt, tennis shoes and shorts. She looks like she’s laughing, with smiling eyes, probably caught in the middle of making a smart remark to her photographer friend. It’s a striking picture of a beautiful woman, a stranger to me, but someone I think I’d like to know. After awhile it was replaced with pictures of my wife and sons, and now it’s misplaced or forever lost. But I remember pulling it out once, when visiting my parents’ Sun Belt retirement retreat, and asking my mother if she remembered where it was taken, what she was thinking about. Jokingly, I asked if she’d tell us about her reckless youth, her wild days.
      “What is there to tell, Harry dear? I don’t feel like delving into all that, darling,” she answered. “I didn’t have any wild years. I wasn’t wild. I was working. I took piano lessons. I went to lectures. Marrying your father was the real adventure of my life. Your father was a steady man, as you know, so of course I don’t mean that he’d do impetuous things, or haul us off on crazy adventures. In fact, I’d say he was driven by his sense of responsibility to the people he loved most. But when we started seeing each other we were both getting over the death of spouses, and we were both close to penniless. And getting serious about your father didn’t just mean falling in love with one man, it meant going from widowed and unmarried right to married and mother of two. I was really frightened – it was such a step.
      Before we finally decided to marry, we went off together for a weekend in Gloucester. I think your grandfather stayed with you and your sister. I was having some second thoughts; it was such a change, such a risk, and I think Dad was having second thoughts, too. We didn’t really talk that much about it. You know how Dad was, he got very quiet, thinking things out. But we walked along the beach, and were just close to each other, and it turned out to be a very good thing for us, that quiet time without distractions. Not all adventures are like a big brass band, you know. After the weekend, we got on the plane, and Dad took me home, and we put the doubts behind us. We really didn’t really have much time to “date” because Beth was already eight and we both thought that after that a child might reject a new mother. Once we got married, then it was wonderful. We had a marvelous marriage. It could just have been “a marriage,” but it was much more. It was like dad and I were one person. It was beyond all expectations.
      “Did you know that Elizabeth, I mean your mother, designated me to be dad’s next wife? We knew each other from playing tennis. Dad told me that one day he came into the hospital and your mother and her roommate and the nurses were all laughing and looking over at him. They had been talking about who the next Mrs. Marten would be – a sad thing, but they were having fun with it and knew dad would just put on his stern face when he realized that he was the subject of the conversation. A few years later I was riding the subway, and had just gotten off at 161st street, when dad, who had seen me on the train, caught up with me on the platform. We arranged to have dinner at the end of the week, and one thing followed another. Much later he told me about that day in the hospital. I think maybe that if it hadn’t been for you and your sister, he wouldn’t have gotten married again at all.
      “Your sister is a lot like dad – quiet and thoughtful. But she accepted me, even before I married dad. I never had any problems with her of any kind. She was never fresh or nasty, never. Maybe she thought it, but if so, she never showed it. Of course, she liked that I brought my Steinway piano with me. And you, you fell for my spaghetti dinners. Once your dad and I married, it couldn’t have been better. Nobody could have had a better marriage, first, second, or third marriage, nothing. I know dad was very happy with me. I would have done anything for him, and he for me.”
      For my mother, who brought music into our house, whose cooking changed me from a skinny kid into a chubby one, who organized our lives with her loving bossiness and patiently gave us her time and her sweet affection, who took care of us, all of us – I wish I could turn back time, even just a few years, to rescue her from fear and forgetting. But in the darkness where she stumbles, mistaking shadows for reality, there is little relief. I know that my mother will never again be the woman I knew and loved for nearly six decades, that probably the best I can wish for her, though it makes cringe to think it, is a peaceful death.
      But when my son living in far off Finland, asks if he should continue to send photos of his small daughter in her princess dress, dancing around the apartment to some inner music, and his son kicking a soccer ball, or chasing some imagined villain with fierce abandon, his long blond hair flying out behind him, I tell him “yes, send them.” His aunt will put them up on his Grandmother’s bed table with all the other pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She probably won’t know whose children they are. I don’t think she’s even capable of recognizing my son’s picture. But I’ve seen her take these photos down and stare at them, after a while smiling. “Oh, just look at that one. Such a darling. The little ones,” she says, “are so beautiful and new – delicious. They bring the light into my life.”
       End