Visiting Mom becomes more and more distressing. I now visit only on the weekends. Talking with Mom is like lobbing a tennis ball of conversation over the net which Mom is unable to return. I could be an automated server and say anything. It would make no difference. By the end of the visit, I lapse into silence. I’m impatient with Mom as if she’s deliberately being difficult and then I’m disgusted at my impatience. Kissing her goodbye, I vacate the court, leaving the balls where they lay.
I’m terrified when I watch her because nothing can be done. Her mind is failing. She’s no longer the mother I’ve known all my life. I fight against the fear this could be me in thirty years. Leslie worries about this too. She’s told me, “If I ever get this bad, shoot me.” It’s a macabre joke, but it helps distance us from our own dread for a few moments.
I hold Mom’s hand. It’s like a bird’s claw, all bone and knuckles, the dark veins lying beneath the skin, thin as tracing paper. When I arrive, I doubt she knows who I am. In the past, I’d say, “How about a kiss for your only son,” and she’d locate me in her memory. That no longer works. She frowns when I tell her I’m her son as if wondering why this stranger is making such a ridiculous statement. I don’t press the point. Doing so makes her more agitated.
She’s come to accept me as someone who visits occasionally, someone who sits beside her and holds her hand. I tell her stories about the past hoping a detail will catch hold. I think she copies my facial expressions to prove she’s paying attention.
After two hours, when I tell her I’m leaving, she turns towards me, smiling as if she’s surprised I’ve arrived. I kiss her and rub her back and leave when an aide places her dinner tray in front of her. The meal is a distraction which will sweep me from her mind. Outside in the fresh air and sunshine, I’m lighthearted—and lightheaded—relieved I won’t have to visit for another week. How has Dad come here day after day for over four years?
How could I consider this visit such a burden? She’s my mother whether she remembers me or not. Why do I dread a couple of hours to be with her and provide human interaction? Some children care for an ailing parent in their home for years with little help and little complaint. I’m incapable of that. Too selfish and self-absorbed? I’m embarrassed to admit I find visiting more of a burden now she no longer recognizes me. Do I require a medal for my weekly presence from someone who’s raised me, sacrificing many of her own dreams? Is slowly turning away a natural process? At some point, we only pretend to act the part of the caring child. What a terrible son I am.
As a teenager, I read how Eskimos treated an elderly parent who became sick and would never recover. The nomadic family would not survive if they fed someone unable to contribute to the welfare of the family during the yearly migration in search of food. The family left the parent behind to freeze to death.
I was horrified reading this. I imagined being deserted, listening to the sound of the sledge on snow, the crunch of boots, and the panting of dogs growing fainter and fainter. Leaving someone behind must have been a terrible, but necessary, decision if the family were to survive.
It wasn’t as heartless as it sounds. Freezing to death must have been a blessing to those exhausted beyond endurance or in unbearable pain who welcomed falling into a peaceful sleep ending it all. I cannot stop thinking about the sound of one’s family fading in the distance. We will all meet death and be left behind.
I plan my visits for weekend afternoons. Dad won’t have a doctor’s appointment on the weekend, so I count on his being there. His face lights up when he sees he will have company. We carry on a conversation together, occasionally explaining something to my mother to maintain the falsehood she is part of the conversation. Mom watches us speaking as if waiting for one of us to make sense. She never cared for films with subtitles, so our conversation must be like a never-ending film with actors who talk, talk, talk in a language she can’t understand.
Today, by coincidence, Dad, Leslie and I are visiting at the same time. This happens occasionally. We relax at these impromptu family reunions which take on a carefree atmosphere as we pretend we’re still a family of four. Leslie often brings soft cookies or fruit which doesn’t require a set of teeth to eat. Once she brought ginger candy – Mom’s favorite. She asked the store to cut the pieces, so Mom could suck them without having to bite off a piece. The downside of bringing food is having to watch her, prepared to act quickly if she chokes.
Leslie and I take turns buying coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. We’re honest enough to admit to each other the trip offers a chance to escape for half an hour. This afternoon, it’s my turn to get coffee. I write the orders on a napkin. I can’t remember the details of everyone’s order even when mumbling them over and over all the way to the store. This puzzles me because in school I memorized hundreds of lines when acting in plays.
When I return with the coffee, Mom is no longer sitting with Dad and Leslie. I unpack the coffee, cream, and sugar. “Is Mom in the bathroom?”
Dad, staring out the windows, says nothing. Leslie gestures toward the center of the room where Mom sits at another table beside a male patient also in a wheelchair. I’ve rarely seen him in the hallway and assumed he stays in his room most of the time. He slouches in his wheelchair, never interacting with another patient or a member of the staff. He’s dressed in gym pants and a sweatshirt. His hair is uncombed or, if once combed, has since been pulled in all directions. I see his face in profile and notice he hasn’t shaved. One hand holds a stuffed animal in his lap; with the other, he holds my mother’s hand.
I turn to Leslie, frowning and shrugging my shoulders in confusion. I whisper, “What the hell?”
With a finger on her lips, she mouths, “Later.”
I pass around the coffee, leaving Mom’s cup in the cardboard tray. Left in the middle of the table, her coffee is more eloquent than Mom would be had she remained with us.
Leslie resumes her conversation with Dad about her son Palmer winning a local photography contest. “The picture will be printed in next year’s calendar distributed by our town’s Rec Department. His photograph shows two squirrels sitting in a birdbath grooming each other with two bright red cardinals perched on an overhanging tree branch waiting their turn.”
Without turning away from the window, Dad says, “I’ll send a card to congratulate him.”
“He’ll appreciate that.” Leslie adds more half-and-half to her coffee. “Since winning, I’ve had to tell him to stop bragging. His reincarnation of Ansel Adams is getting old.”
I look surreptitiously in Mom’s direction. Our family reunion has become a wake.
Leslie reaches out to touch Dad’s arm. “Drink your coffee before it gets cold.”
He swings around and picks up his coffee. His expression reveals nothing about how he feels. He’s never been one to show emotion. In the past, when arguing with Mom, he’d act like nothing bothered him which drove her to distraction because she could never hide how she felt.
With relief, I hear the rattle of dinner carts bumping off the elevator and the soft whirr of their wheels on the linoleum. The three of us stand as if someone yelled, “Ten-hut!”
Leslie takes Mom her coffee and places it in front of her. Following Leslie, I see that Mom is still holding hands with the man, but with no other interaction. The two of them are content sitting in silence. I tap Mom’s shoulder hoping she drops his hand and turns from him to me. “Bye Mom. See you soon.” I kiss the top of her head.
She looks up at me without any change in her demeanor. I kiss her cheek. She remains holding the man’s hand. His stuffed animal is a grey cat. He looks grubby and unclean. I want to give him a push and send him rolling across the dining room. His touching my mother is repulsive.
Mom reaches out with her free hand to steady the cup at the edge of the table. Her tremor causes it to shake. “Mom, sip.” Leslie grabs the cup and adjusts the straw. “Don’t try to hold it.” She bends down to kiss Mom. “See you soon. I love you.” Mom mumbles something like “I love you, too” but I can’t be sure. She turns back to the man.
Dad has left the room without saying goodbye. Leslie and I walk out the rear entrance and find him unlocking his car door. When our visits overlap, we always have a ‘car side’ chat where we can talk freely. It’s obvious that he doesn’t want to discuss what’s happened. He’s already in his car when Leslie calls to him. “Dad, I’ll see you on Wednesday for dinner. Decide where you want to go.”
He attempts to smile to show he looks forward to dinner, but it’s obvious he’s upset.
When Dad backs out of his parking spot, I signal with my hand to help him avoid a collision with another parked car. The scrapes and dents on the side of his car alarm me.
As we watch him drive down the street, Leslie shakes her head. “I always think we should send out a town alert to warn other cars to stay off the road for half an hour. ‘Elderly driver: failing eyesight, poor depth perception, stiff neck prevents looking in any direction.’”
I’m laughing “He’s not that bad.”
“Not yet, but it won’t be long. I don’t want him hitting someone because he puts the car into reverse by mistake.”
With Dad out of sight, we walk back to Leslie’s car. “Poor Dad. It’s the third time Mom’s done this that I know of. The first time I was alone with her. For no reason I could see, she wheeled her chair around and made a beeline for that man. I was speechless.”
“When did this start?”
“I’ve asked Dad, but he ignores the question. The second time I was with Dad. He was embarrassed but not surprised.” Her voice rises in frustration. “How does he put up with it? If I were him, I’d put on my coat and leave.”
“He’s never said anything to you?” This is unusual. Leslie has a closer relationship with him. “How did Mom come to know this man? I’ve never seen her talking to him.”
“The two of them don’t talk. They just sit and hold hands.”
“Dad must feel abandoned.”
Leslie crosses her arms. “He was abandoned long before this. You remember her in the apartment. She rarely took part in conversations, showed little interest in what was going on. The psychological distance between the two of them took a long time for him to accept. This is just one more step along the way.”
How have I missed what’s happening? I’m the last to know what’s going on despite it happening right in front of me. Rachel says I don’t want to see it. “Your father is alone when he visits her and alone when he goes back to the apartment.”
“It still hurts, but he’s used to it by now. He’s ashamed everyone sees it.”
“He shouldn’t. It’s not his fault.”
“He’s long past thinking about it objectively. He feels like a chump.”
“But why this man? He’s nothing like Dad. I don’t understand—” I can’t keep the disgust out of my voice. “It’s creepy. Like this man has hypnotized her or something.”
“I spoke with the social worker. This behavior is not uncommon.” Leslie stares off into space, her lips a thin, hard line. “I asked her what attracts Mom to this man. She says Mom may see something that reminds her of Dad long ago. There’s no way to know.”
When the social worker saw what was happening, she spoke with Dad. “She thinks he’s come to terms with it.” Leslie shakes her head. “Dad knows their relationship, whatever its problems, is over. But going off with another man? How can a husband ever accept that?”
When Leslie looks back at me, I’m shocked she’s crying, the tears streaking her cheeks. I put my arms around her.
“Sometimes I wonder if after a long life together, it’s better a loved one passes without warning,” I say. “You are haunted by what you never said, and you can’t pretend you still have a chance to say goodbye. There’s nothing you can do but grieve and accept it. What can Dad do when his wife is here before him, but she’s not the person he knew? Mom’s already dead to him, and yet she’s still here, reminding him of what they used to have—”
Leslie is sobbing again. Her tears wet my shirt. She’s thinking of her husband’s death. In an instant a heart attack took him, and he was gone. She was alone, at thirty-three, left with two young children. She must think about him every day. How could she not? Has she found any peace knowing she’ll never experience what Dad is going through?
Of course not. One always wants to experience a full life with another person even if there is a risk that the end may be heartbreaking. I can’t even pretend to know how someone else feels in either situation. I pray I’ll die before Rachel. As much as I fear death, I fear her death more. Wanting to die first is a selfish, but comforting thought, due in no small part to my growing suspicion that Mom’s disease might someday be my own.
“Mankind has cursed itself,” I say. “All these medical advances keep our physical bodies running like antique cars. But our brains haven’t evolved to keep up. Our bodies live, but inside we’re dead.”
I follow Leslie’s car out of the parking lot. At the end of the street, she turns right. I wait for the green arrow to turn left. I’ll call Leslie tomorrow and invite myself to dinner with our father.
We become used to Mom leaving us when she sees the other man. I’m amazed at the strength in her arms propelling her wheelchair across the room as if she’s afraid another patient might usurp her place. Dad has learned it’s useless trying to convince her to come back.
The other man always sits slumped forward, never speaking. He moves his eyes but never his head. Mom reaches her hand out to hold his. They never speak but are content holding hands. I’m sad for my father. He comes every afternoon, but she rarely reacts to anything he says. He sits beside her, makes sure she swallows all her medications, and notifies an aide when she needs to use the bathroom. His only thanks: she wheels away from him. She spends more time beside the other man than with him.
How can he not take it to heart? Why does he come day after day when Mom seems oblivious to his presence? He promised to visit her every day. And he’s kept his word.
A few days later, Rachel looks up from her magazine. “By the way, how’s your mother doing?”
“Not any better. Her spending time with the other man still upsets Dad.”
She closes the magazine in surprise. “What other man?”
“I told you about him.”
“You did not.”
“I thought I had.”
She tosses the magazine on the table. “Tell me again.”
I relate what I saw on my last visit. Rachel is upset. “Your father visits her every afternoon, and she leaves him?”
“Not right away.” I want to defend my mother. “They sit together when Dad first arrives.”
“Yeah, and then what?”
“When this man is wheeled into the rec room, Mom sees him and goes over to him.”
“What does she say to your father?” The whole situation is incomprehensible to Rachel.
“She doesn’t say anything. She just leaves.”
“Your poor father. Does he go over to bring her back?”
“He did at first.”
“Have you or Leslie tried bringing her back?”
“Leslie did. She wheeled Mom back, talking to her and holding her hand, but when she let go of her, Mom rolled herself back across the room. Leslie got up to bring her back again, but Dad shook his head. “Leave her be.” Leslie said it broke her heart. She took Dad out to dinner to give him a chance to talk about it, but he wouldn’t. He keeps everything in.”
“Your father can’t go on like this every day. He should take time off every week.”
“I doubt he would. He feels guilty keeping her there and his visits are a kind of penance.”
“That’s his Catholic upbringing.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish