2007 / Year Five of Alzheimer’s
I’m helping my mom put her earrings in. We sit side by side at the foot of her bed, facing her vanity mirror. Her lipsticks, lotions, and jewelry are scattered across the dresser. My dad tried to organize her earrings last winter. He took every pair he could find and punched them through a piece of cardboard cut out of a cereal box. The system worked for awhile, but my mom never put the earrings back where they were supposed to go. She’d wear a pair and take one out in the bathroom, one out in her bedroom. Now more than ever, it seems, my dad wants to make order of my mom’s things.
Mom and I sit on her bed and look in the mirror. She’s in a striped tank top. “I’m changing my shirt,” she says. “I don’t like all these wrinkles.” She points to her arms. Her skin sags like deflated balloons.
I look at her and force a big smile. “Look at these,” I say. I point to my pronounced crow’s feet around my eyes. “Laugh lines. I earned them.”
“You do have a lot of them,” she says. “Do I?” She smiles big in the mirror. “Some,” I say.
I look in the mirror, still smiling so big my face hurts. “I look like I laughed every day of my life.”
She forces a big smile, “What about me?” she asks.
“You look like you laughed every other day.”
“We were always happy,” my mom says.
She tells me, “I used to sing ‘The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be,’ but now I’m too weak to sing it even to myself.”
“It’s a dizzy day today,” my mom says to me
I laugh. She has struggled with nausea for over a year now, but she’s never said “dizzy day” before. She amazes me, sometimes, given the perfect phrases she can use one moment and strange statements the next.
She says, “Do you have any boyfriends? You have many boyfriends, don’t you? I always had boyfriends. Boys liked my curly hair.” She doesn’t take a breath. “You can tell me if you have boyfriends. I won’t remember anyway. Just tell me about your boyfriends.”
I laugh some more. “I have many boyfriends.”
My mom says to me, “I knew it. And are they nice?”
I nod. She says, “If anyone was mean to you.” She pauses. “If any man was mean to you, I’d have to kill him.” Then she says again, “Kill him.” She looks out the window.
Later that day, we’re in her bedroom, sitting at the foot of her bed, not looking in the vanity mirror, but it’s there if we want it—offering us another mother and daughter to stare back at. She sometimes no longer understands mirrors. She thinks her reflection is another person, a woman she calls her friend.
I love this spot with my mom, love looking at us together. I make faces in the mirror till she laughs.
I’ve read about the stages of Alzheimer’s. I’m prepared for her to forget how to walk and talk and feed herself, but when I read that in the last stage she will lose the ability to smile, I was so so sad.
I drape my arm around my mom’s shoulders and rest my head on hers. I’m so much taller than her that I can do this. I say, “Remember when I was a little girl and Dad called me your woodtick?”
She smiles. I know she can’t remember this. Some days her childhood is still be there for her, ready to call up, but my childhood—not so much.
I say, “I stuck to you all the time. I always had some part of me touching some part of you. I think I sat on your lap till I was fifteen.”
She laughs at the woman in the mirror. “Well you were such a nice girl. You just liked to be by your mom.”
She really has no idea. She had so many children, how could she keep us all straight? Who got injured and how? Which birth was difficult? Which baby had the croup? She recalls none of this or all of it in a blur.
Her not remembering doesn’t bother me.
“I was your woodtick.” I squeeze her close to me.
“What if I forget you?” she says. She asks me this often.
“If you forget me, I’ll just be that ‘nice girl’ who visits you.”
“Nooo,” she says. “I want to remember YOU. I don’t want to miss anything. I tell God everyday: I don’t want to lose my mind.”
“Tell?” I say. “You tell God? Now you’re telling God what to do?”
She giggles. “I plead with Him: Don’t let me lose my mind. Cause I don’t want to miss anything.”
I’ve offered to clip my mom’s toenails for weeks now, and she always finds an excuse: “Dad will do it” or “I’ll do it when I get out of the tub.”
Finally, I can’t stand it anymore. I come at her with a nail clippers and don’t ask permission.
I gently work my way from nail to nail, some curled over her toes, some ripped and jagged. She says, “I’ve never had anyone do this for me before.”
I tell her that women pay a lot of money for a pedicure.
“A what?” she asks.
“A pedicure. Cutting nails and painting them.”
“Never heard of it,” she says.
She’s sitting on the couch, her feet on a throw rug. I’ve placed a tissue beneath each foot to catch the nails. Now I get to mother her with all of the tenderness she showed me as a child.
My son, Alex, is sitting on the front porch with my dad, and Mom and I can see the backs of their heads through the window and hear their voices but not what they say to each other.
My mom says, “Well they sure have a lot to talk about.”
If I know these guys, Alex is telling his grandpa about Boy Scout camp, how he told a first-year camper who got hit in the face with a stick: “If you’re not bleeding, you’ll be fine.” I’m sure Grandpa giggled at that. Alex will tell him how he got certified as a lifeguard, the long hours he spent in the cold lake. How he just scheduled an appointment to take his driver’s test in three weeks. When their sodas are gone, Grandpa will give Alex instructions on how to plant the two flowering crab trees my siblings and I gave our parents recently. “This is what we’re gonna do,” he’ll say to my son.
My mom watches her grandson and husband out the window, then she looks at her toes. “You’re really good at this.”
She doesn’t know how surprised I am that it’s going so smoothly. I haven’t caused her any pain, amazing, given the hardness of her nails and that many are growing into her skin.
She seems content, so I go back to the foot I started with and trim each nail closer. She looks out the window.
“You’re such a honey girl,” she says to me. “You’re so precious. My precious.”
This is what I’ve waited for my whole life. Still, I don’t know how to react. “Oh,” I say to her, “aren’t you sweet. Thank you.”
Alzheimer’s has swiped her memory, but also wiped away all the bullshit between us.
I think how foolish I was, all those years I drifted away from her, the time I spent doubting she loved me. Honey girl, she calls me now. My precious.