2009 / Year Seven of Alzheimer’s, still
“I tell her she should nap when her boyfriend, Joe, naps so they can have fun when they both get up. She says, Everything’s better when Joe’s awake.”
I unlock my parent’s front door and let myself in during their naptime. I hear my dad snoring from the couch in his basement den. I find my mom asleep on the livingroom couch; her new lavender robe is pulled loosely around her and one butt cheek is in full view. She’s wearing tube socks with mismatched slippers.
I stand there watching her for a long while. It’s difficult to get Mom to the beauty shop, so my sister recently cut her bangs. Mom’s curly hair is almost impossible to trim incorrectly, but now her bangs are shorter than I’ve ever seen them—uncannily like another sister’s haircut when she was about five years old: bangs chopped straight across most likely with an over-sized Fiskers my dad kept in the garage. When I styled my mom’s hair yesterday after her bath and gelled her bangs to one side, she looked like she’d stepped out of a downtown salon. Today after sleeping all night and today’s nap, she looks like a kid who cut her own hair.
I can’t help myself: I remove one of her slippers and go off to her bedroom to find a match. She doesn’t stir even as I put a matching slipper on her foot.
I sit on the floor beside her and watch her sleep. One eyelid is streaked with bright red, as if she walked into something. I feel the usual tender burn behind my eyes that often occurs while I’m visiting her and my dad or I’m driving away.
I say her name to rouse her. “Virgie. Time to wake up. Virgie.” I stroke the few wisps of hair on her forehead. I wonder if anyone awakened her so tenderly. Of course, of course, but perhaps it’s been years.
“Virgie.” She opens her eyes and smiles. “There you are,” she says. When she turns her head, I see her other eyelid is also streaked with red.
“Hi Mom. You’re a sleepy head today.” I reach out for her hand.
She sits up, and I notice the red streaks blur into her eye brows. I touch her face and a streak of red comes off on my finger. Lipstick.
“Looks like you put some lipstick on today.” I laugh.
“Who? What lipstick?”
My dad tells me that the first fight he and my mom had after they got married was over a $2 dress. My mom needed a new dress so he took her downtown to buy one. He sat in the car, and she went into the store. I almost laugh out loud at this…he’s been waiting in his car for his wife for over sixty years now.
When she came out she had two dresses, each for $2.99, more than he wanted to spend. He was mad that she’d bought two.
“Water over the dam now,” he says.
When he goes to his garage to putter, I look more closely at his recent birthday cards, carefully displayed in the dining room. It never occurred to me that my mom was aware enough to want to give him a card. But there on the buffet is a store-bought card—Happy Birthday to My Husband and signed “Love, Virgie” in my dad’s handwriting. A few cards down is a home-made card with scraggly “83’s” sprinkled around the front in blue magic marker. Inside it says, “Happy Birthday from your loving wife” also in my dad’s handwriting.
I don’t have the heart to ask him about the two cards or the argument I suspect that prompted them to appear. Or perhaps it’s better to imagine the story behind these two birthday cards, symbolic of a long-married husband who so wanted to please and never quite knew how.
I’m getting my mom dressed one day and she says, “Only God has a doctor better than you.”
“Only God has a doctor better than you. You’re the best doctor.”
And another day as I’m helping her brush her teeth, she says. “It’s like I’m being taken care of by the Blessed Mother.”
“The Virgin Mary. I always prayed to her and here you are.”
Perhaps this is why I keep coming back. Where else could I get this kind of compliment?
During her Saturday bath my mom says, “I have two husbands.”
“Really,” I say. “What are their names?”
“Well, one is John Minttor and the other one is asleep downstairs.”
I laugh and laugh. I try to get my words out, and then I laugh some more. My mom laughs too, but she has no idea why. I say, “John Minttor was my husband. A long time ago. Your husband is Joe See.”
She stops laughing. “You sure?”
Later that morning when I’m helping her get dressed, I notice something in the front of the clean underwear she’s wearing. Through the cotton it looks like a tag or a piece of notebook paper. I reach in and pull it out: a 2 X 3 black and white photograph of my parents when they were dating. My mom is maybe sixteen, my dad twenty, and they’re posing on my grandparent’s front porch. It’s a picture I’ve always liked—representing a time and place I never knew about my parents, their beauty and promise and love captured over sixty-two years ago. I hand it to my mom.
She cups the tiny photo in both hands. She says, “Oh, there’s my Joe.”
My dad is my mother’s lifeline, the one person she still knows. He is the one link to her old life, to herself. One day I’m sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and dad.
“Well, Joe,” my mom says to my dad, “do you have a girlfriend yet?”
I laugh. She looks at me. “Well he’s getting older, he should have a girlfriend.”
She is simultaneously his wife and his 14 year-old neighbor girl again, teasing him in the kitchen.
Later when I’m coaxing her to lay down, I tell her she should nap when her boyfriend, Joe, naps so they can have fun when they both get up. She says, “Everything’s better when Joe’s awake.”