It started slowly. The moments of loss, like pebbles tossed into a pond, tiny droplets of water rising above the surface and then disappearing, leaving behind ripples that wipe away all.
The signs were there, but I closed my eyes and ignored the alarm sounding in my head.
Through child’s eyes I watched her light touch us all, now that light slowly fades.
I wish for childish things: a magic carpet ride to a world where sickness and pain do not exist, a time machine to transport me back to the moment my path lay open to endless possibilities, arms to protect me against forces for which I have no ammunition and no power to defeat.
The choices are now mine to make, a role reversal, a world turned upside down. I am the only one—only me—trying to hold onto what is slowly slipping away.
My hands, so like hers, fasten the buttons on her sweater. Our eyes meet and she smiles, thinning lips pulled back to reveal the familiar overbite. Her smile seldom reaches her eyes, but today is a good day. I see her there in those clear blue eyes. I see my mother. I see it all.
My first memory of my mother was her eyes. She is telling me the story of my guardian angel as I lay tucked beneath the covers. She smoothes my hair and places a soft kiss on my forehead. I am mesmerized by the spark in her clear blue eyes. My father called them smiling Irish eyes.
We are late for her doctor appointment. I feel an invisible hand pushing me forward through a maze of hospital hallways to Dr. Medhi’s office. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to talk about my mother as if she is a science experiment: we can try this new drug, or these series of exercises. We both know there is no cure; even Mom, in her rare moments of lucidity, knows this is all a game.
She is silent on the ride home, sitting in the passenger seat like a mannequin, lost in a tangle of malfunctioning neurons. Then her face comes to life, “Is the little girl coming today?”
She asks that question daily now and it never fails to break my heart.
By the time I entered adolescence I had little in common with Mom. She was the ultimate housewife; I thought housework and cooking were a complete waste of time. She worshiped my father, and while I did share that quality, I did not long for a husband. She doted on me; I never had a strong urge to become a mother.
It was our love of old movies that brought us together. Every Sunday afternoon we snuggled together on the beige leather sofa and watched the drama and heartbreak. I was enthralled by my first glimpse into the adult world, to all the obstacles, tragedies and betrayals that complicate life.
We arrive back home. I settle Mom into her chair and turn on the TV. Love is a Many Splendored Thing —one of our favorites—is playing. “Oh I love Jennifer Jones, she’s so pretty,” Mom says as I drape a blanket across her legs. And then five minutes later, “Oh I love Jennifer Jones, she’s so pretty.” How can she remember the name of a long dead actress and yet not realize she keeps repeating the same sentence over and over? I take a deep breath and answer her again, “Yeah, Mom. I like her too.”
Before the movie is over she dozes off. She smiles in her sleep and I wonder; is she set free in her dreams? Does she dances around the living room in my father’s arms as she did when he was alive. I remember tip-toeing from my bedroom and watching them through the wooden rails of the banister, her auburn hair flying as he twirled her around and around.
I make a cup of tea and think about meditating, the words of my therapist whispering in my ear. Claire you need to take care of yourself or you won’t be able to care for anyone else. I see her once a month to placate my husband and Dr Medhi, both watching me carefully, as if I too have Alzheimers. But neither can feel my devastation; I am watching my mother disappear. I forgo the meditation and instead sip my tea as Jennifer Jones stands on a lonely hilltop and cries for her lost lover.
I spend the afternoon doing household tasks: laundry, dishes, starting dinner. At three-thirty Maddy bursts through the door talking a mile a minute shrugging off her backpack and jacket. My mother’s face lights up, “Oh the little girl is here!”
My daughter glides into my arms; I snuggle against her warm little body. She leaves my embrace too quickly, off to her grandmother. “Hi Grandma, it’s me, Maddy. I missed you today.”
My mother does not remember her granddaughter. Every day I watch the same scene, my daughter, Maddy, happily introducing herself to her grandmother. And every day I wonder if that is my Karmic payback, the penance for my sin.
Later I find Maddy polishing my mother’s nails a bright purple color— that in another lifetime my mother would never tolerate. Maddy talks to my mother as if she is one of her dolls.
My husband arrives home; we sit down to dinner as Maddy chats about her day. My mother interrupts the conversation, “Where is your father?” she asks me. “He’s going to be late for dinner.”
There is silence. All eyes are on me. “Mom, Dad died. Remember?” I say gently as I hold her hand. In my mind I scream.
In my mind, I grab each plate full of pot roast and mashed potatoes and throw them across the room. I imagine globs of food running down the walls falling onto the floor. In my mind, I move to the living room and toss all the framed photos of pretty smiling faces into the air, and visualize the glass shattering against the hardwood floor. In my mind I scream once more, a primitive, macabre shriek. I scream until my throat is raw.
I am pulled back to reality by my husband’s hand, warm on my cool arm. The look on his face makes me wonder if I’m on a parallel path. He leads me from the room and pulls me against the solid wall of his chest. My face nuzzles his neck; I inhale his scent and feel his arms press against my back. He doesn’t speak. He just holds me. Tight. After a few moments, when my breath returns to normal, he sways a little, back and forth. I hear his breath in my ear. I think, thank you, thank you for this man. And I let the tears come.
When we return to the table Maddy is teaching Mom a song she learned in school. They are singing and laughing. “I can teach you too Mommy,” she tells me.
Later I help Maddy with her bath. I marvel at the perfectness of her little body: the way the water slides off the smooth skin of her back, her pointy toes, the multicolored strands of blond woven into her brown hair. But it is her eyes that captivate me. They are the exact blue of my mother’s eyes, the same shape, with the same fringe of dark lashes, and they have the same power to move me. I get lost in the clear blue depths and I remember….
I sit still as stone in the chair, waiting. I am not ready, I am not ready, I chant over and over inside my head. I don’t let any other thoughts in. I am not ready, I am not ready. The nurse calls my name. I rise and follow her down a corridor of closed doors. One of those doors is for me. I strip off my clothes and put on the paper gown, it is rough against my skin. I wait. I chant. I am not ready.
My mother’s sad blue eyes break through my chanting; I cannot keep them out. I hear her words. It’s a life Claire, a life. Life is precious. Sometimes our blessings come from unexpected places. Think hard and be sure. Then I see another pair of eyes, so blue, so clear, so deep, and in that instant I feel the life inside me. Not a movement, it is much too early for that. I feel a spark.
“Mommy, Mommy.” I am released from the past by a small wet hand on my face, “Can I have hot chocolate before bed? And Grandma too? She likes hot chocolate” I wrap my daughter in a fluffy pink towel and press her body to mine.
After the hot chocolate I read Maddy a story and tuck her into bed: I smooth her hair, kiss her forehead, and tell her I love her. She is asleep before I leave the room. Then I help my mother prepare for bed. I watch her brush her teeth, slide her nightgown over her head and slip beneath the quilt. I turn out the light and move toward the door. Her words stop me. “Will the little girl come again?”
I walk back to the bed and sit beside her. I smooth her hair and kiss her softly on the cheek. “Yes, Mom she will. The little girl will always come.”