My mother is 82 years old and on alert for drafts, missing socks and the names of relatives who died before my birth. I listen to her carefully, however, as we have not lost one sock in the three months she has lived with me. She moved in with me in September, her pride and sense of humor intact despite the disabilities brought on by a series of strokes. She battles the laws of gravity with the help of a walker, but there is no mechanical aid to adjust her sense of time. The partition between dream and memory is, in my mother’s mind, a very thin, sometimes broken membrane. Memories flow into wishes and wishes into dreams. Sometimes time stands still.
It is evening, and we are about to have a light supper. Normally she eats a substantial lunch at the adult day-care center.
“Lunch was awful today,” she says. “There was a ham sandwich, awful sandwich. And a banana for dessert. I brought it home.”
I see the banana on the kitchen table. Too big and beautiful to be one from the spotty brown bunch on top of the fridge.
“Would you like to have it on some raisin bran?” I ask, as she often likes fruit and cereal in the evening.
“They gave me a banana for dessert,” she says, picking up one after another of the brown plastic pill containers on the kitchen table.
“OK then, what do you want for supper?”
“I don’t want that banana!”
I slip through the kitchen door, take a few deep breaths, and return.
She says, “Hello, where you been? The lunch today was awful. They had ham sandwiches but I only took a half. That’s all I wanted. And for dessert.”
She is stuck and needs to move on. I need her to move on. I raise my voice to break the seal, “I know, you told me about the banana.”
Descartes said that the act of thinking was all the proof he needed that he existed. My mother is Cartesian with an attitude. She thinks it, therefore, it is so. Only she is too amiable to argue the point when her perceptions don’t agree with mine. For three days we try to remember the other Stapleton’s name. We have Maureen, the actress in “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” but we can’t think of the other one, her sister, who played Archie Bunker’s wife. On Thursday evening my mother looks up from her dinner, a noodle hanging on her fork, and says, “Edith, her name is Edith – no that’s Archie’s wife. Never mind.” On Friday I am passing my mother’s bathroom and hear her muttering, “Maureen, Maureen, Maureen ,” as though the chant would bring back the sister’s name. On Saturday I browse the movie guide, a paperback the size of a brick. I go to the living room, where she spends most of her time in a big stuffed chair aimed at the television. There is no need to refer to the question; I just point a finger in the air and say, “Jean.”
“Right,” my mother says. “Oh, that’s right. Why couldn’t we think of Jean before?”
She doesn’t ask how I got it. She knows names come back by themselves, that memories are sometimes playful, like sea otters and kittens.
On Thanksgiving Day we sit in the kitchen peeling apples for a pie and watching Bill Cosby’s routine about going to the dentist. Mother suddenly stops laughing and collapses in her chair. Her skin turns khaki, and between shouts to her to “wake up,” I dial 911. The last time I had followed the ambulance ride to the hospital they had sent us home. There was nothing to be done beyond her current therapy. Though the doctors never said so directly, the message was to be with her. I knew it could happen anytime. The vascular network of old people with a history of strokes holds multiple opportunities for failure: little ones, big ones. This, I think, is “The Big One,” until she giggles and says “No hospital,” as if it were a punch line to a joke. In her time warp, she is still laughing at Cosby’s jokes and giving me orders. I tell her to wake up if she doesn’t want to go to the hospital. Her skin goes from khaki to blue-gray. I can’t remember if I should tell her to go toward the light or away from it. She wakes up before I can figure it out. Her color returns; she has no headache; her reflexes, grip and coordination are pretty good. I cancel the ambulance. She describes what she felt as wonderfully relaxing then chastises me for getting excited over nothing.
For her, nothing out of the ordinary has happened. For me, it was a frightening ordeal. Which was real?
In “Masks of the Universe,” Edward Harrison says that each age writes its own history and is convinced of the authenticity of that history. The libraries of Alexandria and Baghdad were burned; the language and much of the Mayan culture were obliterated; the works of Copernicus and Galileo were placed on the Indes Expurgatorius. It is human arrogance that each age thinks its history is History, its universe is the Universe. My mother’s universe and my universe are equally real, occurring in the same space and time, only not always together.
My father died four years ago at the age of 79. One morning my mother tells of a dream in which she is on a bus on her way to see him. They meet at a theater. He is handsome, 29 years old, but she is as she is now, 82, stooped and wrinkled. It takes her the rest of the day to shake off the effects of the dream.
In another dream she is again on a bus and going somewhere — she doesn’t know where, and she discovers she has lost her wallet. She meets my father on a street, but he doesn’t know her. And she has nothing to prove; she is his wife. She wakes crying. After breakfast she spends the morning going through the drawer that contains all her important papers. She is looking for her expired driver’s license.
The curvature of space, the relativity of time pose no obstacles to her. My mother has become a time and space traveler. She is frightened but willing. She misses her husband, and her best days begin with dreams of being with him.
The strokes come in clusters, each one peeling away a layer of knowledge and ability. The last stroke shortened her speech to telegraphic messages. It was difficult for her to make herself understood. She searched for words and had to work at making the correct sounds. One more stroke would pull away the last of her language skills. Would she gather from dreams or memory the old knowledge of lost languages of Mesopotamia and finally, only Neanderthalian grunts?
My mother is 2 inches shorter than she was five years ago. She has trouble balancing and judging distances. The last stroke took away half her eyesight; she now must aim the good part of her “good eye” to the left of what she wants to see. Her ability to hear low and high sounds is diminished. She is slowly returning to the physical capabilities of an infant. This is not what she means when she says she wishes she was young again.
Bertrand Russell said that perhaps this world that we know was made by the devil at a moment when God was not looking. My mother quotes Bette Davis. She says growing old is not for sissies.
We are talking once again about the Great Betrayal: when my mother’s best friend made a pass for my father while she was away tending to their first grandchild. The wound has festered for 35 years. Her lip curls as she says the woman’s name. After a proper silence she sits up straight and recounts my father’s denial that he would ever consider such a thing.
My father worked in the hotel business. He was surrounded by empty bedrooms. I don’t think my mother’s best friend was his only chance to walk on the wild side. But remaining silent on this subject has always seemed, if not honest, prudent. Sometimes it has felt like a painful deception.
After he died my mother’s memories of my father were refined to include only the good times, the romantic moments. My portly, always late-for-dinner father, the man with permanent gravy stains on his ties, was reincarnated as the handsome dancing partner with shiny shoes, the blue-eyed man of my mother’s dreams and, most of all, the loving father to his children. He was never late for dinner in her memories, nor did his forgotten cigarettes burn holes in the upholstery, and while they may have disagreed once in a while, they did not bicker. She created out of her memories the man she wanted him to be.
But recently there has been a slight shift in the telling. The portrait she draws of my father now has a few wrinkles, his clothes don’t fit nearly so well, his hair is receding, and sometimes his breath is stale with tobacco. Last week she said, as she rounded the turn about the Great Betrayal one more time, “It doesn’t matter anymore. It was all so long ago.”
“Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges. All that can happen, must happen.
The mystery of language and imagination surface one morning when my mother announces she has made up two new words. They came to her in a dream. The first one is “dwab” and means something bad. The second one is “gleeb” for something you like. She is proud of her discovery and aware that it is just playing. She smiles with delight and says the words again. Two days later she asks me what they were. She gets them back the next day, loses them again. I’m not sure if she has them anymore.
She wants to talk about what she wants done with her things. She has already signed a living will, set up a trust and signed over power of attorney to my brother and me. Now she wants to talk about who gets what pieces of jewelry and furniture. I don t want to think about it, put fingers in my ears, and say “I can’t hear you.” She tries again the next day in the car. I’m driving and can’t stick my fingers in both ears. She insists on knowing what pieces I want. I tell her, “I want it all. I am the best and favorite child, and I should get it all.” She says, “Really?” I say, “Really, I want it all.” She hasn’t asked me anything about her jewelry or furniture since then.
She wants to talk about what to do if something should happen. She says, “I don’t want to be a vegetable. You have to promise.”
I say, “I promise.”
We never say what the promise is, exactly. I once worked as a secretary in an intensive care unit and know the protocols for letting a patient go. Once a vegetative state is reached, or is about to be reached, the family is given a chance to let the patient die without feeling directly responsible. A good ICU team of nurses, chaplain, social worker and physician will relieve the family of the direct burden. They acknowledge the loss, the deep sadness, they take the family to the bedside one more time, the family goes home or stays in the room, the patient is given extra painkiller, the tubes are withdrawn, the monitors turned off, the patient goes into a deeper sleep and then departs. No one says, “She died.” They say, “She’s gone now.” Or, “She is at peace.” A good nurse makes sure there are extra boxes of tissues handy.
We are talking about my mother’s stay in the hospital with one of her friends. I refer to it as the time she almost died. My mother is surprised and says, “I didn’t know I almost died. You never told me I almost died.”
I say, “That never occurred to you?”
She says, “No, why should it?”
According to Harrison, the “anthropic principle” states that life exists not because the universe by chance happens to be a fit and proper place for habitation, but that the universe necessarily is a fit and proper place because life actually exists. The argument that God created the universe by His design is turned upside down. If by mischance the universe were unfit, the anthropists say, we would not be here to comment on its unfitness.
What determines the universe: a chance of elements meeting, reacting at just the right temperature and density? How many chances are there? How many were taken? How many universes? If time is relative and quantum mechanics are absolute, what makes up human choice? Do we have free will, or are all things determined?
I don’t think it matters. In my house, clocks tick, memories are always true and we have all our socks.