Mom Drifts Away

As my mother, Ardis Register, slipped deeper into Alzheimer’s, I sketched out some prose portraits of her and put them away in a file folder. I was not ready to “do” anything literary with her illness, nor am I now. This one turned up again, nearly fourteen years after her death, and I thought I might as well post it here. I wrote it on August 1, 2002.

Mom seems especially alert this late afternoon. She is lying on her side in bed, running her hand across the wall and jabbering, the word we use–although I balk at its belittling–for her attempts to talk. When she hears my voice she turns her face toward the ceiling. One eye is stuck shut and her cheek is swollen and blue. She had rolled out of bed before lunch, in a show of physical energy and motion that surprised the nursing staff. We don’t know if Mom surprised herself. She made no complaints and has none now, even though the bruise looks painful.

Two male aides–African immigrants like much of the staff–come in to get her up from her nap. It takes two of them to hoist her into the wheelchair. She’s a good forty pounds beyond her lifetime normal. Waiting in the hallway, I hear her protest a little–”na na na na”–but when they wheel her out to me she is smiling. I ask if she wants to go sit by the window, and she says, “Ya.” If she recognizes the intonation of a question, how much more does she understand?

I sit in a chair that backs onto the window and pull her up to face me, knee to knee. Immediately, her eyes roam to take in the scene. She is looking at the sky, following the drift of the clouds. She fastens on something–a feature of the building next door–and leans a bit to peer around me and stare. She says, “Ooooh,” and reaches out toward the telephone on the table beside us. I have an inspiration. I call home and ask my daughter Maria to talk to Grandma a little. I hold the phone up to her ear. She jabbers back, but I don’t see the signs I am looking for: recognition, pleasure, or even a startled response at the voice in her ear.

Sometimes–often today–she looks right at me, fixes her gaze on my eyes, and laughs. I decide to test some primal memories. “Kan du snakke dansk?” I ask, using her first language. She doesn’t recognize it, so I make the sentence longer. “Er du en pige som kan snakke dansk?” (Are you a girl who can speak Danish?) This time her eyes light up and she laughs heartily. At what, I wonder. My pronunciation? The very idea that her daughter–or this friendly stranger–is speaking Danish?

I sit and listen to her jabber on, wishing for real conversation. The best we can do with her, I know, is patiently keep her company. In the jumble of nonsense syllables I hear the words “I think.” And then again, she begins a spiel with “I think.” “I bet you do,” I say. “I bet you do a lot of thinking.” Who knows the quality of thought in this sadly encrusted mind? And what might she think about? Longings? Old regrets? Or just the daily staples: Curel rubbed on her dry arms? A cup of thickened water? The rip of Velcro as her slippers are removed at bedtime?

Her hands are busy today. Sometimes one hand grasps and pulls the fingers of the other, but mostly she is reaching. She leans out so far to explore objects that I worry she will fall again. She reaches down and folds one of the wheelchair’s footrests part way up. It is all just exploration, aimless really, the reaching an end in itself, no matter the object in view. That’s what I think, anyway, until her hand lands on my thigh and she begins to rub it vigorously back and forth. I know better than to make the obvious leap. It is not a sign of affection, at least not affection for me. She isn’t looking into my eyes, but is intent on the object of her rubbing. She has found the love of her life, the inanimate love of her life: fabric. “It’s seersucker,” I tell her. “Can you feel how bumpy it is? Remember seersucker? You used to sew with it.” She looks at me and smiles.

1 comment to Mom Drifts Away

  • Hi Cheri,

    I am with Amy at the Loft this a.m. and told her I’m here to write about Dad at MD Anderson – our last weekend together bf he passed away about a month ago. Amy asked if I’d read your post about your mother. I just read it and found so much comfort in your words about your mother. Descriptive, sweet, you – love your writing.


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