October 09, 2017
Last night I had a dream that my mother and I went shopping. We were at an outdoor mall and it seemed to be wintry; I sensed the glow of holiday lights. We were having a nice time together and I said to her, “Mom, it’s really important that you remember tonight, okay?”
I don’t remember anything else about the dream. I don’t remember if she promised to remember, or if she smiled as if to promise, but I knew–even while dreaming–that she could not keep that promise. As I recalled the dream to my husband, I found myself lying–already re-shaping the dream. I told my husband that my mother said “Why would I forget tonight? I won’t forget anything anymore.” I am certain that in the dream she didn’t say anything, nothing at all. When I re-told it, I made it come out the way I wanted; I made my mother remember something, and promise to keep remembering it.
Lately I’ve been like a kitten pawing at a moving light. My friend Allison has a tiny spotlight that she used to whirl around the shiny floors of her apartment, so that her cat Piggy could chase it. She said it was fun for cats to chase things that are always just out of reach. How can humans know that the cat is having fun, that it isn’t driving the cat insane to be forever in pursuit of something illusory, a moving target?
My mother is my moving target. It has been a decade since her brain bleed, a decade since I charged down the halls of the ICU to confront the specter lying in the bed, comatose for two full days, a decade since the new Mom was born from the ashes of the hemorrhage –the Mom of fitful despair and half-recollection, who is plundered by dementia.
People should be able to get used to anything–living with a ghost, even. But I can’t get used to my new mother, even though this spectral version of her has haunted me for ten years. In horror stories, ghosts don’t want to fade into the furniture, they don’t want to blend into the cascade of dust particles illuminated by a sunny wash of midday light. They rattle chains and slam doors to make sure that those they’ve left behind never forget them. And they usually want something from the living–they want the living to do something for them or to be rattled so persistently that peace eludes them and the living go mad. Then they have joined the ghosts wherever they are.
My mother is dragging me into ghost-world with her; this is not her intent; except sometimes I hear intent in the sobbing at the other end of the phone line. Of course she wants me to slide down the hole, I think angrily, of course she wants me to join her in the land of the Undead, to suffer with the restless souls sentenced to wander the halls of her assisted living facility, to line up for dinner at 4: 30, to sun-down into madness by six pm, to dial their daughters’ apartments over and over with no hope of remembering the conversations they seek once they’ve happened.
I can’t pin my mother down anymore–the real mother, I mean. The mother from before the brain bleed–she is the spot of light I paw at; I spin madly in my living room, in the sounds from my radio, in the voices of announcers she once loved, in the songs she once listened to, in my dreams, trying to find the location of my mother. But she is darting about, fast, off to the window ledge, now she’s on the stair, oh, there she is–just down the block in the hat and sunglasses. But my mother never wore a hat. It wasn’t her style. I am revising again–re-imagining her because after ten years it is easy to forget someone–even a love of your life.
This morning my daughter was making a costume for a school event in which you dress as one of your favorite characters from a book. She chose the mother from “Are You My Mother?” –surely I could not make this up– and she set about fashioning wings from brown paper lunch bags and snipping string and scotch tape and she even found a red kerchief to wear, exactly as the mother bird does in the P.D. Eastman book. We used to read the book when she was a newborn but it hasn’t been in our repertoire for many years. She is five now, in kindergarten, and it’s been well over a year since we’ve even looked at it. But she plucked the book from the shelf and announced it was her favorite and that she was going to dress as the mother bird from “Are You My Mother?”
I laughed. I had been thinking of my own mother at that moment, which is not an unlikely coincidence; I am often thinking of her even as I avoid calling her and visiting her.
My daughter was creating a yellow beak from construction paper and we were listening to a Pandora-style radio station that played The Andrews Sisters and Jimmy Durante. We swayed to “Rum and Coca Cola” and we danced to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and then Durante’s rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” came on and my five-year-old–inheritor of somber genes–grew somber and asked me to turn the radio off. She has been stricken with the same permanent flu my mother had and passed to me. I have passed it on to my daughter. It’s a gene for being saddened by things, for feeling something poignant not just on the surface of your skin, but in the membranes and tissues and joints of your body. It’s a helpless sorrow; it finds a way through your body and jets to the tear ducts.
I’ll be seeing you
In all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces
All day through
My daughter began to wail but I resisted turning off the song. I wondered briefly if I was a sadist, or did I just want a companion in my grief after last night’s dream? My little gene inheritor climbed into my lap and sobbed and I told her that it was okay for things to affect you deeply. I told her that she was a shining star of a person–she is–and that along with having a big personality and a warm heart and a sharp mind, you sometimes have to cope with dark sorrow over unexpected things–songs on the radio that make you feel immeasurably gloomy, for example, or witnessing the stooped back of an old man ordering ice cream, or hearing the pleasantries exchanged between a lonely person at the drugstore and the cashier. Sometimes you realize–in a pang– that the lonely person has not exchanged two words with anyone else all day and might not have companionship that night–that these pleasantries he is attempting to attenuate might have to last him for many hours or even days. And you hear him chat about the cost of milk or the reorganization of the bread aisle and you must live with his loneliness, deep in your bones. When you are older, I want to tell her, you will know precisely what it is about discussing the reorganization of the bread aisle that makes you so sad.
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day
In everything that’s light and gay
I’ll always think of you that way
To try to wage war with the gene is to set yourself up for certain defeat–I tried to put this concept in five-year-old terms for my daughter. I told her to let the tears come and not to be afraid of big feelings. She grew limp in my arms and mercifully, the song ended. It would have been wrong to switch it off, like interrupting a seizure rather than letting it run its course.
They say seizures can make the brain heal; this is the theory behind electroshock therapy, which I had in my late twenties, when I was pursued by sorrow for so long that I had no rest day or night and became a ghost myself. In spring, nearly twenty years ago, I awoke and stared into the gloom that only I could see and my mother was there–the before mother, from before the brain bleed–and she said, “You look haunted,” and she whisked me off to Lenox Hill Hospital for the only treatment that is near-guaranteed to work for catatonic depression.
And it did work. It worked fast. The seizures induced by a series of quick bursts of electricity over a one-week period induced a rapid response in the tissues of my brain. Like Frankenstein’s monster come alive on the table, I rose from lifelessness. I was a corpse no longer and after the first treatment my mother brought lo mein to the hospital even though I hadn’t eaten in months and I gobbled the whole thing up. And then I asked for The New York Times, which I hadn’t read in months. And she stared at me. Her precious child was alive, revived, restored to her former self. My mother was able to pull me from ghost-world; why can I not do the same for her?
But a seizure cannot bring my mother back. I’ve looked into it. Electroshock has benefit for depressed older people, but it cannot cure dementia, unless the dementia is caused by depression. My mother’s dementia is not caused by depression, but it does engulf her mind with grief, and therefore cortisol. The stress of daily forgetting, of wondering if people are ever going to call or come to visit–this stress is insupportable.
We think of memory loss in the elderly as something cute; we try to tame it with images of granny glasses on chains that dangle loosely on soft, wrinkly flesh; we try to make aging about cookies and humming old tunes. We like to use the word “dotty” to characterize a forgetful older person. We hope this will soften the blow, mute the reality.
It doesn’t. There is nothing cute about memory loss, not at any age.
I’ll find you in the morning sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you.
It’s a song about memory. We don’t know where the other person has gotten to–she’s just not there. But she’s not gone, either–she’s in the small cafe, she’s at the wishing well. Isn’t she?
My five-year-old is already at times pursued by sorrow. She hears this song and with no other context than the song provides, my child weeps for the loss she hears echoing in the lyrics and somehow in the music itself. What a funny trick composers have–they make the melody incline toward loss, toward sorrow, toward that angle of the sun just before it disappears beyond the horizon. They also pursue that white-hot light, like the kitten turning in circles, pawing at the floor, like me, dreaming of my mother. But composers find that light, they trap it, and they bottle it. At least we have the songs. My mother used to say the standards did not seem to be written by humans so much as plucked from the universe–that was her phrase, “plucked from the universe;” the notes and lyrics as inevitable as gravity and friction and the rising and setting of the sun.
In my dream, my mother and I went shopping and it was winter and I am sure I recall the glow of holiday lights. And I said to her, “Mom, it’s really important that you remember tonight, okay?” And she smiled at me. But she didn’t say anything–and if she did, I can’t remember what it was.