My eighty-year-old mother is dwarfed by our kitchen table as she half-heartedly peruses a laminated food menu. It is from the senior living apartments across town where I hope she will soon be living. I hand her glasses. With Parkinson’s disease, signals are fired into the ether. Putting on your glasses can take a full minute as the brain and the fingers struggle to communicate.
“What do you think?” I ask. The tone of my voice feels unfamiliar – a salesman from Central Casting trying to land a commission.
“If I knew what half this stuff was,” she says. “Crayola-style cabbage? Where are you putting me?”
“I am not putting you anywhere. Hand me that,” I say. With a tremored but determined gesture, my mom slides the menu across the table. “It is ‘Creole’ style. Not Crayola.”
“I am going to starve to death.”
It’s not like she is eating well now, I remind her.
There was a time when my mom could cook. My cousins still talk about her apple pie – with real crust and al dente apple wedges – despite not having had so much as a taste of it since a divorce thirty-five years ago sent my mom, her life, and her pie (and the Christmas cookies, oh, the Christmas cookies) on a different trajectory. Two weeks ago, I found an open jar of Jiff peanut butter, a slice of half- eaten bread, crumbs, and a plastic plate scattered across the kitchen floor. I had been out of town when she told me she fell. Three days later, the evidence remained untouched. “I couldn’t pick it up,” she said.
She cannot live alone. She knows it.
“I could live here,” she says, meaning with us. And while this is a subject that has been broached routinely over the past year, she is simply applying guilt, which, along with her fierce wit, is her only remaining weapon. She could live here. But I won’t let her.
“You would be miserable,” I say with the flat affect that only arises after having repeated oneself too many times. Or is my tone simply a mechanism to protect myself, the childless only child, from crumbling?
“No, you will be miserable,” she says.
A few days later, at a bar in some unforgettable restaurant in southern New Mexico, a colleague tells me that in her native Brazil, they don’t have senior living communities: “We take care of our parents.” Unbeknownst to her, this sprinkles salt on my festering shame. Aren’t they lonely? I think. My mom could live with us, but then what? My wife and I are busy. There are no grandchildren. We live in the country. There are no sidewalks. No neighbors. Hell, even we’re lonely out there.
“You will have your own apartment. The backdoor goes out to a courtyard with gardens and a large beautiful pond,” I tell her.
“I will probably fall in.”
In rapid succession, I think, We can only hope; I hope not; You probably will.
“I can’t live without my pets. My cat bites,” she says.
She is not waiting for an answer. We come from a strong lineage of compromised attention spans. The minuscule gap between thoughts that she once maintained is now shut tight. As she is talking, her brain is already lining up the next worry. This is why she now reads street signs. “Cracker Barrel,” she will say as we drive by. “Santa Fe, twenty-eight miles.” She is reminding herself, during slivers of light between swaths of worry, that she is still here.
“You know, they are happy to have your pets,” I say. I feel like a punch-drunk boxer, ahead in the score, just trying to survive the final round. My mind is on her violent cat, though. If it weren’t for the tag confirming her vaccination, one would swear that the cat was rabid. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers (not run-and-hide kind of kindly, but run-and-attack kind of kindly). This still includes my wife, who many years ago was deemed an enemy of the state.
“I love that Blake Shelton,” she says. I am at her mobile home in Albuquerque. We are watching The Voice. I am in my usual perch on the cushy covered couch. She is to my left, swaddled in her colossal electric recliner. Jasmine, the aging peeka-something, is being rocked to sleep between my mom’s subtly undulating legs. The cat, perched above her head, watches from her watchtower. I am a disturbance in her force; however, tonight I find comfort in this rabid creatures biblical vigilance.
[Ambient TV sound doesn’t drown out the silence.]
“I am afraid that I am dying. I am seeing things,” she suddenly says.
“I know, but you’re not dying. And the hallucinations are a side effect. You are OK. Watch the show,” I say in my most resolute and clinical voice. Yesterday, her deceased mother, a devout Baptist and a librarian, was perched cross-legged on her washing machine. It was reported (with conviction) that she had on a sparkly cowboy hat and a miniskirt. Advanced Parkinson’s does this. You see dead people.
“He is so funny,” she chuckles, having briefly returned to the room – to rejoin me and Blake – before drifting off again to the land of lions, loneliness, and death.
“I am not done living,” she says seemingly to the firmament. This time of night, her index finger taps rhythmically, as if counting out the seconds.
My throat tightens, flooding what feels like seawater into my cheeks that makes them sting. She is how I measure that my life and time is running out. Don’t leave. Not yet. I am not prepared. “Do you want a beer?” I ask, hoping to simultaneously, if briefly, rescue the both of us from this moment.
“Oh, yes. Let’s have a beer.”
If all goes according to plan, by publication, my mom will be living by the pond (and not in it). If all goes as I hope, she will have a new best friend – one whose own crooked path led straight to her new front door. A long-lost sister to replace that one sister she never knew. A dark-humored pip to match my mom’s wit. I will come over for lunch and she will brag about the food, as if she made it herself.
“It is Creole,” she will say.