A year or two after the stroke that immobilized him, my dad died in a foul-smelling convalescent hospital because my mother thought that if she “allowed” his return home, there would be a fire or natural disaster and she’d be unable to drag him to safety. I will never forgive myself for not overriding her. At the time, though, it felt like a decision my parents needed to come to together. Which of course is a joke in view of the division of power between my parents having always been Mom 100, Dad 0.
After his death, my self-disgust was nearly unendurable, but I had plenty left over for my mother too. We’d always been close, but now, not quite consciously, I set out to avenge my dad, to treat her as she’d always treated him. It shocked and wounded her, and made me feel filthy inside. But it felt as though it needed doing. I’ve always been a great one for vengeance.
The Alzheimer’s was sneaky at first. My mother had been the most fastidious person on the planet throughout her life, ever since the time when, as the daughter of a luckless brawler who commonly moved his family from one rented accommodation to another in the dead of night to elude creditors, she was once sent home from school for smelling, the rented accommodations having typically lacked private bathing facilities. As the dementia began to nibble at her, I was horrified to begin noticing small stains on her clothing. As time went on, they became bigger, and darker. When I took her to the doctor for a checkup, she told him she was 39. It felt as though the blood in my veins had turned to ice water. I got my slashing wit from her, but there was no sign she was kidding.
When she left California for Vermont, where my sister lived, I barely spoke to her at the airport. Something else for which I’ll never be able to forgive myself.
For years, while my mother slipped away, losing more and more of herself, I lived with my British wife in the UK. When I finally saw her again, the second worst thing was that my mother had no idea who I was. The worst was that she had no idea who she herself was. I cried so hard I thought I might split open. I held her sweet, soft hand and begged her to forgive me. I had no reason to believe she heard or understood me. I would take her into a quiet, untrafficked corner of the place hoping that the lack of distraction might enable me to reach her. It never did.
One afternoon when I was visiting, drenching myself in my own tears, a loud, shrill alarm went off in the care facility. My mother, who had always been terrified of just about everything, tensed reflexively. Whoever was in charge of attending to the alarm was on a long cigarette break or something. It kept shrieking. I assured my mother that I was going to protect her, but all she could hear was the alarm. She trembled in my arms.
We were out of sight of all. The alarm seemed to grow even more insistent. What was the point of her having to endure even another minute of her terror? I thought of putting my hand over her mouth in such a way as to block her nostrils too. I lacked the courage, or maybe a part of me felt that she hadn’t yet suffered enough. There is that much darkness in me.
I moved back to the USA, near my mother and sister. My sister related that she was in very bad shape. I drove down to Gurnee to see her. As I was pulling into a parking space, my cell phone rang. My sister was calling to advise that our mother had died in the past 15 minutes. And here I’d imagined that I’d wept before. I stayed with her until the coroner, or whoever it was, came for her body. I knew how terrified she would have been to go off with a stranger during her lifetime, and here I was asking her to do exactly that.