RIDING IN THE CAR with me one day, my young daughter looked up at the sky and said, “I see a cloud that looks like an old lady trying to say something.” I immediately thought of my mother.
She is old, all right. I am in my forties, and she’s already in her late eighties. Late parenthood is the explanation; it’s the way we often do things these days, but back then it was unusual. When I was a kid people sometimes mistook my parents for being my grandparents. I wanted to kick the ones who made that assumption. To me my parents were beautiful and young and full of life, just as good or maybe better than any young parent.
My mother often doesn’t say a whole lot anymore (except on her good days) because she has Alzheimer’s. I know that with the mention of the Big A, I risk losing about eighty percent of my readers out there. Right at this very second. It’s not something most people want to think about, although it’s as common now as lots of other rotten afflictions we’ve become more used to. And we in America don’t like to think much about old people. But there are some sweet and surprising things about this story. Strangely, life goes on, even when it seems like it can’t possibly go on.
I was the one to drive my mother from Pittsburgh to Boston one strange day in May three years ago when we had to move her to an independent living residence. We wanted to get her out of the family house as soon as possible because, newly widowed, she wasn’t taking care of herself, and all of her children lived far away. We decided she should live near my sister. That morning she stood in the downstairs hallway and said to me, “Where am I going again?” She was holding a mini-flashlight in one hand, probably something she’d gotten for free from the bank. “Should I bring this?” She had lived her whole life in that city and fifty years in that house. Nothing made a whole lot of sense at the moment.
By now she has been moved twice—from independent living to assisted living and now to the Alzheimer’s section. We would’ve rather she’d been able to stay in assisted living, but she wandered off twice in the neighborhood and this put her on “elopement risk.” The state has rules about these things. The place where she lives is bright, comfortable, well run, and the people who do the real hands-on work with the residents there are no less than saints—endlessly kind and patient. We cobble the money together from every possible direction (pensions, savings) to pay for her to be there. Many of the residents are much worse off than she is. You can tell they’ve all had interesting lives; they were professors, artists, lawyers, writers. On my mother’s good days she can almost seem like her old self—witty, sharp, remembering all kinds of things, criticizing my clothes like she used to—which makes it feel wrong, so wrong, that she’s living in a place like that. But on her bad days she needs to be there.
In our family we used to call her the hardest-working lady in showbiz. She was a classical violinist, and when she joined the Pittsburgh Symphony, straight out of Carnegie Mellon, she was the youngest member of the orchestra. She played for years in the symphony, then left and went freelance and took every job that came her way. She played in orchestras for people like Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, Smokey Robinson, and even, at one point, the Who—she had never heard of them and referred to them as “Who.” At eighty-five she was still performing Prokofiev in the bleak winter after my father died. But then things started to fall apart and, with enormous guilt, we ripped her from her old life and moved her away.
One day things brightened up immensely where she now lives when a new resident moved in named William (I’ve changed his name). My sister called and told me that there was a new man there, an interesting fellow, and that our mother had taken a shine to him, and he to her. This was major. Apparently they were sitting holding hands together. (I had never seen my father hold my mother’s hand.) She was leaning her head on his shoulder. They had become companions.
On my next trip to visit my mother I met William. At eighty, he was an exceptionally handsome man, I could see right away. I could’ve had a crush on the guy. He was interesting looking, a sort of aging Sam Shepard, if Sam keeps aging as well as he’s been. He wore a rumpled sweater. He had lank white hair, a thin, wiry build, angular face, an appealing space in his front teeth.
I introduced myself to him and told him whose daughter I was and he said, “Oh, I think she’s the most beautiful woman.” He looked over at my mother dreamily. She looked at him. You couldn’t mistake it—they had fallen for each other. “I have a terrible disease,” my mother said to my sister one day a few weeks later. “I’m in love.” My brother and sister and I were happy for her. We wanted this.
We heard that William had never married and had no children. “He’s a player!” a friend said to me. I Googled him, naturally, and up he came in a document or two. (Even when your mother is in her eighties you can suss out her suitors on the Internet.) Apparently William had written an article only a few years back that explained his theories on the religious experience. I downloaded the PDF. In it, he referred to himself as an “independent scholar.” He gave just a few tantalizing autobiographical details. He had had a tragic event early in his life and had had a crisis of faith at some point. There was no mention of churchgoing or a traditional religious upbringing, but he obviously was a seeker of some spiritual dimension to life; he was interested in mystics. I liked this about him. I also wondered if he had had some mental-illness problems in his life; some of the ideas seemed rather off-kilter. But that was all conjecture. And I didn’t care if he was crazy.
I sat with my mother and William one afternoon in the common room of her building. You never have any idea what’s going to transpire from one moment to the next in that place, what might come out of someone’s mouth. You’re always on the edge of…something. That day everyone was just kind of sitting around listening to Schubert on the stereo. I was beside my mother and William, and next to William was a man they simply refer to as the Professor. Apparently the Professor had been a brilliant scientist at MIT. Now he repeats things a lot, but can also still make a great deal of sense. I overheard him one day discussing Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy with one of the aides, arguing eloquently that to say it’s simply about suicide is reductive. On another day, while playing bingo, he announced to the room (mostly women), “If I win this game, everyone can have a bite of my banana.”
I tried to make chitchat with William the day we listened to Schubert. He was from Minneapolis but had lived in Boston for quite a while—I got that much. He was working on some sort of book. Each sentence that came out of his mouth started perfectly normally but then veered in a strange, surreal direction. It was heartbreaking, although it was also hard to tell if he knew it was happening. He seemed content, and had a sweetness about him—the open, amazed look of a child. I saw him looking for quite a while at my mother’s left hand, then he reached over and took it in his, stroked it gently. She was dozing and would occasionally open her eyes. She looked happier and more peaceful than I had seen her in years. We all just sat there without speaking for a good long time and I thought, This is interesting, this is life moving in a new direction.
A month later, William was moved away by his family. We had heard it was going to happen and it was crushing news, and no one was telling my mother. The director of the place said, “We’re working on a story to tell people here.” It was a mystery why he was being moved. I didn’t like the fact that a story had to be worked up. Just because people were old, did that mean they couldn’t know the truth? So one day my mother was simply told, “William had to go to California for a while to see a sick relative.” The idea was that she would quickly forget about him and that would be that. But it wasn’t that simple. She said one day, “I don’t understand why he didn’t tell me he was going away.” Over the next weeks she became despondent. It seemed she thought he had rejected her, and we tried to tell her that it had nothing to do with her. Some things are the same at any age: You lose someone and you take it personally.
We couldn’t even get an address where she could write William a letter. The privacy of his family was being respected, et cetera, et cetera. But gradually, through various avenues, we found out that he was living in another facility outside of Boston. There was a choice to make: Let her gradually forget about him, or try to take her out to visit him and see what happens. I found myself longing for her to have another day to sit and hold his hand. Or more than a day.
I hope this happens. I hope the story of my mother and William continues. Right now she’s in the hospital after a bad fall and with serious heart complications. We’re waiting and hoping for her to get better. When I visit her I sit next to her hospital bed and read to her, or sometimes just sit quietly. My advice to anyone with an aged parent: Just be with them if you can. Be a witness to their old age.
And for now I hold onto that day we sat and listened to Schubert. I had thought my mother was sleeping through most of it, but then she lifted her head and said, perfectly coherently, “You see, this doesn’t make any sense, the way they’re chopping the pieces up and putting them together.” She was referring to the sort of “best-of” Schubert medley on the CD, the way they took the most familiar themes and cobbled them together for easy consumption. It sounded wrong to her. She had played these pieces during her career and knew their architecture. “There’s no form to it. It doesn’t build,” she said. “It’s like these dreams I have sometimes where the parts don’t fit together.” I had had those dreams too. I knew exactly what she meant. And how I loved her perfectly functioning brain at that particular moment in time.