I met a grand niece of mine this week. She’s not my first. I’ve been told I have several grand nieces and nephews. I’ve not made an active effort to meet all of them. Perhaps I should. However, this one kinda stands out for me. She’s currently about the height and weight of a large bag of ice with legs, but she’s got a smile that would melt your heart, and a naive curiosity about the world that is simultaneously beautiful and frightening. She playfully threw a rock at me, which scuffed my glasses. I didn’t want her to get chastised for it so I didn’t make a big deal out of it. So as I type these words I notice she’s given me a gift i will not be able to forget until I get around to buying a new pair of specs. I will cherish the scuff mark. She’s bold and brave and reckless and courageous and like an old silverback in the Dallas zoo, she’s working things out. There’s something behind those dazzling blue eyes that’s on fire and alive and amazing and it’s only just starting to ignite.
I held her hand. I sat her on my lap. Throughout the day she’d run off and come back and run off and come back. She put a leaf in my hand. I thanked her. Her face exploded with delight and she ran off again. Then she came back with another leaf a few minutes later and I suggested maybe she let the bush keep the rest of them cuz it needed its leaves. She demured.
The Internet is telling me “demure” is an adjective and not an action verb. Fine. My grand niece coyly collected herself like a little Victorian princess in an Oscar Wilde play. I don’t know any better word to describe it other than to ‘demure’ oneself. I cannot properly put into words what she did physically, but since I didn’t take a picture of it.. It was a turn of her shoulder and a look on her face and a vapid vainglorious ‘i will let you think you know better than me’ attitude. The holding back of a hissy fit. It was really cute.
She sat in my lap. She looked into my eyes. They introduced us. They told me her name. They looked at her and said, “This is your great uncle Zach. Can you say Zach, honey?” And she looked up at me with a smile that could turn a sunflower’s head and eyes as dazzling as a renovated cobalt blue 68 Chevy. “Dad!” She said. Everybody laughed. Then, throughout the rest of the day she called every other man in the room Dad, and every female in the room Mom. She’s a walking rainbow, but whatever’s behind those eyes, I can’t honestly say it’s intelligent. At least not yet. Give her time.
Later the same day I sat in a hospice room with my sisters and we visited my mother. My father passed away back in 1998, but Mom has been living on without him for over a decade. Much of that time she was still alert and spry for a lady who was born just before the stock market crashed the first time. My mother has lived through the rise and fall of many presidencies and corporate takeovers and finicky television seasons of programming. She had her own favorite color of ice cream, even though her children can’t remember what it was. She once decided mythical horses with wings are more fun than the dark and dreary normal ones that don’t fly. She liked butter on toast. When she’d get a craving for okra, my Dad would take that as a sign she was pregnant again.
This day in the hospice room however, none of that was going on inside my mother’s head so far as we could tell. She faded in and out of consciousness like a prize fighter in the final round. We tried to be patient, but we didn’t have much time. One of my sisters had driven down here from a great distance on her way to somewhere else. This is the first time we’ve all been in the same room for over a decade, might be the last time my sisters and I are together for at least another decade, and it’s just not possible to make the moment last any longer than we dared let it.
We wanted a moment where my mother was in the room with us, and not wherever her brain was now going when it wasn’t in this room. Just one more moment together. Perhaps it was too much to ask of this universe.
As it’s been explained to me (and I’m no doctor and it wasn’t a doctor who conveyed this so if it’s wrong well frankly it doesn’t matter and i don’t care), medical professionals can’t actually diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s until after they’re dead because it requires a brain biopsy. So we’re all calling what my mom currently exhibits as “dementia.” As a fan of the old radio show “Doctor Demento” this has a curious significance to me. It turns out dementia is not as funny as Barret Eugene Hansen made it sound when I was a kid. Dementia is a condition where the brain stops working properly. It’s like someone is remotely turning the lights on and off inside my mom’s head, but like the light inside a refrigerator, we can’t tell when the light is on or off cuz we’re standing outside her head. Ever heard the phrase a few cards short of a full deck? Well, my mother’s deck is blank, but if you concentrate real hard you will think you see a face card for just a few seconds.. but you’re probably not. I held my mother’s hand. I looked into her eyes. My mother’s eyes lolled about like a couple dolphins that had been given experimental drugs in what was surely an unauthorized illegal experiment that the scientists told others was intended to save billions of lives in the future but really they just wanted to see what dolphins would do while high.
We spoke to her. We spoke around her. We reminded each other of memories long forgotten. We commented about the memories we’ve forgotten like what was her favorite flavor of ice cream, or whether or not she liked winged horses more than real ones. Very strange conversations my sisters and I have even today. In some ways our conversations today are still like the ones we had sitting in a patch of mud in the shadow of the first house we lived in together, making mud pies and getting each other dirty, to the chagrin of our mother who back then had eyes of steel and a way of lovingly chastising three muddy little children for spending the afternoon turning into muddy messes against her will.
Those eyes of steel flashed back into mine for just a scance.. The Internet is now telling me ‘scance’ isn’t a word. Fine. I’ll make up my own damned language to tell this story. For a scant moment, those big blue eyes flashed into mine and lips that have kissed me a billion times but now can barely grasp a spoonful of chocolate pudding mouthed a word we couldn’t make out at first but I eventually determined she was saying “help.”
“What is it mom,” we’d ask her, “what’s wrong?”
“..i don’t know.”
This happened several times over the course of the two sessions we had. I made the mistake of allowing myself to speculate on what this means. I determined, perhaps wrongly, that when my mom slips out of consciousness, she’s going somewhere scary and confusing, so when she regains clarity of mind for a moment, she finds herself in this bed in a hospice surrounded by strange faces she doesn’t remember, and she meekly says “help” but by the time someone responds to it, she’s already forgotten why she was so scared in the first place, and honestly doesn’t know. It’s like in the movie Momento, if Guy Pearce was forgetting every 20 seconds instead of every ten minutes.
We weren’t going to make this last two days at first, but we were told she has her good days and she has her bad days. We hoped we’d get lucky on the second day. The first day was a bad day. The first day I had my old beard. Overnight I decided maybe perhaps if I shaved my face and spoke in a higher register it’d help her recognize me. She recognized my oldest sister, but admittedly it’s cuz her face hasn’t changed much in the forty some odd years I’ve known her. Can’t say the same for myself.
So I’m sitting there holding my mom’s hand on the second day, clean shaven for the first time in ..well, a very long time. I can’t remember exactly the last time I shaved off my beard. Might have been back when I was still married. That’s a long time ago, now.
My mother’s mind appears to come back into the room again for just a few seconds.
“What can we do to help, Mom?”
“..i don’t know.”
We tried several times to see if she could remember me. She can’t. It’s okay. And yet it’s not okay, but I’m making it okay. I’m telling myself it’s okay that my own mother no longer recognizes me. It’s not okay, but that’s okay. Does that even make sense?
It dawned on me, looking into my mom’s blue eyes, that my grand niece has those same blue eyes. I usually have to bite my tongue when I hear other people say, “oh your child’s ears look just like Uncle Harold” or “he’s the spitting image of his father when he was that age.” But I looked into my grand niece’s eyes again to be sure, and I think they’re almost identical to her grandmother’s.
There’s a spark back behind them that’s trying to figure things out. My grand niece will eventually figure it out, at least for a time. Hopefully, like her grandmother, that time will last nearly a century. Hopefully medical advances over the next century will make it even longer than that, so those little blue eyes oversee the rise and fall of many presidencies and corporate takeovers and finicky television seasons of programming. She’ll have her own favorite color of ice cream. She’ll choose whether or not flying horses are better than ones with pointy heads. She’ll take a stand for or against zucchini bread.
My mom has done all of those things and more, and now her grand children will get to do the same, but for my mom the sunsets and rainbows are rapidly running out.
The time had run out. It ran out a long time ago but we made it last beyond that as long as we could dare. We comforted each other as best we could, but this would be the last time all of us were together in the same room. We may do this again, but it won’t be with mom’s physical body in the room, and don’t make me talk about not believing right now, okay? Not this one. Not this blog post. I’ll go back to that shit tomorrow. I’ll talk about how there’s no great mysterious plan of some all-knowing god cuz no entity in its right mind that wanted to be worshiped would create rainbows and sunsets and then give honeymooners diarrhea or put bone cancer in children, or take away our cognizant thought processes before taking away our lives. I’ll do that tomorrow. Not today. My sisters have their own beliefs, one is Christian and one is pagan, and today was not the day for me to challenge them. It wouldn’t do anyone any good.
My sisters made sure the blanket was up to her chin, tucked her in one last time and walked out the door. I stood at the foot of her bed about to follow behind them as I have countless times before. I’m the baby of the family, so even though I’m now taller than they are, when we walk together I’m often tagging along behind them, and it makes me feel like I’m five again.
For a split second I saw that look of defiance on my mother’s face that she would have when she and Dad would fight. She had a way of getting her way whether she deserved it or not. I can’t put it into words, exactly. When he wasn’t looking, Mom would do what she wanted to do anyway, with a look of defiance that no god would challenge. I guess you could say she demured.
As she did this, she genteelly pushed the covers from her chin down to her belly. Then one hand went up to her forehead like she was Blanche DuBois. I found myself almost rushing around the bed to her side to set the covers right again, and then I could hear her voice in my mind saying don’t you dare. Her body was on the bed and I was about to walk out the door but in a way she would always be with me in every memory i have of her and in half the DNA of every cell in my body. She will live on in her descendants and no matter what weaknesses of the flesh, she will defiantly continue to get her way when she thinks no one is looking.
I reached down one last time and kissed her forehead. “I love you,” I said.
Her blues looked up at me again, totally unable to grasp what this big fat clean-shaven face in front of her was supposed to be. “I love you too” she said meekly, with the same wonder and bewilderment of her grand daughter. It didn’t matter that she didn’t recognize me. What matters is that she is loved and she knows it.
And what matters is those blues will not die. They’re just running around in a smaller package now, under the feet of tall grown ups that think they know better, pulling leaves off trees and chasing after ducks.