My mother is 98. She recently received a letter from the synagogue suggesting that she make a donation commemorating the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. This pitched her into despair and confusion, as she had forgotten that he had died. “No one told me,” she sobbed, “I’m all alone.” For a day she refused to eat. All she wanted to do was follow him. By the next day she had forgotten that she had remembered.
I am bewildered and even a bit angry at this. How could she forget her husband — my father? She doesn’t have dementia, and while she doesn’t always know what day it is, she usually knows what’s going on. True, she hasn’t mentioned him in a while, since she moved into assisted living, but there are at least six pictures of him in her small room, and I assumed she had acknowledged, if not accepted, her loss.
On Sundays I have lunch with her, at the place where she lives. I don’t know what to call it. A residence, I guess. We used to call these places “homes,” but, as my mother says, this is not a home. She says she doesn’t have a home anymore.
As far as places like this go, my mother’s is very nice although for the money we are paying, it could be a lot better. That’s what my brother says, and I suppose he is right although I don’t know how it could be better. How do you make a home for 50 or so old ladies, who themselves had — no, ran — their own homes, each one in a different way? Some of them were neat like my mother; some of them were undoubtedly messy. Some of them ate supper at five-thirty, some dined at seven. Some had leg of lamb for Sunday dinner and are horrified at the thought of an egg salad sandwich for the noon meal on the Lord’s day. So how, exactly, do you make it a home for 50 different women who are waiting to die?
In the dining room the ladies sit at the same places for every meal. I don’t think the seats are assigned; it’s just comforting to sit at the same place all the time with people you know. It reminds me of junior high. There is even a table of mean girls, ladies who complain loudly about everything to the young boys who are the waiters: The soup needs salt! I said no gravy! You know I drink water without ice! The food is awful and there isn’t enough of it! The waiters look terrified. They are young; their own grandmothers are likely still young. They don’t know about old ladies who sit and wait to die.
Two sisters sit at my mother’s table. They look enough alike to be twins, but they aren’t. I don’t know their names because my mother doesn’t know their names and therefore has not introduced me. I have introduced myself, and they smiled at me but did not give me their names. They probably feel too old to start knowing new people. One of them drinks coffee and one drinks milk, so that is what I call them in my mind. Their conversations are marvels of long pauses and misunderstandings.
They are baseball fans. Coffee says, “Did you read the paper this morning?” and after a long pause Milk says, “Why?”
“Buster Posey. The one who got injured.”
Milk pokes holes in her egg salad sandwich. None of the ladies at my mother’s table eat very much. I don’t know how they stay alive, but, then, that is not their goal. After what seems like five minutes, Milk finally says, “What about him?”
“How should I know?”
Coffee has left several used sugar packets on the table. “Clean up that mess,” Milk says.
Coffee makes a face like a naughty six-year-old, but she scoops them up. “Bossy older sister,” she says to me by way of explanation.
“I am 100,” Milk says.
Every day there is a newsletter at each place, full of interesting tidbits, famous quotes, and this-day-in-history stories. Today there is an item about the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968. Coffee says, “Bobby Kennedy was killed at the Ambassador Hotel,” as if it happened yesterday, “and Martin Luther King.”
“Do you have any good news?” Milk asks.
“No,” Coffee says. And then after a long pause: “Do you have any good news?”
“The only good news will be when this is over,” Milk says.
Isabelle is the other member of my mother’s dining group. She is a sweet lady with one eye permanently closed. When I look at her I have a strange compulsion to mirror her by closing one of my eyes, but I resist. She usually brings a magnifying glass to the table to read the newsletter, but today she has forgotten, so I read her an article about horses and how they focus their eyes by moving their heads and not by changing the shape of the eye’s lens, the way humans do. She doesn’t seem to get the irony.
Isabelle’s tea is served in a little metal pot. When she tries to pour it she misses the cup and pours into the saucer. I take her hand and guide her pouring so most of the tea goes in the cup.
“I’m all messed up today,” she says. “I had some bad news this morning. My oldest son was killed in a glider plane accident.”
I am stunned into silence. How could she sit there so calmly pouring tea in the face of such dreadful news? If that were me I would be on the floor, hysterical.
After lunch Mom and I go back to her room, the one room her life has been reduced to. A single bed, her dresser and mirror, a nightstand, all in shiny white laminate that was the height of glamour in 1976. Her La-Z-Boy and a small armchair for guests. Her oxygen equipment. The new flat screen TV looks out of place. I turn on a golf match. The scenes of lush green fairways are tranquil and the announcers speak in hushed, soothing voices. Soon she is lulled to sleep.
I am her watcher, keeping a careful eye on the slow rise and fall of her narrow chest. I can’t help thinking about Isabelle. Maybe the death of her son happened some time ago, and she had forgotten it for a while. I don’t understand how such forgetting can take place. I know that wounds can heal even though scars remain, but to forget?
There is a picture of my father on Mom’s nightstand. It was taken when he was about seventy, when they were living in Palm Springs. He is tan and smiling and wearing a red sweater, one foot up on his golf cart. He was a handsome man, even at seventy. It’s the last thing my mother sees every night before she turns out the light. How can she not remember?
My father was 93 when he died peacefully in his sleep. I think of him every day. There is always something to remind me — a funny joke, the glimpse of a stranger in a Members Only jacket, a bowl of cabbage borscht. I think of him with sadness and love. His death was not tragic — he lived a successful life by any standard of measurement — but for my mother it was the loss of her husband of 69 years. For her to remember every day at the same level of intensity she experienced the morning of his passing would be incapacitating. Maybe for her, forgetting is her shield against the darkness.
The following Sunday there is a small notice on the announcement board at the entrance to the dining room. It reads: “Isabelle S. has passed away. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family and friends.” My mother taps the notice and makes a tsk-tsk noise. “They drop like flies around here,” she says.
For a while, then, my mother will continue to forget.