My Mother, the Imposter
MY MOTHER AND I were in the car discussing what to have for lunch when she forgot who I was. I had offered subs from Gianni’s or roast beef from CJ’s. We were doing takeout. When she didn’t answer, I pulled into the Gianni’s parking lot and told her I could get her a turkey sub.
“I’m having turkey tomorrow, though…” my mother said, which is as close as she comes to saying no.
“Okay, then,” I said, turning off the car. “Let’s go to CJ’s. I’ll get you a roast beef.”
“Joy won’t like roast beef,” she said with a knowing look like, you know Joy, how picky she is.
“That’s okay,” I said. “They have other things there for me.”
“No,” she said, “Joy won’t like that. Wait, where is Joy?” She turned around and looked into the back seat. “Wasn’t she just with us at the bank?”
“Yes,” I said calmly, patting myself on the front of my puffy navy coat. “I was with you at the bank. And I’m with you now. Me. Joy.”
“No,” she said, “Joy Anne. Joy Anne Peskin. Where is Joy Anne Peskin?”
She seemed kind of playful, almost like she was humoring me. As if the real Joy Anne Peskin was about to pop her head up from the backseat like a child playing peek-a-boo.
She wasn’t scared. But I was terrified.
My mother didn’t recognize me. My own mother. I had heard of this sort of thing happening to the children of people with dementia, but my mother doesn’t have dementia. She has mild cognitive impairment, which is like the stop on the elevator one floor up from dementia and two up from Alzheimer’s. She has also had more than 60 rounds of ECt (electroconvulsive therapy) over the past eight years to treat her bipolar disorder. So now her memory is like one of those sheets of paper people use for target practice, with black concentric circles over a human torso. Gunshot holes all over the place, some along the edges, some straight through the heart.
There are other things she has forgotten, many other things. Like how long I stayed with her after my father died (five weeks) or how long she stayed with me during the pandemic (seven weeks) or why she named her cat “Katie” (for Princess Kate). But I didn’t think she’d forget me. Not so soon.
I hadn’t yet learned that there are only two ways to lose your parents. Piece by piece, or all at once. My father died all at once.
He was in his desk chair, in the house my parents had lived in since 1969, in the bedroom reserved for a second baby until my mother gave up and let my father use it as his office. It was late at night. My mother was already in bed, sleeping the sleep of someone who takes 125 milligrams of trazadone. My mother later told me she heard a sound, like an animal growling. Once. Twice. She didn’t get up. Then it stopped. It was probably noth- ing. Right? And if it was an animal, my father would handle it. He handled everything.
In the morning, when he wasn’t in his side of the bed, she knew immediately that something was wrong. Even though he sometimes fell asleep on the couch. The air in the house felt different, I think. It had shifted around the shape of my dead father, who was still sitting in his office chair.
My mother found him there and she called 911 and when the EMTs came, she said she’d follow them to the hospital and they said they weren’t taking him to the hospital and she said why not and they said his symptoms were incompatible with life and she said what does that mean and they said it means he’s dead.
For weeks after he died, for months, this haunted her. That he called out, that she didn’t get up, that maybe she could have saved him, that by the time she found him, it was too late to do anything.
And then, thankfully, she forgot.
You think you want to remember everything. But you’re wrong. You don’t.
I decided I should drive to CJ’s. On the way over, neither of us said anything. When we got there, my mother and I had the same conversation all over again. About the roast beef, and Joy not liking it, and come to think of it, where is Joy? Wasn’t she just with us? At the bank?
“Maybe I’m so great you think there are two of me,” I joked. I kept it light and cheerful. This is fun! A game of hide-and-seek!
My mother did not seem entirely convinced, but she agreed we could go into CJ’s. She ordered (roast beef) and I ordered (egg and cheese) and I got a small bag of chips for each of us from the basket on the counter. She insisted on paying. I let her
Then, “I remember this place!” she said, delighted. “I used to come here with Daddy.”
“Yes!” I said. “You did!”
I noticed my knees were shaking. Realizing that made them shake even harder. I sat down on a stool.
My parents sometimes came here on Friday nights. That’s when people brought their vintage cars to show off in the park- ing lot.
“Remember the vintage cars?” I asked my mother.
“Yes…” she said. I didn’t ask for further details and she didn’t offer any. I wanted to believe that she did remember. She let me. When I was growing up, my mother and I were very close. I brushed her hair and rubbed her feet. She fed me soft-boiled eggs out of an egg cup shaped like a British soldier’s big black hat, long after I was old enough to feed myself. She called me Shaina Maydeleh and Little Bunny and then just Shainey Bunny. We danced to Barry Manilow. My father was at work or at meetings. When he got home, it was time for dinner, which I hated.
Because I was picky. He sat at the head of the table and next to him was my mother and next to her was me and next to me, opposite my father, was the tV. My father watched the local news while we ate and there was always a story about a house on fire and so I thought it was only a matter of time until our house was next.
Our house never did burn down but there were years at a time when my mother wasn’t my mother because of her depression and when you’re two years old and ten years old and twelve years old and that keeps on happening, it’s basically the same thing.
I don’t remember much about the years my mother was depressed. I don’t remember who got me up and ready for school. I don’t remember what I did after school. I don’t remember what I did on the weekends. I don’t remember I don’t remember I don’t remember.
Later, when I would tell my mom’s social worker, Marie, about this incident with the sandwiches, about my mom not remembering me, she said it sounded like Capgras Syndrome. Also known as Imposter Syndrome, it’s a disorder expe- rienced by some people with memory issues when they see the faces of people close to them, but they don’t have the special feeling of recognition you get when looking at a loved one. So they think the person they are seeing must be an imposter
Joy? Maybe. But not Joy Anne Peskin. My dad was the one who handled everything. The car. The shopping. The bills. The house. The cat. The things that go bump in the night. All of it. My greatest fear is that I’ll predecease her, he used to say when I asked about things like important papers or bank accounts or future plans. Meaning that he couldn’t imagine a world in which he would die first. But heart attacks don’t care if you have a bad imagination.
In the early days, in those five weeks I stayed with my mother, I was an imposter. An imposter of my father, doing all the things he did. The car. The shopping. The bills. The house. The cat. All of it. But then something happened. Something else my father never could have imagined. My mother started to remember the person she had been before he started doing so much, and she started doing so little.
Some memories are gone forever. All at once. But some come back. Piece by piece.
On our way home from CJ’s, with our food in bags in the back seat, my mother turned to me and said, reassuringly, “I know you’re Joy Anne Peskin. I know that,” and I put my hand on top of hers, which was resting in her lap. “Of course,” I said. “Of course you do.”
Joy Peskin is the executive editorial director of a children’s books imprint at a major publishing house and a court appointed special advocate (CASA) within the foster care system.
ART: BETSY WALTON, ME, AS THE MOON UP AT NIGHT WORRIED FOR MY CHILDREN