I opened my front door and Dad brought Mom in, carefully unzipping her long down-filled coat and handing me her water bottle and a bag of disposable underwear. He reminded me when she would need to eat, drink and use the bathroom. Then he kissed her soft, wrinkled cheek, stroked her balding head, and drove off to attend his dental lecture.
At 85, my dad was probably the oldest active member of the 2nd District Dental Society and certainly the oldest one still practicing. Me, it was my day off from my medical practice. I never see patients on Fridays, and Ari, my 10-year-old, wouldn’t return from school for another eight hours. I had all day to be Mom’s babysitter.
She looked around the kitchen as if she had never seen it before. I took her hand and slowly led her around: “This is the kitchen. Now we’re in the living room. See the painting from Aunt Bea? Here’s Uncle Ira’s piano….” She dutifully followed me, looking wherever I pointed. She didn’t talk much anymore beyond what was absolutely necessary.
My mother was a small woman, five feet tall, but of late seeming shorter by the week. She had always been irresistibly cute, a trait that still served her. On the piano, I showed her a framed photo of herself as a teen — dark expressive eyes radiating serene composure. She had a widow’s peak, olive skin, and a nose so perfectly proportioned that a plastic surgeon once stopped her on the street and took measurements.
These days, though, Mom’s eyes stared vacantly and her olive skin sagged. This didn’t concern her. She didn’t care that she’d grown stout, that her belly hung ample and flaccid. Though her legs were still glamour-girl perfect, she walked with a wide-based gait and sat with her knees apart, not the least bit self-conscious. When I pointed out the photo, she said, matter-of-fact, “I used to be beautiful.” She didn’t add “but not anymore!” as she used to, making me a confidante to
For over 10 years, my mother had been drifting into the murky waters of Alzheimer’s. At first she had trouble recalling words. Thermostat. Smoke detector. One day she called to say she couldn’t operate her sewing machine. Driving followed several years later. When we went to a hotel for Passover, my normally outgoing mother refused to sit next to anyone who wasn’t family. She confided that she was afraid she couldn’t follow a conversation.
These events didn’t discourage me. My medical practice is holistic, in a home office like my Dad’s. Finding unconventional treatments for difficult conditions had become something of a specialty: Autism, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue — if I could help these patients, surely I could help Mom.
First I went through a range of nutritional supplements, but Mom resisted swallowing pills. Next I ordered plant-derived drugs only available in Europe. Then I brought her to a memory-training center. After that, to a program for frail adults that met five days a week. Still,
On Sundays, when I visited my folks, I’d find her lying diagonally across the bed, eyes closed or staring into space. I did not give up. When Dad asked if she could stay with me while he attended his conference, I was keen to do it. If I observed my mother for a whole day…well, maybe I’d figure out something new.
I carefully led her up the stairs, down the narrow hall to my bedroom and into the pink and green glider I’d bought long ago to nurse my son. I arranged Mom’s feet on the wooden footstool and put her arms on the rests. Then I showed her the set of building blocks I’d retrieved from the basement, once a favorite of my son’s.
“Look, Mom. This is fun!” I put the box of colorful wooden pieces on her lap and showed her all the ways they could be connected. No combination was wrong. I blabbed on about how Ari and I had once made a mammoth sculpture using every piece in the set. I shared how having my first (and only) child at 41 made me intensely appreciative of motherhood; with each passing milestone of Ari’s — walking, talking, starting school — I’d had a flickering certainty, like watching scenery flash by from a train, that I had to savor it.
She gazed up at me like a wide-eyed child. “Go ahead,” I said, “You can do it.” She picked up a green oval and hooked it onto a blue rectangle, then looked to me for approval. I handed her a yellow trapezoid. She attached it.
“When is Daddy coming?” she asked.
I stared at her. One would think she’d be happy to be away from him for a while. Over the years I’d come to understand that her married life hadn’t turned out the way she’d expected. Working for her husband in a home dental office was a ton more isolating than her former job in the hospital. As a boss, Dad spoke little and demanded perfection. She’d grown accustomed to his clenched fists and rage if she scheduled an appointment for 3:15 instead of 3:30, or bought #9 envelopes instead of #10. She strained to please him.
When I started medical school, Mom considered a job outside the house, but Dad put a quick end to the idea. “Who’d hire you?” I heard him sneer — I was eavesdropping outside the kitchen door at the time, and was stunned by his cruelty.
I sought out someone to marry who was much more easygoing than my dad; my husband would never dream of telling me what to do, let alone casually drop vicious comments.
Those isolating work days ended only to be replaced by Dad nagging and cajoling her: “Leona, take your pills. Leona, eat your breakfast. Leona, drink your water.” My dad meant well, but he was hopelessly autocratic. When they’d first married, Mom had assumed they’d be keeping kosher; it was important to her. “That won’t be necessary,” he informed her. She fell into line, readily melding milchig dishes and fleishig dishes into one traif set. She thought that obeying her husband was a greater Jewish virtue than kashrut. She did light Shabbos candles, though. Presumably, my father didn’t object.
“Daddy won’t be back for a long time,” I told her. “We’ve got the whole day.” She stared at me blankly, then attached another shape.
“Good job, Mom!” I said brightly, despite creeping despair. Thank God, I thought, I didn’t come of age in the ‘40s, like Mom. Jewish women her age, especially suburban ones, stayed home, kept house, raised their families. This would have killed me. While a few of Mom’s friends found outlets in acceptable activities like joining the temple Sisterhood or the local chapter of Hadassah, Mom’s aspirations didn’t venture from home.
“Okay,” I said. “Next project.” She had always loved old photos, taking some out whenever relatives visited. I chose an album with the earliest pictures and arranged them chronologically. First came the portrait of Mom’s father as a young man, resplendent in black tie and tails, a gold watch chain hanging from his waistcoat pocket. His hair was combed straight back on either side of a center part, his long English mustache perfectly curled.
“Daddy!” she chortled, a little girl again, in love with her father. It wasn’t the same when we got to early photos of Dad. “He’s handsome,” she said, but the girlish excitement was missing.
Did my mom love my dad? I remembered her telling me once when I was a teen that she should have divorced him. “He’s impossible,” she said. Yet she never left him. Once I openly confronted them: “If you hate each other so much, why don’t you divorce?”
“We’ve talked it over,” they each said. “And we’ve decided we really do love each other and want to stay married.” I remember thinking they were both trapped. Too scared to start over.
I continued turning the pages of albums. Here was Mom at her high school graduation, dressed all in white, with short-cropped hair and a shy smile. Here she is in an art gallery, posing in a schoolgirl’s suit for a photographer-friend. Here are glamour-girl pictures: Mom as a sultry beauty in a hammock, an anonymous, adoring admirer at her side; on her honeymoon in her two-piece bathing suit, her long hair wavy like a 1940s movie star.
“Do you remember your honeymoon, Mom?” In the past she would have told me stories, but now she just turned the page.
“When is Daddy coming?” she asked.
“Not for a while,” I answered, a little sigh escaping my mouth. Could it truly be that she was at loose ends without him? I mean, from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning until the moment she closed them at night, there he was, sitting beside her through endlessly long meals, wiping her mouth, spreading Vaseline on her lips. Though condescending and often rageful, he always knew how to be a caretaker.
“Who’s this, Mom?” I asked.
“Margie,” she said, like a child tentatively answering a teacher.
“And where is Margie now?”
She stared at me. “You,” she said finally.
“Yay!” I exclaimed, trying to ignite something, but the pilot light — was there a pilot light? — was out. A few years earlier, Mom understood what was happening. After cognitive testing, she insisted on reading the five-page report.
“It says I’m an idiot,” she said.
We’d moved even beyond that.
Suddenly I was famished. “Let’s have lunch,” I said. Mom wasn’t particularly interested, but she tackled the egg salad and tomatoes with obedience. Eating had become a slow and tedious process. She’d almost forgotten how to chew, never mind swallow.
“When will Daddy be here?” she asked again. I was incredulous: Was this love? Was it a further sign that no one was
Fighting back hopelessness, I brought out another photo album. Here was Mom lying on a couch with a toddler perched on her back. Here she is in a black, scoop-neck top and flowered half-apron, presiding over a children’s birthday. Here in a long, white-wool coat, guiding her three-year-old and five-year-old on a winter’s walk in the backyard. Without warning, a warm nostalgia washed over me: here was my beautiful, competent, loving mother.
She glanced at the black-and-white photos and asked, “When is Daddy coming?”
I shook my head in resignation. Maybe they were happy. Who knows? Who can really tell from the outside? Maybe she hadn’t expected much. She certainly was well taken care of. My father saw to that, always buying the old-fashioned American cars with the boat-like rides to cushion her bad back, quietly waiting while she took her time dressing, bringing her her favorite treat of ice cream and diet soda in bed. Was this love? Was this Tevye-and-Golda love?
We moved on to color photos. Mom in red lipstick and pearls. Mom at my brother’s bar mitzvah. Mom alighting from a boat in Amsterdam. (She hated travel but did it to please Dad). Mom blowing out the candles on their 45th-wedding-anniversary cake. Yes, they made it that far. They stuck it out and became one of those married couples like in the old TV shows — well, maybe not as happy as Ward and June, but maybe passably content. Hearing Mom continually asking for Dad, I realized there might have been a whole dimension that I knew nothing about. Maybe they’d passed through misery to accommodation, through accommodation to acceptance, through acceptance to love.
We returned to the wooden building set. She was slowly getting the hang of it. When the perseverative question re-arrived, I simply reassured her.
“Soon, Mom. Daddy will be here very soon.”
At around 2 p.m., after more games and projects, more photo albums, more hard-to-fill spaces, the phone — hallelujah! — rang. At last, the words we’d been waiting to hear. It had been a trying day, and, despite my best intentions, I no longer felt sure of myself or of much of anything.
“Mom,” I said, relieved to bring her the good tidings. “Daddy called. He’ll be here in a minute.”
She put down her red wooden circle and looked me in the eye.
“Too bad,” she said.
Marjorie Ordene is a physician and writer. Her work has appeared in Tablet, The Sun, Michigan Avenue Review, and various anthologies.