At the stove in her tiny kitchen I prepare the stews and chops she never cooked for me. I come armed with tiny jokes and puns and when she laughs, I celebrate. I treated you like shit, Ma, I want to say, I know I did. But does my return not make up for my neglects at least a little bit? I cover the pounded chicken breast in flour, egg, and spicy bread crumbs, fry it golden. She eats three bites before she pushes the plate away and says, “Beer.” Three bites is pretty good. Do three bites wipe three wounds off the celestial balance sheet?
Two years ago, she started a telephone conversation with “if I had a grandchild.” I yelled, “If you’d had a daughter, you could have had a grandchild. Or a better son maybe.” Long crackly pause on the line, noise of smacking lips. “They brought apple sauce with my Meals on Wheels today,” she says. “I used to make it for you.” I don’t tell her she never made me apple sauce, apple pie, apple brown betty, apple anything. I tire of insisting on my version of reality. I’ve come to accept that for her, a different one is valid.
Doctor Kilpatrick said dementia does not reverse, only slows. But if you provide stimulation, a shower of love, that’s a win-win.
She says, “Do you remember the time when …” then trails off, her tale forgotten. “Tell me a story of the good times we had,” she says. I make them up.
Ma mainly sleeps while I visit. Her television blares when I stride in but she does not notice when I reduce the volume. Her eyes follow the zebras and the antelopes on the screen, flicker towards me, and then the heavy eyelids shutter.
I cook. Busy hands keep me from brooding. French toast is always a hit. I make it swim in maple syrup; she eats it with a spoon. Afterwards I wash her sticky hands with a wet cloth, as she sips her beer. Sugar and alcohol: the best cures for failed relationships. At least she does not tell me she always made French toast for me. Sometimes when I cannot face the sticky sweetness, I chop jalapenos and an onion, welcome my tears, throw hamburger in the pan. It sizzles as she sleeps on and on and I end up eating the meat mostly red.
The personal service worker deals with toileting, showering, bathroom cleanup. When she bustles in, still radiating the vibes of her shift at the hospital, hugging Ma, fluffing up her pillow, scooping wadded tissues, I want to plead for a little attention, a smile, a word of solace. She does not wear a ring but women in healthcare often don’t. I know I’m not ready for another relationship, but a laugh or two, even a drink, would do wonders. Ma could manage on her own for one night. In the end I don’t propose dinner.
Gratitude is not what I want. Or wait, gratitude is exactly what I want. I trudge in day after day, burdened by grocery bags and conscience, knowing the ordeal could last 10 years. More. I open a bottle of Prosecco and watch the bubbles in my glass.
“Let’s watch the broadcast from Berlin,” I say. “Brahms and then Beethoven.” She does not answer and I touch her forehead, then her neck. I call 9-1-1.
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