You push yourself up from the table, detaching yourself from links holding together their denial. Quite simply put, her time is up, and you know it. Time no longer has any relevance to her. Despite her best efforts, despite her impressive veneer, she has absolutely no idea when yesterday was. She has no idea if it was the day before today or the day before today fifteen years ago. Sure, she could tell you or your brothers what she did yesterday, but she had no idea if she actually did those things yesterday. And it was this banter, this back-and-forth, between you and her and your brothers, that is so frustrating, so infuriating, for you because you know upon what unstable ground the truth is now constructed on. You know that, yes, maybe she did, in fact, do those things yesterday, but she has no idea, no concept of yesterday. And thank God she can still recall those memories because maybe it means that it is not quite that ruinous yet, maybe it means it won’t progress so fast, so strong, or so devastatingly in the future.
But what it absolutely means is that your brothers will be able to remain in their perpetual state of denial, and what a beautiful state that is for them. It’s not she who needs time; it’s they who need it. “See,” they will hurl at you at your monthly family spaghetti dinners, “She can remember stuff. She knows where she was and what she was doing on certain days. I think you’re exaggerating again, big surprise there!” Oh, how they would protect her, passing off every slip up she made as a “senior moment” or a joke. For protecting her meant protecting themselves. How could they possibly admit to themselves and each other that the person who has known them the longest might soon be able to differentiate between them and a group of strangers?
But, they haven’t seen what you’ve seen. They think it will manifest itself with stoves left on for hours, bills left unpaid for weeks, appointments frequently missed, and names and faces forgotten. But, that’s not how it always is, and that’s not how it is for her. For her, it isn’t so much “missing” things or “forgetting” things, rather it’s cancelling things. She has begun to trade hours of time meeting friends for weekly lunches at Bob Evans, attending daily mass, and working at the senior center for hours of time sitting, sitting in her faded pink rocking chair, creaking away her day while staring at the door, or at least in the direction of the door. She’s never watching, just staring. You can see her in the living room now. Staring.
She was so, so beautiful. Physically, yes, beautiful, which had clung on despite her 70th birthday last June. But her beauty had another dimension to it. It seemed to derive from a sort of internal essence that could not be taught or worn. It was in her independence, her fierce, unforgiving will, which she had embraced because she had to after a drunk driver took her husband at 50. It was in her jokes and pranks, the fake vomit, the dog food cookies, and rather unoriginally, the whoopee cushions. It was in her laugh, which she couldn’t help but demonstrate at the most inappropriate times. And my god, it was truly an awful cackle, but it was her laugh, and she owned it. And while the physical beauty still lingered into old age, it was her spirit that had begun to decay, her essence that had been extinguished. Yes, there were flashes of it, and you know, you hope, that those will persist; they must. But now, it was if she just couldn’t access it any longer. She sits reduced and belittled, to the point where she is simply measured by if she remembers to turn off the stove, if she can’t remember a name. And yes, while she did occasionally forget, it was the endless solitude she sought which concerned you. It was the body of a woman so still and so vacant, hardly speaking or progressing, just waiting, which concerned you.
And the denial was contagious. You can’t tell if it spread from her to your brothers or from your brothers to her, but everyone seems to be swept up in it now. Just this past week, you have set up three doctor appointments for her but more importantly, for you to help gain some understanding of what the hell was happening, and she has taken it upon herself to cancel them all. Taking a long drink of water, you smile to yourself at the irony of the situation- she can’t seem to find the energy to pull herself out of her chair and get some fresh air, but she sure can find the energy and wherewithal to cancel doctor appointments. Well, at least she still has some independence. And you know she knows. When you spoke to her earlier today, you couldn’t help but notice the unusual amount of cigarettes she went through, using it to give herself more time to respond to questions, more time to think things through. She speaks slower and almost more robotic to ensure that she doesn’t stumble over her words or say something false.
And while it was so easy for everyone to just play their parts so well, the time had come to put an end to this silent masquerade. Mr. Harris from across the street called you last night to inform you that she has had numerous near accidents merely trying to pull into her garage. As your husband softly snored next to you, you imagined the sort of erratic driving she must be exhibiting on the roads. It must have been around three in the morning and into the 300th circle you had silently paced around your bedroom, when you finally decided, naturally, rationally, you have to take away the keys; it just makes sense. But, of course, she will not see it as such.
Finally, you take one deep, long breath, tasting the emptiness of the air and stride into the living room, reminding yourself that you know what’s best, that you are in control. Sitting on her floral couch, she across from you rocking away the pink on her chair, you speak gently, delicately, “Mom, I’ve spoken to Mr. Harris across the street, and it’s time for us to talk about something important that I think we have been putting off.” Nothing. “Mom, Mom! Please, look at me.” A soft turn of her head, her eyes suddenly fixate onto your face, almost curiously. “Mom, I think it’s time for you to stop driving. I really don’t want you to get hurt or accidently hurt someone else.” Nothing. “Mom,” you push yourself to the edge of the couch, your knees bump against her, “Mommy, I will be here to drive you whenever you need to go anywhere. I promise, just give me a call and I’ll be here.” Nothing. And then, everything. “You, you are taking it all away from me!” she screams as tears build up in her eyes, which suddenly flash to life. You immediately recoil back into the couch, a wave of revulsion, rippling through your body as tears drop onto her pink chair, staining it. Though you always felt a little uncomfortable when your mother would cry in front of you, in many ways, it would make her more real, more tangible, more accessible. But this crying is different. Her crying almost makes her less human, it is pitiful, grotesque, repulsive, and you feel disgusted at yourself for thinking such a thing, but for God’s sake would it please stop! And the screaming, well your mother used to yell at you all of the time of course, but this shrieking is so unfamiliar, so savage, so untamed. She’s just sitting there, crying and screaming, and as you make every effort to reach out to her, to hold her, just to touch her, she twists and contorts herself, protecting herself with that chair. Finally, you manage to grab onto her wrists, pleading with her to stop, just to shut up, just for a moment, but she forces you away with surprising resolve and continues to belt out these foreign tones of despair. The screams reverberate off the walls, walls framed with the natural progression of life. She with her husband, her children, her grandchildren. Birthdays, graduations, weddings. But they do nothing to silence her, nothing to snap her back to any sort of reality. With the walls slowly inching towards you, corning you, you do what anyone would do when feeling trapped, you flee.
Taking the steps two at a time, you barricade yourself in your old bedroom, determined to never emerge and wishing you had one of those doors from the cartoons with several levels of bolts and locks on it. “Where are my brothers,” you seethe at your pillow, “Why am I here, alone, while they get to congregate in denial?” “Isn’t it convenient,” you spit at your mirror, “How denial grants them inaction, grants them freedom, and provides them with peace of mind?” There they sit, there they laugh, there they get to conjure up a scene of normalcy. And as you drown, doused in your anger and loneliness, you wonder what sort of unimaginable, ungodly emotions she must be suffocating in. You know that she sees it, whatever “it” looks like. As she has watched it unapologetically steal from her, reducing those once vibrant, blue eyes to two vacant holes. And as you gaze into your mirror, you realize you are stealing things too. The keys, the checkbooks, the credit cards, her independence. You are the face taking these things away from her as she is so desperately trying to hold on to her autonomy and her identity. You are making her subservient to it. You are complicit, in cahoots, with it, stripping away her dignity and her self-respect. And that’s what she sees.
You shuffle back to her, down the stairs, through the kitchen, back to the floral couch, almost wanting to hide your face from her, hoping that she won’t see what you have just seen in yourself. She has calmed down now and returned to her chair, staring at the door. She turns as you approach and exclaims, “Liz! What’s got you down? Your cheeks are so red, have you been crying off in your room again?” And you look down on her and say through a forced smile, “No, Mommy, everything’s okay.” And you hug her, holding her close, trying to hold everything in and hold everything back. And as you make your way to the door, she calls out, “Goodbye, Liz!” And you turn and smile, this time for real, but not yet ready to admit goodbye.
Martin McGowan is a history major at the beautiful St. Mary’s College of Maryland.