July 15, 2005

From a Smaller State

When I visit back East nowadays, the strange thing is that I’m not going to the place I grew up. My family doesn’t live there anymore. Instead my mother and youngest brother and his family live in Connecticut, a small suburban place which, during my childhood, seemed remote and socioeconomically intimidating. This place holds no memories for me. I’m learning new associations: with my nephews’ adolescences, with my mother’s terminal illness.

The familiar thing here is the cramped, smoggy feeling of the Northeast: an overstuffed greenness of tulip trees and lindens, old narrow roads choked with cars, old houses with steep roofs and small windows. Summer heat here is cooler in temperature than out West, but more oppressive: stickier, cloudier, as if the sky is closer to the land. I think that the heat in Texas is like playing baseball with a father who burns in fastballs that sting your hands, making you proud you can take it; and the heat back East is like a mother who makes you wear too much clothing.

I’m staying in my brother’s house for the weekend and visiting my mother in the nursing home. Arriving at her shared room, I hugged her warmly, kissed her forehead and cheek. Held her parchmenty hand. I put flowers in a vase; I checked something about the menu at the nurses’ station; I wheeled her into the courtyard for some air.

She seems in good spirits, everyone says, and considering she’s been told she has an incurable cancer, it’s true. She’s calm, and seems uninterested in anticipating the future or, for that matter, remembering the past. What she dwells on are the hourly trials, the little accomplishments like doing her leg exercises, and always the fundamental question of whether a good aide or a bad aide is on duty to give her a bath, take her to the toilet, undress her for bed. My brother assures me that the care at this nursing home is first-rate (Connecticut has the most expensive nursing homes in the country), and from what I can tell, he’s right: the aides seem responsive, friendly, and competent. But my mother says, “That’s what it looks like objectively, but I’m not objective, I’m the subject.”

As you can tell from that comment, she still has a good many marbles to play with, at 84, at least when the topic is one she wants to focus on. Many topics, though, seem to go past her. She’s been told the nature of her disease, but she never alludes to it: I get the feeling that she’s put up a merciful wall between her consciousness and her fate. Good enough, but she’s also increasingly unable to think of ordinary nouns and unable to finish sentences. She also seems almost unable to answer a direct question: “Do you want your clothes put on the top shelf or the bottom shelf? Should I find another channel for you?” Etc. It makes conversation frustrating and sad. Flightiness of thought, lack of sequence, digressiveness, is nothing new for her, but now this lifelong character trait signals decline.

“It bothers me when I can’t think of a word,” she tells me, and then lapses off, setting her jaw as she tries to remember what she might want to say next.

My mother was the one who taught me about human personality. She was a psychiatric social worker and a longtime therapy patient. In most families, discussion of family history probably takes the form of narrative: which great-grandfather abandoned his wife and went seeking his fortune and married an Indian woman and was arrested for embezzlement… In our family, the history took the form of case study: which uncle was obsessive-compulsive, why this one hated that one and that one got divorced and the other never amounted to anything. It affected my writing as much as my father’s influence, which gave me intimacy with literature.

Every time I’ve see my mother, despite the strain, I have looked forward to more analysis of people we’ve known. But this time there was almost none of it. I tried to prompt her: what about sweet Aunt ______, whom, I was surprised to learn, my cousins feared and at times detested? But Aunt _______ is in a care center with Alzheimer’s, in still another state with no associations for me.

“I just can’t picture her like that,” my mother says.

The most common things are the hardest to picture. Back in the room, my brother’s first wife visits. She used to be a good friend, and now she’s a figure in a margin.We hug tight – years and years go by without our seeing each other – and she doesn’t remember the name of one of my sons or what stage of education he’s at, and I’m relieved when I recall correctly what she does for a living. “I hope we see each other soon,” she tells me when she leaves, but this moment has been the “soon,” and another won’t come up for a long time.

Then a phone call from my middle brother in North Carolina. He’s surprised when I pick up the phone. We were inseparable as kids. When, in childhood, I used to imagine death (a subject that preoccupied me back then), the image I used to capture the horror of annihilation was that I would never see my middle brother again. Now I see him every couple of years for a weekend, a day, or even less, when neither of us is inconvenienced.

“I had this dream last night,” he tells me. “Dad was in it, and he was totally healthy, robust, about 60.” Our dad died seventeen years ago at age 70. “We were all there, Mom and all three of us, and I said to him, ‘But you’re dead,’ and he said, ‘I’m feeling great.’ It was the ideal of being together, like we never had.”

My mother came out of the bathroom, helped by the aide, and I put her on the phone, and she and my brother talked for a couple of minutes and then the conversation lapsed and she said goodbye, and although I wanted to say something more to my brother, she didn’t hear me say so and I didn’t want to grab the phone out of her hand. My mother’s feeble arm stretched out to replace the handset onto the console, so slowly it seemed to take forever.