They get old and their minds start to go. They forget about their children. But their children can't forget about them.
March 19, 1995
BY MARY GORDON
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
MY MOTHER IS SPEAKING FROM THE DESERT. Everything she says now is spoken from the desert, a desert she has in part created. But only in part. Mostly, I suppose, the desert was created because she is 86 and something has hardened or broken or worn out. The part she made came about through a dark will and sense of worthlessness. Believing she deserves nothing, she surrounds herself with empty air. The sun gleams in her eyes. Her eyes can sometimes seem colorless, as if they were ruined by looking at the sun. Sometimes she looks blind. Her eyes are very beautiful. The rest of her face is gaunt now and so you must look at her eyes: you can't look at anything else.
Anna Gordon 1995
When she hasn't combed her hair, when she has lost a tooth she won't have attended to, when she won't cut or file her nails, or change her clothes, she is distressing to look at. She used to be a very buoyant person, fleshy, with a wonderful skin that always made you think of the inner flesh of fruit: an apple or a peach. When she wore sleeveless dresses in summer, the cool, thick muscles of her upper arms made you want to rest your hot cheeks against them. The freshness and crispness of those dresses was a miracle. Their colors were the colors of nature: sea green, sky blue. It was as if she were wearing the elements themselves - the limitless sky, the refreshing sea - instead of a dress made of material whose shade was only a reminder of sea or sky.
In winter she wore hats with feathers and tailored suits, made of men's fabric, with shoulder pads and serious straight skirts. She "went to business." She was a legal secretary. She worked for one lawyer from 1937 to 1970, when he died; then she became his partner's secretary. She was proud of her business clothes, different from the clothes of other mothers who had nothing at stake in what they wore; they could slop around the house wearing anything, and what would it matter? In her handbag she carried a gold compact, lipsticks that smelled like nothing else except themselves but I knew would taste delicious if I could only taste them. I wanted to taste everything: her skin, warmed or cooled by a light dusting of freckles, her light dresses, her lipstick, her perfume.
But underneath this freshness, this crispness, this robust, delightful not only health but healthfulness, there must always have been a secret devotion to rot. Perhaps it was connected to her polio, which she was stricken with at the age of 3 and which left her with one leg shorter than the other, barely able to walk. A love of rot buried beneath her grief and shame about her body, and beneath the stoicism that concealed her grief and shame like a softening tuber underneath a field.
Now the healthfulness is gone; she has burrowed down to a deeper place, a darker place, perhaps one she feels to be more truthful. Or, perhaps, thought of another way, it is a place she goes to in the desert. The peace of carrion. She lies down beside it, she makes her home in it: there she is at peace.
I failed to keep her from this place because my attempt to keep her from it was not an act of love, but of terror and hatred. My mother's rotting body has taught me things I would otherwise never have known. About myself and the world. My mother's body rotting at the center of my history is the tight heart at the center of everything I know.
If I could understand how she changed from the fresh, lovely mother to the rotting one, what would I understand?
Everything. The darkness.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps I would only understand my mother.
Or perhaps not even that. Perhaps only something, but only one thing, having to do only with her.
SHE HAS LOST HER MEMORY. EACH SENTENCE she speaks is in the present tense. She is letting the past slip from her hand, a fish into dark water. She is letting it drop through a scrim of tissue paper into the night air. She is allowing it to disappear in snow.
I believe she is doing this in part because of a great sorrow. A sorrow I can do nothing to help, a sorrow I probably helped bring about because of my hatred of her body. Because I abetted her in a project that would enact her hatred of her body. She yearned for its corruption because she believed, above all else, in its degradation. I sense that she thinks what she is doing now is nothing more than telling the truth.
She is in a nursing home now because of her desire to rot. There is no way around it - you cannot devote yourself to rot and have a place in the civilized world. Something must be done for you, to you. And I was the one to do it.
I was living in a small town along the Hudson River. In 1983, when my mother retired at the age of 75, 1 bought her a house two blocks from mine. I thought it was a perfect plan: she could stop working and be with her grandchildren. She was an enchanting grandmother when Anna, my first child named for her, was little: inventive, doting, amusing and amused. She said it would be a privilege and a pleasure to see the children growing. She'd worked every day - except for six weeks off when I was born - since she was 18. I sensed that her competence was slipping, that they were getting impatient with her at the office. I wanted her to leave of her own accord: the idea that they should force her to retire would have been the worst possible disgrace for her.
But bringing her to the country was a disaster. She didn't want to do anything. Take courses at the college, I suggested, Italian, opera - your father sang opera, and you could learn his language. Tutor children. Take in typing. Volunteer at the rectory. No, she said, I've worked long enough. She only wanted to be served. Five weeks after my son was born, she had a fall. Or something: it was some sort of grotesque physical mishap. She told me that her brace and shoes were off, and she wanted to go to the bathroom, so she simply crawled in. But she fell out of bed trying to get onto the floor. I knew that she'd been drinking. After that, she was confined to a wheelchair for six months and she never regained much mobility.
Six years later, when I moved to New York, I decided to leave her in the country. My husband would be there most of the week and we would be there on weekends. I hired a Taiwanese woman to live in. She'd been a nurse in Taiwan; she was getting a master's degree in psychology. She was a pretty, boyish, sharp-witted person, with an excellent sense of humor. After a month, she told me she wanted to quit; living with my mother was too depressing. I begged her to stay till Christmas. But around Halloween, when I took my mother to her regular semiannual physical, I discovered that she hadn't taken her shoes off since the end of the summer. She'd slept in her shoes - high, built-up, tightly laced boots - for three months. The doctor forbade her to take her shoes off in his office. He said he'd come to the house later. When she took off her shoes the room was filled with the stench of rotting flesh. He said if she'd waited much longer, gangrene would have set in.
This made my decision: she'd have to go into a nursing home. An evaluating nurse, sent by the state, determined that my mother met the criteria to be in what was called a primary care facility. Most of the criteria had to do with urine and feces. The mind, the abilities of the imagination and the spirit, had almost no weight in these questions. I pulled every string to get my mother into a first-rate Catholic nursing home quite near where I lived. When I told her, she got blind drunk, cursed me and cried. Li, the Taiwanese nurse, wept. I stood firm. "You can go to Mass every day," I told my mother. "Soon I'll be dead," she said, "then I won't need to go to Mass."
IF I COME UPON MY MOTHER NOW AND SHE ISN'T expecting me, I find her sitting with her head buried in her hands. There is no need for her to do anything now but adopt this formal posture of grief. Yet I don't think she would like to die. She will not, I believe, die soon. She has, I have been told by many doctors, the heart and blood pressure of a teen-ager.
If I were an allegorist, if I decided to do something in the manner of Giotto - embodying the virtues in a living figure - I would paint my mother in her wheelchair, her head in her hands, wearing her magenta sweater (the only one she wears although there are a dozen in her cupboard). I would call it "The Death of Hope."
She hopes for nothing, and because I believe that nothing can be done for her, because I have given her up, I hope for nothing on her behalf. Now everything in her life points out the futility of hope. But if I had wanted to paint hope, the embodied virtue, I would have painted my young mother in her sea green or sky blue dress, her lovely arms, her white skin and her strong and useful, perhaps rather dangerous teeth. Because hope can be dangerous. In that it leads to the death of hope. But it does not lead in a straight path to death. There is the animal, with the animal's hope. This is not human, it is not our own. It is something, but it is not ours.
There is a link between hope and memory. Remembering nothing, one cannot hope for anything. And so time means nothing. It is a useless element. Living in time without memory or hope: a fish in air. A bird in water. Some unfortunate creature doomed to the wrong medium. Yet not, alas, to death.
I don't know what my mother does all day. She eats her meals. She sleeps. In the time that she's been in the home she's made three friends; one died, one is her roommate, whom she bullies and then when the roommate rebels, she refuses to speak to. She has one friend who is completely charming: intelligent, loving and aware. I don't know why she likes my mother; but she says my mother means the world to her, that if anything happened to my mother, she doesn't know what she'd do. I know it would be rude to ask the reasons for such a statement, but I'm genuinely puzzled. I want to tell my mother's friend: "But you're too good for her. You can do much better than my mother. Find somebody else." Then I cover my mother with kisses, atoning for my betrayal. She doesn't know why I'm doing it, and, wisely, she doesn't respond.
I know that she prays. But I don't know what she's doing when she prays. What is she saying? Where is she? Is she in a blank silence, the presence of God, where there is nothing without meaning and she knows she is where she has always belonged, perhaps where she has always been? Is she silent, or is she saying words to God? Her own words or the formal words of prayer? Or is she having simple conversations, too banal to repeat, yet placing her exactly at the true, safe center of the universe? She says she prays for me. She says she prays for me and my family all the time. I believe her. But I don't know what she is thinking of when she prays. Or even who, since she sometimes forgets that she has grandchildren.
I think she must be happy, praying. Or at least not suffering, in a place beyond memory. With God, since both of them are outside time, memory is irrelevant. So I can think of her praying, be both admiring and calm.
Praying, she is in the place where she belongs. A plate where she is still what she so often was: outstanding. I believe she sees the face of God. But who can see the face of God and live? Who can see the face of God and remember it? Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it is the point most especially for my mother, for the way she must live now. The way she has no other choice but to live. Praying, she comes alive. Free of her body. Beautiful again: a spirit. Joyous. Not weighed down. Not even tragic. Partaking of greatness. Great.
I TAKE MY MOTHER TO A DOCTOR AT MOUNT SINAI to see if there is anything she can do that might reclaim her memory, return her zest for life. The doctor asks her questions. She answers with words from the desert. “I don't have my memory anymore. I don't think about things. They were all sad."
The doctor, who is beautiful and lively and wonderfully intelligent, says gently: 'What about the happy things. Do you think about your mother? You had happy times with her."
She says: "That's sad too. Because everything is lost."
There's nothing I can say when my mother speaks like this, because everything she says is true.
The doctor begins to ask her the questions on what is a standard diagnostic test for depression. But we run out of time and the doctor suggests that perhaps I could ask her the questions and simply circle the answers on the form. Some of the questions are these:
Are you basically satisfied with your life? Do you feel that your life is empty?
Are you hopeful about the future? Are you bothered by thoughts you can't get out of your head?
Are you in good spirits most of the time?
Do you often feel helpless? Do you frequently worry about the future? Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most?
Do you think it's wonderful to be alive now? Do you often feel downhearted and blue?
Do you feel pretty worthless the way you are now? Do you worry a lot about the past?
Do you find life very exciting?
When I first ask my mother the questions she answers everything positively. She is satisfied with her life, she isn't bored, she's hopeful, she's in good spirits, she doesn't worry. I think I understand something. I ask her if she thinks that saying there's anything wrong with her life means that she's complaining, that she's ungrateful for what she has, that she's a weakling, a crybaby. Of course that's what I think, she says, looking at me from the desert. I tell her that's not the way it is; they need to know how she really feels for their work. It's their business to get an accurate picture, I tell her. "You have to do it for them." I never tell her who "them" is and she never asks. "O.K., if it's their business," she says.
She answers the questions slowly. She isn't satisfied with her life, she isn't happy, she often feels helpless, she often feels downhearted and blue, she feels her situation is hopeless. She frequently feels like crying. On the other hand, she doesn't feel that her life is empty, she is hopeful about the future, she is not afraid that something bad is going to happen, she thinks it is wonderful to be alive. Her most heartfelt response is to the question: "Do you feel pretty worthless the way you are now?" "Oh, yes," she says, "completely worthless." She is speaking from the desert. She is looking at me with those eyes burned by the sun. There is no softening landscape. No hidden refreshing spring. The dry land. The harsh rock. The sky, unmediated. When I start to cry she says, 'What are you crying about, how else would I be?" And I tell her all the wonderful things she's done, how much she's been treasured and beloved. "That was then," she says. "I thought you were talking about now."
WHEN I CALL THE DOCTOR AND read her the results of the test, she says my mother is on the border of dysphoric and depressed. She thinks my mother might be helped with antidepressants, but because she may be suffering from senile dementia as well, the chances are slim. She'd like to have an M.R.I. done on my mother, because some of the neurological signs were a bit confusing.
I don't tell my mother that we're going for a test that is frightening, claustrophobia-inducing. I don't tell her till a day before that she's going to have a test at all. I try to describe the procedure to her. They put you into a kind of tube. You're a bit shut in, but if you relax it's quite bearable. I tell her I had one myself, and that I fell asleep during it, which was true. I decide to take her on the city bus, which lowers itself for people in wheelchairs, because the first time we went to the doctor, we waited for the ambulance for an hour and a half one way, two hours the next. "They've got you over a barrel, and they know it and they don't care," the woman at the nursing home tells me. I think how pleased I would be to firebomb the ambulance headquarters; the relief of seeing the place, and the people, go up in flames.
On the bus, I understand that not having a memory makes my mother ashamed. The shame of the bankrupt. She pretends she remembers things. "Oh, yes, I remember these people. I've seen them before. Their faces are familiar." On Madison Avenue in the 80's, where she has never been in my lifetime, she says, "I remember this was where we used to get off." I can't imagine she was ever on a Madison Avenue bus. When she was young, she came to the city to go to the theater, or the rodeo at Madison Square Garden. She loved the rodeo; when it was in town she went to it every night. She had some dates with rodeo cowboys, whose names remained dear to her. Turk Greeneau and Cecil Henley. Turk married Sally Rand, the fan dancer, who was famous for causing a stir at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. My mother always said, with real indignation at the loss to the rodeo world, "She broke his stride for good." If I laughed when she said that, she'd get angry.
She also regularly went to a retreat house on 29th Street. Or to St. Patrick's Cathedral. Everything I know of her history makes me sure that she was never on the Upper East Side. And I know she has never seen her fellow passengers. I have to fight my desire to tell her, "You're wrong, you've never been here before." I wonder if she thinks she's been on these streets and seen these people before because all people and places are the same to her. Memory enables a sense of difference. The present is different from the past. The remembered event is different from the current experience, the difference is recognizable and therefore the events can be differentiated.
Is everything for my mother in the present? Does she live like God?
No, she still experiences fear and loss.
How dreadful that these should be the last to go. One day, when I arrive at the nursing home, she's trembling. A bishop is going to say Mass for them on the next day. She's been selected to read the epistle. She's afraid she won't be able to do it. She's afraid she won't know when to come in. I find the nun who's in charge: she assures my mother that she'll hand her the microphone when the time comes. I go over the reading with her. She's letter perfect. I say I'll come the next day to be with her for support.
She reads the epistle. She reads out Philippians 3:16-21 as Philippians, March 16, 1921. She doesn't know she's made a mistake. After Mass the Bishop is extravagantly warm, full of praise. She doesn't respond to him. She doesn't know what he's talking about. The 45 minutes of Mass is enough time to have erased the experience for her. But she was able to experience 36 hours of anticipatory anxiety and dread.
But she doesn't seem to dread the M.R.I. Perhaps because I've underrepresented its discomfort. The technician tells her to be completely still, or the pictures will be useless. After a few minutes, I see her beginning to thrash. Through a microphone the technician tells her in an accusing voice that she is ruining everything. Instantly, I know what to do. I jump up, run over to the hole her legs are sticking out of, and thrust my head in. 'We're going to say the Rosary," I tell her. And into the hole I shout, "The five Sorrowful Mysteries, the first mystery, the Agony in the Garden." Our Fathers. Hail Marys. The second mystery. The third. She settles down and lies quietly. The test is done.
I realize that for me, who claims to live by words, there are no words that could automatically take away my terror. No poetry, no passages from great novels could be shouted at me and cause me to be still. She is, in this way, more fortunate than I.
When we get to the doctor's office, on the other side of the medical center, the doctor asks my mother if the test was difficult. What test? she asks. The doctor describes the M.R.I. I don't remember anything like that, she says.
Another piece of good fortune; without memory there is no re-living of terror. The past no longer haunts. It is finished, and for good.
BECAUSE OF MY MOTHER'S POLIO, MY EARLIEST vision includes the vision of a damaged female body. For many years, the only adult female body I saw unclothed was, it must be said, grotesque, lopsided, with one dwarf leg and foot and a belly with a huge scar, biting into and discoloring unfirm flesh. She'd point to it and say, "This is what happened when I had you."
For many years as a child, much longer than I should have, I imagined that all women had this slit belly and when I had children I would, too.
I should feel more loyalty to my mother's body.
Because, if I hate my mother's body, what can I feel about my own?
But my body is not like hers. She is crippled, I am not. It shaped the way we lived: this difference between us. What was always in the front of both our minds was that the crucial thing was that she must not fall. We lived both our lives in terror of her falling. It was like living on a fault line or on the top of a volcano. The anxiety that the thoughtless move, the too-forceful move, the unexpected move would cause calamity. My mother's falling seemed like a natural disaster. The crash, the crying out. Then the immobility. I never remember her rising up after she fell. She had to be brought to bed. Where she would be and weep with her eyes closed. Sometimes she would moan aloud. No sense of when she might get up again. Perhaps never.
Because she was a cripple she felt free to give up ordinary kinds of pride and to ask help without stopping to consider where the help might come from or what the helper's response might be. I think she felt that any able-bodied person was more adult than she.
She had, I suppose, the necessary lack of physical shame that helps cripples get by. She would do things that mortified me, like going down a too-steep flight of stairs on her behind. She would crawl up hills on her hands and knees. I would want to beg her not to, so deep was my mortification when she did something like this, even if no one could see us. But I knew that she was right: there was no alternative. It made me literally want to die, because there was too much to feel. It was easier to die than feel all of it. There was mortification of the spectacle, pity for her, shame at my own shame, pride in her, hatred for her, perhaps a vague sense of her sadism in insisting that all this be visible. It was too much for a child. It has never stopped being too much.
But the child of a cripple was never really a child, and so has never really passed satisfactorily through childhood. You are always resentful because you are always in charge.
You are always more able. You envy people whose parents don't need to be watched or cared for with an envy that has the taste of hate. You want to say to the crippled parent: You have stolen my childhood, you have taken my youth. But how can you? Always, they have suffered more than you, a suffering from which there is no respite, no escape. They cannot but live with their damaged body.
Should you come at them with the face of your deprivation and its rage, leaving them diminished, shaken, unsteady, adding to what they know about themselves that they are damaged, second-rate - you would still be able to walk away, able and intact. Leaving the wounded one now doubly wounded. Naming yourself a monster. In such a situation, therefore, rage is impossible. Or at least the expression of rage. It's like being angry at a starving man for depriving you of a profiterole, a cream puff, an éclair. You live always in a state of remorse for what you have not done for them and cannot do. And the fear that somehow you might weaken them, because they know what you are thinking.
And suppose one day they are thinking about your rage and it takes away their hope. You know how much they need their hope. They need it because the effort of living is so great. Simple actions - if there are any, demand much more consideration from them. Planning, strategizing This kind or attentiveness requires hope. And suppose they give up hope because of you. Because of you, the monster, the obscenely healthy brute. Standing above them in a wholeness that can only be called sadistic, insisting on something they could never have given. Only a monster could ever have thought of saying it. The monster you are. The monstrous, healthy animal. The monster child.
I learned quite early that it is my fate always to be the most able-bodied in any room. That is the way I have always lived, alert for the scar, the concealed false limb, the tremor, the flicker of anxiety at the prospect of uncertain terrain, the slurred speech the hesitant, reluctant gesture. I always find it and I always know that because of this I am called upon, not only to act, but also to find a solution for the damage that must be accommodated, made up for, got around. I believe that I will always find a solution and that it will always be right. This is the source of my worst qualities: arrogance, self-righteousness, also intense self-pity, then resentment and contempt.
WHEN YOU ARE WITH MY MOTHER, IT IS BEST TO HAVE conversations that don't require a reference to the past. No interpretation. Narrative is second best, a far second after description. Plain description is what's called for. Our best visits consist of my taking her to the garden in Riverside Park. I wheel her chair down the hill. I have to struggle to keep the momentum from hurtling her to disaster. I bend my legs and strain my body to keep her safe. The next day my back always hurts. But I keep my posture easily because of the horrifying vision of what would happen if I did not. My mother, hurtling forward. Her head gashed on the pavement. I see the bloody forehead, the wound with pebbles imbedded in it. Inattentiveness could bring about a tragedy: I must be hypervigilant about everything, every variation of the surface.
We wheel around the enclosed garden. We say the names of flowers or colors. Peony, we say, foxglove, lily, pansy, phlox. The words are beautiful in themselves. And we say the names of colors: red, yellow, purple, blue, deep rose. Sometimes we sing. She remembers the words to songs. Doing these things, we are both happy.
When we are doing these things, I wonder, "Is it possible I still have a mother?"
"Of course," I say, "how could it not?"
But then, how can it be?
A mother without memory of the stories of the past means that I must accept the possibility that I have never been a child.
MY MOTHER IS speaking from the desert, where she would like to disappear. But how can she disappear there, when there is no place to hide. Perhaps by the sheer force of something whose name I do not know. Perhaps it is her sorrow, creating a fog, in which she will disappear. Yet she is visible to me, partly because I have ineradicable memories of her vividness. She was, above all, a vivid creature. She raged so, people were careful not to cross her. She kissed men right on the mouth; she'd grab the microphone at public gatherings to sing. She laughed so loudly in the movies that people she knew would meet her in the lobby afterward and say they knew just where she had been sitting. She loved foods that she could crunch and chew, particularly nuts; she would indulge herself in an extravagant purchase of cashews and almonds every year at the end of Lent.
She was always admirable, attractive, enjoyable. Even when she was committed to a course of degradation, to her love of rot, the vivacious animal held sway.
She was the life of the party. Now she is barely alive.
For many years, she used alcohol to allow herself to fall into the pit of shame, of stupor, of oblivion. Now she can enter it without chemical aid. Age provides her with a stupor from which she has no desire to escape, even if she could. For years I have stood at the edge of the pit, trying to keep her back. The same muscles I use when I push her wheelchair down a bill, holding her back from hurtling forward. Now I realize that her desire for stupor is stronger than my ability to keep her lively. I give in to her need for darkness. I give her up. I turn my back on her.
FOR THREE WEEKS, AT ANY time during the day when my mind is not taken up with the business of living: reading, writing, caring for children, shopping, cooking, speaking to friends, calling insurance companies or the super, what I am thinking about is my mother's fingernails.
She has given up attending to her nails, at the same time that the head nurse on her floor has taken three weeks' vacation. This woman oversees her charges with a benevolent general's intelligence and interest in the welfare of her troops. While she's away, things slip a bit. My mother's nails are not quite claws yet they haven't begun to turn under. I know she's waiting for me to cut her nails. Everyone is waiting for me. The substitute nurse says they have no nail scissors, it's up to me to produce one. And do I? Three weeks in a row I forget. She refuses to file her nails, the nursing home says I must bring the clippers and I forget. All of us joined in an insistence that my mother will appear more animal then she needs to.
They care for her body with attention and dignity. But it is up to me to keep an eye on the details. She is a difficult patient for them because she refuses to take a shower. I tell them that she has never taken showers, because she has never been able to walk without her shoes. As I tell them that I realize what an extraordinary thing it is: my mother has never taken a shower. Very few people in the modern West can say such a thing. Occasionally, perhaps once a year when she was younger, she would, with great difficulty, requiring much assistance (my father's, her mother's, and then, after her mother's death, mine), take a bath. Would the nurses believe me if I told them that for most of her life she was exceptionally clean? That she reminded me of sheets hung out in the wind, of the white flesh of apples? Would they believe me, or would they say, quite properly, what does that have to do with now?
When I have to remind her to groom herself, or arrange an appointment with the hairdresser or dentist, I am covered over in rage and panic that literally takes my breath away. I can hardly speak. I want to cry. At the same time as I am her advocate, I want to scream at her and say, "How can you allow this to go on?" It makes me want to end her life. At the same time I want to sit in her lap and say, "Don't you understand that I'm your child and a child shouldn't have to do this?" And have a transformed mother, fragrant, buoyant, say what she was almost never able to say, "Don't worry about anything, I'll take care of everything."
What I miss most is the sense of rightness, of right choices that she represented, her crispness, her business acumen, the fact that up and down the street and all around the parish, people asked her advice about "letters from the government" or tax returns, or wills. She put her blue-framed glasses on and within minutes, solved their problems. Or she would get on the phone. She was brilliant on the phone. She prided herself on having "a good telephone voice." How irresistible she was on the telephone. Of course no one could resist her. And she was delightful around anything having to do with money: at the bank, where she was immediately given pride of place because her boss was the bank's attorney. (She never had to stand on line; she could get any check approved.) Or even in the butcher shop, the vegetable market. As long as she was touching coins or bills, or something representing them, she was at ease, and powerful, and most of all effective. Yet she didn't care about money, in the sense of accumulating it for herself. She only liked being involved in its movement.
I understood very well that my father's death had only enhanced her social position, therefore mine. She had been the unfortunate wife of an unfortunate husband: a failed writer who could not make a living. Now she was the noble widow and I the gallant orphan. There was no place where we went that this was not immediately legible. But never more so than when we entered our pew in the front of the church, always getting there early so my mother wouldn't be jostled by crowds and be thrown off balance. There was a terrible crush at Sunday Mass in those days. The whole congregation had an admiring eye on us. We were consistently admired.
And she would occasionally, though sparingly, use her status as a noble and competent cripple for my good. There was the memorable incident that occurred when I was 13, the only one in the class with a working mother. I invited some boys and girls over one afternoon to dance. It was a disaster. The boys stood on one side of the room and smoked. The girls danced with each other. One boy, trying to be cool and light his cigarette from the gas stove, set his hair on fire. One of our neighbors reported all this to the Rosary Society; it spread through the parish. The principal threatened me with not being allowed to graduate publicly. My mother went up to school. She made a point of how difficult it was for her to walk down the long corridors, and that she had to take time off from work. She said to the principal: 'What do you think those kids were doing. I don't think they were doing anything. It shows the difference in our minds." She never blamed me, which was unusual for her. I was tremendously proud of her ‑ none of the other parents stood up to the nuns ‑but it made me feel unworthy. And I was aware I had been spared punishment because she was a cripple and a widow.
But that was only part of it. I was spared because she was daring and articulate. When she knew she was right, she was fearless. Part of the pride she felt she had to give up as a cripple transformed itself into something morally positive: she didn't care what people thought about her. She took pride in appearing outrageous, vulgar even, in saying "hell," and "goddamn" freely and in all company. But it was this same lack of regard for public opinion that allowed her to stop grooming herself, to give in to her love of rot. Looked at in this way, a regard for the opinion of the world, a consciousness of and concern for how one is seen, seems infinitely precious and humanizing. But my mother's dashing lack of regard for public opinion gave her, when she was younger, a richer and fuller humanity, more fun, more scope for self‑expression and satisfaction of her strong nature. And it was a great gift to me: I never had to endure what many girls did, the blunt hoof of propriety crushing my chest, the beast mother, with her blood red eyes, enforcing the implacable rules of the household gods. She was not afraid of being in the world, as the mothers of many of my friends were. She took me into it.
When we went to restaurants ‑ only two of them, but they were important ones in the place we lived she was always given the best table, and always waited on by someone she knew. After my father died, she made a little home for us in restaurants. No, not a little home. A vacation spot. A resort.
I understood that all the food I was eating on these occasions came to us because of my mother's relationship to money. She made it; she could spend it; she was willing to spend it on fun. I don't know if it was because of this that all the food connected to my mother on these occasions seemed extraordinarily delicious. Bright colors, good textures, satisfying, clear, unclouded tastes. Many foods frightened me to the point of panic in those years. Mayonnaise, cocoa, fat and gristle on meat, the smallest spot on the skin of a tomato. I thought they would poison me or choke me; they would, in some way, be the cause of my death. My mother seemed magically able to avoid all these disturbing food elements on our outings together. She assured, by her assurance in ordering, that we would come near none of these things. She made it so that they didn't exist, a distant memory from a deprived past. Everything she suggested we eat was festive, modern, possibly unnourishing, but full of the electric joy of life.
In the local luncheonette, we were waited on by her friend Tess, an iron‑haired, thin‑lipped woman, who seemed to come to life around my mother. She always said, "God bless her," to me, always brought us our orders without having to ask for it. She knew what we wanted: "The regular." Grilled cheese sandwiches, chocolate milk for me, coffee for my mother. For my dessert the specialty of the house: lemon ice cream.
Every time I got a good report card (and I always did) she would drive to the next town to a bar and grill called the Brick Cafe. It was owned by a man named Charlie, an ex‑prizefighter who had briefly been one of my mother's beaus. It is rather unusual that my mother, a cripple, though a beautiful one, had one beau who was a prizefighter and another who was a rodeo cowboy. These are the only two she ever spoke of, but I think they were the only ones. Except for John Gallagher, a widower, an undertaker. John wanted to marry her. The cowboy and the prizefighter, I think, did not. My father, a writer and Jewish convert, must have had the slightly illegal appeal that the prizefighter and the cowboy did, but he was sanctioned by the priests she worshiped. And he did, remarkably, want to marry her. People who knew them when they were courting say they were publicly, almost embarrassingly amorous. They kissed on the subway. And he wrote her poetry. He would buy her greeting cards, then cut or rip out the printed verse on the inside and substitute one of his own. In 1945, her birthday message included the words: "Never in all the annals of recorded time/existed such sweet pretext for a rhyme."
MY MOTHER'S 86TH BIRTHDAY. I HAVE BROUGHT her what is pleasant to the senses: roses, flavored tea, a whipped cream cake. Every year before she went into the nursing home, every year that is, since my grandmother died when I was 12, I made her a peach shortcake for her birthday. She took a pride in not liking sweet things, in caring nothing for chocolate. The tartness of the peaches pleased her, the plainness of the underlying cake. This year I don't make her a shortcake, I buy it and it is not peach, but strawberry. At the Metropolitan Museum, I buy a postcard of a Byzantine icon and an expensive frame in which to place it. This is her birthday gift. I have collected people who are well disposed toward her. During the party she sits like a stone. One of her bottom teeth is rotting, in a way so that it is gradually turning into a splinter or a fang.
The temperature is‑nearly 100 degrees and, after I leave her, I can do nothing for the rest of the day but be in my bed, paralyzed by what I can only call despair. Her power over my life is enormous.
I WANT TO TAKE HER TO THE GARDEN THIS MORNING because I started the day having such terrible thoughts about her. I have to do something for or with her that has in it some semblance of pleasure, something that lifts me from the unbearable state of rage and responsibility and shame.
The social worker in charge of my mother's case has written to tell me that I must sign a D.N.R. form. Do Not Resuscitate. Do not use unusual means. Don't keep her alive. Let her die.
I sign a piece of paper that authorizes that someone will look on while my mother dies.
We walk down to the garden. Or, we don't walk, I push her. Making sure not to let her momentum drag us down. We get to the level part, where it is no longer difficult to walk. I point out day lilies, a pair of infant twins, a pigeon pecking at mulberries. I name colors. I insist that she look. I insist that she tell me which of the flowers is her favorite. "I like them all," she says. "No, you have to pick one." "The purple one," she says. "Hibiscus," I tell her.
I say that it's my favorite one too.
"I know that," she says. "That's why I said it."
I would like to believe that she is still capable of liking one color more than another, but it's probably too much to ask. Does she still remember that I like purple? Or is she faking again?
I believe that somehow, unfocused, but in a white light she sees all the time, there is her love for me. Which may be the only thing that she still knows.
She keeps telling me it's too hard for me to push her that far. She keeps telling me the time. It's 11:30. Lunch is at noon. She keeps saying we'd better get back, that if we're late to lunch they won't keep anything for her.
I can tell that she wants nothing more than to get back. I have no way of knowing whether it's a good thing to take her to the garden, if she's still capable of being pleased, if she would prefer, above all, not to be bothered, to be left alone. If I am taking her to the garden because I think it is pleasant for her, because I can tell people about it and they will think I'm doing something pleasant for her, think how good I am. Such a good daughter. She takes her mother to the garden. But perhaps my mother would prefer to be left alone.
I leave her in the dining room. She asks when she'll see me again. I tell her in a week. 'What are you doing with yourself between now and then?" she asks, with a hint of her old bite.
"Gallivanting," I say.
"Just as I thought," she says, opening the cellophane that holds her plastic fork, and knife, and spoon.
I leave the dining room and, standing a little to one side of the doorway, watch my mother as she eats. She doesn't talk to her neighbors at the table. Her face shows no enjoyment in her food. She stares ahead of her, her glance vacant as a blind woman's, chewing as if it were a mildly difficult task she knows she must perform. She is staring ahead at an infinite present which holds no savor for her. I don't know what it holds.
MY MOTHER IS SPEAKING FROM THE DESERT.
"I think I'm very lucky, not to be in pain."
"I don't remember anything."
'If you knew how much I love you."
"These flowers are yellow. These are purple. Those are blue."
"I don't think of dying, but I'm not afraid to die."
Mary Gordon's latest book is "The Rest of Life," a collection of novellas. This article is from a memoir in progress.