“I thought she was good tonight.”
Those were words of denial, set up like a plastic playset of bowling pins for his children to take aim and mow down. What my father meant to say but couldn’t was—she’s safe. I’m safe.
When my older brother and I met my father at the psychiatric hospital on a cold, rainy February night, we were given clear instructions: Visiting hours are in minutes, ninety of them starting at 5:00 p.m. No exceptions. No sharp objects. You will be searched. You will be escorted. She will remain under surveillance for at least four or five days while the physicians run a battery of tests.
At that moment, the sterilization of humanity and empathy took precedent. The messiness of living and survival would have to be on our own time. Here, what you believed mattered, didn’t.
You are visitors. She is in our custody. How you choose to categorize relationship is immaterial.
Escorted down a long hallway of secured doors and forked pathways, we reached the corridor where my mother was being observed. She was sitting alone in a bleak, taupe-colored conference room with four heavy-wood and fabric-laden chairs, awkwardly positioned around a circular office table with a peeling veneer. The scene was set aglow by harsh-humming fluorescent lighting. Was she expecting to see us? Was she expecting anything?
They changed her diagnosis from dementia to Alzheimer’s. Nobody confirmed if that was an upgrade or downgrade.
She was wearing a smock and socks—a white hospital gown with a blue, repeating pineapple-like design on it. Her gray socks had white nubs on them that would grip the floor to prevent slipping. The upper of her foot had a smiley face also made of white nubs creating an expression wholly foreign in this environment. She was wearing the face of confusion, perplexed as to why she was here.
The 911 call; her frustration with my father; the off-the-cuff comment about being so mad she could just kill herself. Claims that all first responders take at face value.
This represented our original nuclear family. By nuclear I mean combustible, blown apart, shelled so many times that reconstruction of the four in one place remains deeply fractured even when whole. As we sat looking at her, stealing eye contact with each other, nothing felt familial. Our collective company brought no comfort.
The conversation was circular. It played out like an LP on an old turntable where the needled arm forgets to return automatically, keeps rotating at the end of Side 1 until someone takes action, places the needle back on the vinyl. Repeat. Side 2 might as well not exist.
Infinite skipping is the steady metronome of comfort when there is nothing new to say, as the visiting minutes evaporate. She can no longer quantify time or its value. That is when, for the first time in my life, I saw my mother as lost. Truly lost. I hugged and kissed her. I spoke into her ear that we’d be back, words that must’ve been like a shooting star that you question if it was real or not.
I took in her frail figure, her rumpled gown, and disheveled hair and spied her aged shins and drooping veins exposed above the bunch of her gray socks. It took me back to the mid-1970s when she would sit atop our kitchen sink and my father would shave her legs; how she would sunbathe, discreetly, in our backyard. I remember thinking as a seven-year-old boy: My mom is so pretty.
A heavy quilt of guilt blankets those who don’t push harder, earlier, faster.
All knowledge is fleeting. But when a deep reservoir of memory and experience becomes an inch-deep puddle of basic recognition and recycled questions, she is disappearing in plain sight.
“I thought she was good tonight.”
Those weren’t words of a circumstantial love, but of love nonetheless; a love unarguable.
What my father refused to say but meant was: I will get her out. And when I do, she’s coming home. Regardless of what you’re seeing, despite what’s happened, I know what’s best. It will get better. She will get better.
What I know to be true: He is a creature of habit, unable to find a new rhythm where there is no beat, no one to follow his lead. She was the rock and the anchor. Unmoored from the anchor, we will drift. His attempt to restore their status quo will finish them both, like two moths moving closer to the flame.
In ninety minutes, the fallen rain turned to a sheet of ice. How quickly things accelerate and become dangerous.
Driving home I said aloud to no one: Remember how pretty your mom was. Gather the photos and record details on the back like it was with your stack of baseball cards. Choose to remember the little things. Write them down so you don’t forget. And should it be necessary someday, have someone read them back to you, taking you on the journey you’ll desire when words are fleeting.