I reached under the sink to toss something into the garbage, and stopped myself just in time.
Folded neatly in the garbage can were two of my mother’s shirts, and a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie tucked carefully inside.
I sighed, picked up the cookie, popped it in my mouth (it was from Pure Bliss and I was NOT going to waste it), and grabbed the t-shirts. I walked them over to the laundry room, put them in the wash, and picked up one of my sweatshirts from the counter. I carried my sweatshirt upstairs, opened my dresser drawer, and discovered a pair of my father’s jeans in there.
I took out his jeans, put away my sweatshirt, turned around, and realized my moisturizer was sitting out, open, on the sink. It took me a few minutes to find the lid — it was inside the drawer of my bedside table – and after I put the moisturizer away I walked back into the bedroom with my dad’s jeans and found a pile of mom’s magazines under the edge of my bed.
I carried the magazines and jeans back downstairs, dropped off the magazines in the living room, saw mom’s nightgown hanging from the coat rack in the front hall, grabbed the nightgown, walked the clothing back into my parents’ room, put the nightgown and jeans away, and saw a mixing bowl sitting in my mother’s sock basket.
I picked up the mixing bowl, brought it back to the kitchen, opened the cabinet to put the bowl away and found half of a leftover avocado in an open tupperware container. The avocado was definitely not worth saving, so I tossed it in the compost, put the tupperware in the sink, put the mixing bowl away, and then opened the spice drawer to grab a few things for dinner prep.
In the spice drawer, where the black pepper should have been, were three cherry tomatoes.
It took me a long time to find the black pepper.
My mother tries to resolve her early-onset-Alzheimer’s-induced anxiety by doing that which she has always done — taking care of a household. She tries to “tidy up” all the time, picking things up, moving them from place to place, putting them down again. My father and I now refer to misplaced items in the house as “tidied.”
She loves folding laundry, but she can’t figure out where it goes. We find socks in with the dishtowels, and dishtowels in with the cereal. She tries to wash the dishes, but she’s forgotten which way to turn the faucet to get hot water. (We’ve lowered the water temperature in the house to prevent her from burning herself.) She is forbidden from using the stove, but one never knows what unusual food combination will be found spinning in the microwave.
When she starts to sundown, she really gets going in the kitchen. I came home from the grocery store today to find that she had chopped ALL of the vegetables in the fridge into salad-sized pieces, peeled all the hardboiled eggs, mixed them in with leftover oven-roasted root veggies, taken all the raw eggs out of their carton, left six on the counter, three in the utensil drawer, and three next to the jam. Then she threw the egg carton in the recycling bin.
Dad and I have adopted a mentality of, “if it’s not actually causing harm, it doesn’t matter,” and more often than not we just live and work around the chaos, and fix it up when she’s moved on to something else.
Because we know that, at the center of it all, she’s trying to alleviate a terrible, searing anxiety, a sense of doom that is rushing down on her, faster and faster, unstoppable and unrelenting, a knowledge that Something Is Wrong and maybe if she finds a way to manage the house she’ll find a way to manage the disease that is inexorably dismantling her brain, her soul, her life, herself.
During the weekends and long summer days of my childhood, I would bounce around our 19th-century New England farmhouse, wandering from room to room, bored and lazy and self-indulgent in the way that all children should be. I would eventually make my way up the curving front staircase, down the long hallway, and into the master bedroom.
I’d find my mother, sitting on top of her neatly made bed, relaxed back against a stack of pillows, reading a book, enjoying — up until the exact second of my entrance – a rare moment of peace and stillness and rest.
She never sent me away, she never frowned when she saw me, she never resented me for intruding on the tiny fragments of time she was able to gather together for herself, precious indeed for women the world over, then and now.
Instead, she looked up and smiled, and turned the book over. I clambered up onto the tall mattress on its brass frame and flopped down next to her. I’m sure we talked, though I have no recollection of those conversations. I’m sure I whined or complained, but not ferociously, because the moment I was next to her what I felt was a radiating warmth, an embracing calm.
Everything was all right, because I was next to my mother.
And inevitably, although I never planned it that way, I fell asleep.
And my mother would smile, and pick up her book, and read until her family needed her once again.
My mother doesn’t sleep well anymore. She wakes up at 3am, frightened because she doesn’t know where she is. Or she wakes up and thinks its morning, so she’ll get fully dressed and start wandering around the house.
I woke up suddenly about a week ago to the sound of my bedroom door opening. My mother peered into the room. I sat up quickly and turned on the light. “Hi, momma.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Oh! Martha! Thank goodness you’re here.” She came into the room. She was fully dressed, wearing her down jacket but my work shoes, albeit on the wrong feet.
She was visibly frightened, terrified by a dream or hallucination, confused about where she was, uncertain about what was happening. I got up and got my shoes off her feet and took her jacket off. “Come sit next to me,” I said, and she climbed into my bed. It was cold that morning, and I threw my down comforter over both of us.
I turned the light back off and let her talk for a while as the moonlight glowed through the big bay window. Very little of what she said made sense, but she was scared and I held her hand and reassured her as much as I could.
I was tired and sad for her, and eventually I began to doze off. I woke up suddenly sometime later, moonlight retreating from the dimmest light far on the eastern sky.
She had fallen asleep beside me. Her breathing was deep, and even, and restful.
And for just a moment, in a warm and embracing calm, everything was all right.
Because I was next to my mother again.
mother and child by Firmin Baes, Belgium, 1874-1943