Geraniums and pansies once splashed color outside my parents’ front door. Now only crumbles of potting soil remain, frozen in mid-spill through the slats of their wrought-iron planters. I rush by them to catch up to my mother for our walk. I had expected to amble down the block together. Instead my mother pads off like a wind-up doll set on course, almost arriving to the street before I can link my arm through hers.
Gnarled tree roots like arthritic hands have pushed up chunks of sidewalk. I keep an eye on my mom’s feet, making sure they do not miss a step. I do not want to lose her.
Yet, I am already losing her.
Tiny instances work into my heart like troublesome pebbles in a shoe—a misplaced purse or phone, forgotten names, stressed phone calls to my father asking for passwords, a bowl of cereal and yogurt prepared then abandoned.
In her cozy London kitchen my mother washed a bright red cluster of cherry tomatoes and set them in a ramekin. “Now,” she said, walking over to the table where her grandchildren sat, legs swinging in chairs just too big for them. “These tomatoes are so sweet and delicious. Like candy.” She held out the dish to my niece Charlotte, “Just one each.” Charlotte’s fingers darted up, plucked a tomato from the green vine and popped it into her mouth. Then my mom turned and held out the dish to my son Henry saying, “Take as many as you like.” Henry selected a tomato then turned to look at me. Charlotte’s eyebrows stretched up and her mouth formed a silent O, her single sweet tomato already swallowed. When my mom set the tomatoes on the table and turned back to the stove, I pushed the dish toward Charlotte.
The next day I accompanied my mother to the grocery store. Her cart cluttered with packages of salmon, cylinders of Pringles (“Your husband likes these—we’ll get them for him”), grapes and tomatoes, we joined the checkout line. As we approached the register, Mom’s eyes opened wide, and she lifted the flap on her red purse. “My card,” she blurted. Opening one compartment after another, she found nothing save a lipstick and a packet of tissues. “Where’s my card?” she asked her purse, or me. We were the next in line, and Mom checked one last pocket. “Of course—this is where I keep it!” Pulling out her card, she held it high.
Swallowing the urge to ask why she hadn’t looked there first, I smiled and pushed the cart to the cashier. As I unloaded the items onto the counter, Mom inserted her card into the card reader, alternating between sliding it and inserting it chip-end first, but each time error messages beeped. The cashier snatched the card from her and ran it through the machine, asking Mom to enter the PIN number. Mom looked hard at the tiny keypad, typing in one code after another. Meanwhile I stared at my shoes, like a brace-mouthed teenager, willing all around to forgive my Mom for these apparent transgressions. Then I remembered that she was buying food for me and my children as we visited her, and my embarrassment mixed with guilt that I would be so disloyal, a Benedict Arnold of the home front. At last she typed in four more digits and then joyfully exclaimed, “That’s it!” I grabbed the bags from the cashier and dropped them in the cart, keeping my head low, wanting to shrink away.
When I was in my twenties my mom and I traveled to Italy together, taking an overnight train from Vienna where I was living at the time. She planned the two-week trip and had booked pensions in several cities. Under azure summer skies and window boxes overflowing with geraniums, we drank granitas and cappuccinos on Italian piazzas, enjoying hours and hours of reminiscing and planning. In the Sud-Tirol we made up stories about the fellow travelers staying at our pension—the pair of nuns in their black and white habits who had committed murder and were on the run; the handsome young man who was finding himself; the balding man who attacked his food like an overdue project. We dressed for dinner and sat at the same table every night, sipping our wine and laughing. When we parted ways, she to Houston and me to Vienna, I cried.
It’s not a long walk around my parents’ block, but there’s always something to see if you’re looking. The sign with a picture of a dog pooping and a little poem pleading with owners to pick up what their dogs leave behind sometimes makes Mom laugh and sometimes makes her press her lips together.
A few steps further and she stops. “Oh!” she cries, “Look at the blue!” The complete sentence is an unexpected boon. We stop to drink in the periwinkles surrounded by sweet alyssum. I’m swimming in memories of her teaching me names of flowers as she plants them in the beds by our pool.
Around the corner we find two houses with roses. The red rose bushes are weary: flowers like fists and sparse stems like tangled hair. But the white roses are milky and rich. I think I could eat one. “Remember when you had roses, Mom? Outside by the pool?” She looks straight ahead down the street, as if she’s looking for her roses. A faint movement of her head and I wonder, is she reaching down the well of memory, seeking this elusive one? I’ve stopped trying to tell her about my husband’s job concerns or my worrisome headaches. I want to ask her what she remembers about my teen years—cross-country moves, tenuous friendships, boyfriends—but I stop myself. These are little deaths.
I might have seen all of this coming on a spring day three years ago when all the griefs and anxieties of watching my mother lose herself piled up and rushed against the bulwark of our relationship. Mom had been visiting me from London. It was two weeks of logistics— searching for her purse or her phone, packing for a short trip to my brother’s, buying her favorite kind of dried mangoes to bring back to London, making sure she’d eaten her breakfast, watching her fumble with the restaurant receipt and try to figure out a tip.
I saw a missed call on her phone from a young friend of hers whom she had not seen since moving to London. “Why don’t you call Liz?” I asked. Mom deferred, but a few days later I noticed another missed call. “You could just call her and get together for coffee,” I suggested.
“But what do I say?” she asked.
“You just . . .” I swallowed a groan. “You just ask if she can meet you somewhere and I’ll take you to meet her.”
I handed my mom’s phone to her and went into the kitchen to empty the dishwasher. Amid the clatter of dishes I could hear snippets of her side of the conversation, and then, “I don’t know. Let me ask my mother. She’s right here.”
I stood frozen in the middle of the kitchen, gripping a stack of plates, wondering if she would stay in this new and fearsome delusion or move back out of it.
“Oh,” I heard her say, “I don’t mean my mother!” She laughed. “I mean my daughter.” I breathed again, but it was bitter air. I wanted to forget I’d ever heard her call me her mother.
Later that evening my mom was in the guest room getting ready for bed. I drifted in and out, checking on my children’s progress toward bedtime. I searched for a conversation topic, but there was no denying the stringy tentacles of change that stretched in and through our relationship.
“I know you think I have Alzheimer’s or . . . something.”
I stopped my meandering and looked over at her as she sat in bed, but I couldn’t hold her gaze.
“Do you talk to people about me?” she asked.
I looked up quickly and then away again, my eyes resting on the vase of red Gerber daisies on the hutch. They should’ve been tossed out days ago. I had always told the forthright truth to my mom. And now I worked to deceive. I sidestepped:
“Mom this is hard for me too.” I ached for a return to the days of warm conversation, a give and take, a sharing of ideas. “I just want you to get the help you need and not pretend everything is okay.”
“But you can’t make me stop being in denial!” Her tearful words illuminated and pierced. I wanted to snap back, but I knew that would not remove us from this snare of misunderstanding.
I hesitated at the foot of the bed. My mother lay down, pulled the quilt up to her shoulders, and turned on her side. “I know,” I answered, and tucked her in.
Yesterday I looked at a picture of my mom from just four years ago. Her face is full and her hair is the dark brown that she dyed it to be. Not long after the picture was taken, she decided to let her hair go gray. I was so proud of her for that. No more pretense: her hair became a silver crown.
Today my mother moves along down the sidewalk. She’s smaller than me, folding in on herself more each time I see her. I think of the Easter lilies I buy every year, eager for their showy display. I know the blooms will not last, and yet, as the flowers close in and bend down, I yearn for a return to their brilliant newness, when all were drawn to their perfume and the spotless white of their flower. But when the flowers turn the color of parchment and the green leaves become yellow and dry, I will bury the bulb in my garden and wait for the coming green.
Ellie Wendell is a homeschooling mother of two who are growing up much too fast. She enjoys writing to make people laugh or think something new, but is most content when it helps them not feel alone. She writes about grief and hope, and tries to follow Frederick Buechner’s command to listen to her life.