By: Robert Lesher
Robert lives, with his wife Jana, in Fullerton, California, in the house that he was raised in. He was a journalism major throughout high school and university. He has had poetry published in The Cathartic, Voices International and Electrum magazines. For the past forty-plus years he has been a professional musician, within the blues idiom, living in Southern California and on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In 2009, he was inducted into the Victoria Music Hall of Fame, in British Columbia, Canada, along with the rest of the band he was in, circa 1970-74. He has been with the same band, Tupelo Blue since 1995 and wrote lyrics and melody lines for 14 of 15 tunes on their self-titled CD, released in 2000 to excellent reviews in LA Jazz, and Blues Revue Magazine.
“I feel my music and writing complement and inspire each other to various creative levels”
My Grandfather is immortal to my mother; an early-century man, a barrel-chested railroad engineer who drove huge post-war Buicks. Anytime my Mom speaks of him, in any context, she is really celebrating him.
“Dad…..Dad.” She calls for him as I lead her down the hallway, towards the kitchen for her breakfast. “Daddy.” He is still her divine protection. Although he has been dead for forty-some years he has stayed on as her only real memory, the only strength she consistently retains.
I’m learning the art of walking backwards, facing my Mom as I steer her through the house. She leans back, bending her knees. It is a resisting crouch so I practically have to pull her. I am the tractor. My mother is the trailer with two flat tires.
She frets about taking steps. Her right knee is bone to bone and it hurts. I know that. The complaint is valid, but anything else could be just as much some shadowy illusion or some un-choreographed play for simple attention. It has no reference or logic. It’s part of the illness and nothing beyond that.
This thing meanders in and out. Also, because it appears to be so non-physical, I’ve heard some refer to my mother’s dementia as being a soft disease. There is no call for dripping tubes, shots of morphine or big, halogen-lit surgeries. It doesn’t eat livers, colons and vocal chords. There seems to be no unremitting pain that will eventually gag life away. Instead, it freezes dignity by collapsing the process of thought. It forsakes the heart and the conscious blessing of a kiss. It turns people into furniture, but never really takes on the responsibility for killing them.
She pushes the cookie away. She doesn’t know what it is. I pick it up, force it gently against her lips and she whimpers, almost fearfully.
My mother’s eyes went translucent the day after my stepfather died, but I am certain the disease had manifested into her, parked itself in the rear of her mind sometime before that. He was her reason, as to why she made precise dinners and would still wash the hallway baseboards on her hands and knees. As long as he lived the skips in her memory seemed to be no more than another distraction of getting old.
It was academic. His death tipped her back, into the blips and prisms behind her eyelids. The thing was there to take his place. She had let on, many times, and over the years, that her admitted weakness was prolonged loneliness. The disease had waited for that moment to intrude forever and fill the blanks in her meaning. Now it had the room to itself, to rise-up and creep around in her. It became established and unimpeded.
But we still had time. Though she could not remember who the president was or exactly how old she’d become, it was in the eight months right after my stepfather’s passing that Mom could still focus, long enough to talk about the grass in the front yard, or take a ride in my car one rainy afternoon.
We drove, in the most roundabout way, over the foothills to the next small town and had cheeseburgers for lunch. She had no idea where she was but she knew this was a pleasant moment, a special and last stop for both of us.
Last Thursday I put on a Sinatra LP. It was the September album when Frank was looking back into his life. My mother’s aura flared lightly as she relaxed away from the dementia. The music still worked, found its way in, and her eyes hummed to the scatter of leaves falling around Sinatra’s voice.
Sunday afternoons were Glenn Miller records and some Wild Bill Davidson. After my stepfather fixed a third martini for everyone, Pete Fountain would play his soft Dixieland across the living room. It rolled up, blending with the orange-yellow sunlight that was now low enough to glow hazy and fan-like through the screen door.
There was talk and chuckles. It was a good time for Mom. Kids went to high school each work day and mothers would drift in and out if each others’ houses to visit and gossip about the Christian Science family who lived down the street.
My step dad was her promise to herself, a safe man who would stay at home and eat every meal she cooked, a guy who wore knitted shirts and groaned when the Dodgers fell
off a two-game win streak. His easy presence was what she had been taught, all of her life, a husband would be. Her passion for a normal marriage was completed by him.
I hold the tip of the spoon against her pursed lips. She looks at my face.
“Help me, Mom. You have to eat.”
Slowly, her lips part and she emits an “aaaaaah” as I tip the spoon in and upward so the syrupy peaches can slide down her throat.
Two years ago she was still edgy enough to want things her way. Even though the dementia had dissected much of her logic at this point, it was not yet the madness and frustration that it promised to be.
She had come to view the sidewalk out front as some straight line back to Marion, Ohio. For her it was a kind of OZ, a place where the pieces still fit together. It was where she was born and raised through high school, where she held a job at Kresge’s and met my real father, who was up from Springfield to find a job after graduation.
By the time I realized that Mom was gone, she was at least six houses up the street shuffling along in her blue sweat suit. “Mom’s out!” I called-out to my wife as I clamored down the porch steps and sprinted across the lawn. I caught-up and stepped in front of her to block her from going any farther.
“Oh,” she said. “Why, where have you been, honey?” Her eyes were twinkling and she grinned. “Is Dad on the train waiting for me?”
“Where are you going, Mom?’
“Well now, I’m going home.” She nodded at me. “My mom and dad are waiting for me. They’ll be worried.”
“They know you are with me, Mom. They know you are safe.”
She was hesitating. Her rhythms began to collide and sputter.
“Mom, they know you’re with me.”
“OK”, she said. She was taking deeper breaths. “OK.” With that, the pep began to drain out of her. “Then, well, I guess so.”
She’d now forgotten why she was even there. All that she knew, from this point on, was that her knee was beginning to hurt and that she was very tired. Her breathing came out in hisses and little whispers. I took her hand. It felt infinite and light, as if I held a small paper bag.
I wake-up earlier and earlier to have more time to myself, just to read the paper at 5 am. To know, at that time, she will not stir until around eight is soothing for me. My anxiousness will pull-back for an hour or so. The strain at the base of my neck recedes as I rest my elbows on the kitchen table and listen to the coffee drip and crackle.
I’ve come to fantasize, and perhaps even believe, that my mother’s ongoing madness is a terminal beast that walks on the ceilings and cartwheels through the walls of this house. There is no respite, no privacy from it. It is a constant buzz of flies in the hearts of the living. Because it cannot be cured, eliminated or even tempered, it has caused me the most vivid of frustrations, to sometimes make me think of my mother in a context that will bother me, in varying degrees, for the rest of my life.
As I prepare her lunch, I anticipate having to fight her, nag and bitch for her to eat it. I know the possibility is constant that she will take four bites and then push the plate halfway across the table. Her expression will go blank, almost static, as it passes through me into another dimension. I slide the plate back in front of her. She fiddles with the spoon for a few seconds and, once again, shoves the plate back across the table.
I immediately realize what is going on here. My chest contracts and my shoulders tighten like thread rod. Within that moment it is past counting to ten in order to re-group, walking outside to take a deep breath. I feel seriously compromised and impotent. The stress spreads out, like bruises within my eyes and every pore and finally pummels in a baritone fire-rage out of my mouth, ka-booming and splattering against the walls.
“Mom, I’m sorry that I yelled. You know I’m your son and that I love you.”
I kneel in front of her, where I’ve just sat her down in the living room. Her tiny legs are covered by a blanket that is pink with cartoonish kitty prints on it. She is smiling, the
same way she did when she would greet me at the front door five or so years ago, when her mind remained switched-on to some degree and I was still working. It was that
positive smile that guided me in, that became etched in me, that said all was OK and I was home. I was her son. It was the clearest of facts and meant nothing could come between us.
Some mornings I am fraught with a dry fear. It settles into the bottom of my stomach like a compressed pile of cardboard. My mother now wets herself because she sleeps so soundly. She is completely disconnected from her urine and defecations. The illness has released her from that concern, as if she moves in a dream above it.
If it is just urination, my senses sigh and calm down a little. It is washable and easy as compared to defecation which is not so transparent. That will stay with me through the rest of the morning, the memory of easing off her diaper, carefully, so a clump won’t fall onto the bathroom floor, the wiping of her poor old behind, red and folded inward.
She is getting smaller. I’m barely five-six but she is so hunched forward that I loom over her. As to weight loss, her doctor doesn’t seem surprised. “Let her eat cookies and full-grade milk”, he says. “Give her ice cream”. He wants me to feed her calories, but I see it as an attempt to keep me busy, to level my fret, my growing awareness that my mother is falling away.
“You are invisible to your mom.” A friend says this, during a phone conversation, as I explain to him that I’d like just ten minutes of coherency from her. Then we could talk and I could be forgiven all of the lies I ever told her, the hurt and worries I brought to her. I wanted my mother to kiss my wounds of guilt one more time and grant me that breath of peace. “She’s past that. Her mind doesn’t even understand itself.”
I’ve never talked to my mom enough. I know some of her history, her most coveted moments, being on her Aunt’s and Uncle’s farm outside the railroad town she lived in. There’s a photograph of her, hand-tinted in watercolor tones. Her dog is sitting beside her. I suppose she is only three or four. She looks like Shirley Temple. But, this is something I’ve always known. It is more of an innocent memory, the kind of perfection all boys will assign to their mothers.
My regret, one of my midnight sorrows when I think of her, is that I never will know her secrets, the things she kept to herself, as to why her hugs were sometimes light and held-back, as to why, most always, she could offer only a nervous chitter of a laugh when I told her that I loved her.
Even now, that chitter, that alarmed look will appear in her dementia-strewn eyes if I say that to her. It is a feeling, some memory so strong that it becomes one of the few things the illness cannot subdue at all. For that reason it represents that something is still there, a faint hope, even amid my regret that I never, not in the slightest, questioned why love has so confronted my mother.
After I get her dressed for the day, I face her towards the bathroom mirror and, with a wetted brush, groom her white hair. She is motionless and resigned as I sweep it back. Her eyes are entirely fixated to her image in the mirror. They are rimmed with a tear-like redness.
Now, more than ever, she is tired. I’ve begun to realize my mother complains and whimpers when she is forced to walk because she thinks she should not be walking at all.
I walk backwards, maneuvering her down the hallway as she grips into my forearms. Her fingernails are long and uneven. They leave marks on my skin. She is bent forward, so much now that she appears only three feet tall. She emits “uuuuh’s” and desperate little whines between her labored breaths. Her discomfort is not just bones grinding together but the fact her connection to this life is no longer making any sense.
Within my thoughts about this illness, I have come up with perceptions and ideas that draw nothing from science or medical journals.
One of these involves the spirit detaching from the physical and going wherever a spirit is set to go. In my mother’s case, it has left but is still tied to an earthly umbilical cord, floating and bobbling in some abortive release. It has left but still must wait for the body to give in.
Every so often, somebody will ask, in a hushed and peripheral voice, if I feel trapped in this situation. I know they will not care for my answer, nor will I, because on the surface it indicates I’ve given into this crap that is my mother’s disease. Even the thought of my reply makes me view myself as a type of sociopath, a completely separate figure who stands away, the flat length of a football field, from all who know me.
I don’t really want the world to know this answer, not even my brother or any close friends. Only my wife can understand me enough to know my response is not so literal or binding. The safest time to say it is late evening, when we finally go to bed. My mother has been sleeping since seven. All of my friends are, most probably, settled in their homes and not concerned about anything I have to say. My brother in Oklahoma is surely asleep.
“Yeah,” I say to my wife. “I feel trapped.” I roll over and she, as she always does, places her hand to my back between my shoulder blades. As I breathe-out I feel some relief, at least for one more day, from the nauseous, little judgments I put on myself for ever thinking this way.
“No, Jesus, in your mouth!” I let out a yell and snatch her hand down as my mother attempts to brush her hair with a loaded toothbrush.
People will sometimes just complain and then hope someone else’s story will be heavier than theirs. It’s so they can sigh a little, feel human and believe, for that moment they might still remain close enough to a real life. That’s all I seem to hear in these groups that meet in semicircles of metal folding chairs in scuffed-up florescent rooms donated by a hospital. Their every manner, every sentence, comes with a long measure of pallid resignation and bland hopelessness.
I went to the meetings two times before I began to itch. People spoke with tears. They leaned forward with the weight of their parent’s illness, the remorse of losing their daily lives to it.
One woman had realized she was spending more time with the shell of her mother than her teenaged children. They resented her tired silences by smoking weed in their bedrooms. They painted their fingernails black and threatened her with thoughts of them getting gothic tattoos and marble implants under their skin as soon as they turned eighteen. She was impelled to surrender the responsibility of her mother in favor of them. She had no other choice and the extra burden of that guilt seemed to pull her off edge of her seat.
Her whine comes up to me. It is like a dry, irritated hum; a mouse squeak. As I wash the sleep from her eyes, dabbing them with a damp washcloth, she closes them and twists her face away. I clean her up each morning before dressing her.
Still, I cannot completely bath the front of my mother’s body. Her breasts, which now hang flat and empty, frighten me. I will scrub her neck and back, even her butt crack and cheeks. But when I apply the washcloth between her legs, just a few inches above her knees, she instinctively clamps them together. I am immediately terrified in the most nightmarish of ways.
I can deal with her poop, be it in her morning diaper or goo on the bathroom floor. I can shove her toothpaste spit down the drain or trim her gnarled toenails without a flinch as she screeches down at me in some delusional horror, but I will not wash her front.
My paranoia is that I’m scheduled for this monster. Not only do I sometimes think about it, I feel others thinking about it even more. I sense right into my wife’s hesitation when I admit to not remembering where I set my glasses. Sometimes she watches me with this subtle speculation that now that the illness has practically finished consuming my mother, perhaps it is beginning to nibble at me.
Leaning against the kitchen counter, I watch her as she takes her pills. Although it runs head-on into my impatience and better judgment, I still try to let her do this as long as I am watching.
My arms are folded across my chest to contain the anxiety that starts to murmur within. Knowing that she probably won’t, I still hope, just hope she will complete the cycle before she attempts to chew the gelatin capsules that are her stool softeners or poke her blue cholesterol pill into the very glass of water she should be drinking to wash it down. It floats long enough for me to say, “Damnit, Mom” and pick it out before it begins dissolving.
I feel deeply offended by my mom, that she does this sort of thing. It is just the common logic of swallowing a pill that I cannot let go on behalf of her. It is the kind of thing that will make me slam doors and yell curses into a bedroom closet so the neighbors won’t hear it.
Pill to mouth. Drink the water. Pill to mouth. Drink the water. It becomes another facet of the daily drill, a motion once taken for granted that is now an event never to be left unattended.
I’ve cried twice in the way that I imagine I will when my mother is completely gone, when her body finally deflates and gives itself back. Yesterday she kept falling asleep as the Travel Channel droned in a kind of parallel with the afternoon heat. I watched her nod down to her left side. The minutes became straight lines, a near silent whirring of seconds, one after another, never going from one to two, just one, one, one, one, one, as if the word depicting the number itself would eventually lose its context within the repetition and become a misnomer without any purpose or meaning.
In this pale world between that one and two I see Mom wander towards mirages of her mother and father. The cat enters the room and looks at her with narrowed eyes in a way that he might view a ghost or some disoriented spirit.
“Oh lord. I need my toes.” She is having a fretful, whinny morning. Her voice quivers with every word as if her eyes are crying through it. I lead her into the bathroom to get her onto the toilet. The right side of her nightie is dark with pee. “Oh my lord,” she moans. Her feet move with little scuffs against the rug. “I need my toes. Where are my toes?”
If there is light beyond death, then perhaps dementia is one form of darkness that directly precedes it. It is without any specific trait, with the exception that it seems to be tailored per victim.
Its only consistency is that it will emerge out from beneath the bed and re-inhabit her each morning as soon as I wake up. I know it will be there and my nose is immediately, an eighth of an inch from the wall. The curve of weirdness sets upon me, bringing grimaces of anticipation and a dread that spin like slow rotor-blades above my every movement.
“Who’s Lloyd, or should I say, who was Lloyd?” My wife is talking to me. She has just walked back into the kitchen after putting Mom to bed. A skillet full of hamburger meat is crackling on the stove and I’m staring into the fridge looking for the one beer I’ve saved from the weekend.
“Lloyd? What, who do you mean, Lloyd?”
“Lloyd. Your mother said he was in the bathroom when I sat her on the pot and then he was coming to bed with her when I was starting to cover her.”
“I don’t know, dear. Maybe it was a boyfriend in high school.” I laugh a little. “ Really, I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t anyone.” I pull the milk out and there’s my beer. She walks to the stove and shuffles the meat back and forth with a big wooden spoon.
I can tell she is pondering this Lloyd thing. The full silence that was once my mother’s knowledge fills in between us as I turn my head and watch her shake the spoon into the pan. “It was somebody,” she says.
As her sleep goes farther and farther in, I think of the dementia as pulling back from her to a point where she is finally left alone to feel some of the lines connect once again. The dreams she has will be of sun-white days, of her parents in midlife when they used to ride the Santa Fe out to visit us in California.
When my mom is sleeping, her face relaxes. Her knees are drawn into an almost fetal fold-up. Even though this is supposed to be a classic position attributed to the disease, it never bothers me. My mother, as long as I can remember, has always slept like this.
“I didn’t do it.” Her answer is bratty and final. She has poured her milk-soggy wheat flakes onto her napkin. Once more I am paralyzed and a routine morning becomes surreal. Already, drops of milk drip-smack to the linoleum floor and a million steam whistles go off behind my eyes and up my ear canals.
She reaches down into the sink and pulls the stopper out. I grab her hand away form it. “Mom, let’s sit down so I can put on your pants.” Now I’m unhooking a steelworker’s clench that she has on the bathroom counter so that I can slowly back her up and sit her on the toilet seat. Her breath is grey and stale. It floats around to me and puffs up to the back of my mouth as I speak. A gag begins to curdle in my throat.
“Oh, my pants?” Again she reaches down and pulls the stopper out. Again, I’m pulling her hand away from it. She starts to claw upward at the mirror as I try to ease her back. Her voice shakes and rises to high pitch. “Now, don’t hurt me!”
I tug her away from the counter. “You’re going to hurt me! Oooooooh, my god! You’re going to hurt me!” In a half-second it has escalated into a fury that seems to blow the walls apart and the roof away.
“Mom, please! I’m helping you sit down! Please, Mom!”
I can only guess that she thinks she is falling into some eternal deepness as I lead her backwards and down onto the toilet seat. It is barely a drop of one foot from her hunched
position but she still pushes back up and emits a quivering vibrato scream. I purse my lips. I bite the inside of my mouth. She yells and heaves, “Oh God! Oh, my dear lord!”
“Mom, look up. Look up at the mirror.” I wet the brush and run it through her white hair. It parts naturally and she looks at herself. She gazes at the image in front of her as the synapses behind her eyes try to re-group.
“Who do you see, Mom? Who’s in front of you?”
“Me,” she says. She pauses. “Well, heh-heh, that’s me. Sometimes it’s me.” I listen to the ceiling fan rattle above us. Her eyes begin to squint deeper at the mirror. She touches her face and then after more pause, she says, “Hello, me.”
A while back I helped my wife clear out a closet in the back room of the house. It held the last of Mom’s clothing, the stuff that would never fit her again: dresses and knit tops that had no more use for her shrinking frame. I quietly handed each piece to my wife for her to place them in a plastic trash bag. Some would go to the Salvation Army. The rest would be just thrown away.
I tried to see my mother in some of these dresses with their tablecloth patterns and the little vinyl belts that were cracked with age. I attempted to draw out the memories of summer vacation days when she wore them and fixed me and my brother peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or maybe tomato soup for lunch.
There is always a quiet doubt that I should take these sort of steps, to accept this one more realization as my mother sits in another part of the house, not knowing the circles are completed and that the rest of her time moves in and out of the dry attachments of old dreams.
My wife knows my silence and she merges with it. She comments in reverent little tones as to a particular cut or design and runs her index finger along a seam of a dress as if she is touching poetry.
She lifts the red pill to her mouth. From the sides of her eyes she watches me lean over her. I am holding a small glass of milk for her to wash it down with. The cat walks through the kitchen to his water dish beside the stove. It distracts her immediately. She sets the pill back onto the table.
“Take your pill, Mom,” I say as calmly as I can for the seventh time.
“Don’t you go outside, honey,” she says to the cat. He pays no attention as he begins nursing the floor in front of the dish. “Don’t you do that, heh-heh. Be a good baby.”
“Mom, here’s your pill. Take it, Mom.” I point to it, push it to the table’s edge with my finger. She looks down at it and shoves it back, pinching it between her finger and thumb. “Come on, Mom. Take it.”
“It’s a rose,” she says, now looking at me directly. Her smile is almost impish. It is mother to son and begins to pull me backwards into a gentle tease that tickles across the top of my head. “It’s a little,” she says, “a little red one. See?”
As I listen to my wife’s breathing lapse into a pattern of sleep, I shift the pillow behind me and reach over to turn the light off. We have kissed each other as we always do.
Night has pulled us away from daytime, the Dali-like presence of my mother, the clutter and shivering confusions that it confronts us with. The darkness is like a wide and straight river with tiny porch lights on each side. My legs go soft as I start to sink in and move with it. I take longer breaths and draw myself into a wistful hum, the sanctuary of those hours that come just before and after midnight.
The street out front is settled and cool. Three long blocks to the southwest is the mainline. I become sleepy listening to the heavy freight trains that run up and down it all night long. I envision the way my mother might have thought of her father, leaning from the high cab of the big engine as he guided it along the tracks, rolling across a quiet Ohio countryside.
She has gone to sleep long before us. Her room is at the other end of the hallway. In my thoughts, I will see the memories she has hidden in her heart come free of the illness, to pour out and gather around her restful face. As if the lines of my mother’s life pass through me, I listen to the trains, the way they glide, low against the tracks in a tight, smooth clatter that seems to stay behind long after they disappear into the night.