For the fifth time this hour, perhaps the twentieth time today, my mother tells me that she should’ve been a dancer. She tells only three stories now, to anyone who will listen, which these days, of course, is only me.
She doesn’t alternate between the stories equally. Or with any sort of pattern at all. I used to keep track of what story came when because I was secretly hoping I could find that she was using the pattern of a sonnet, or a really short villanelle. It was a futile exercise, however. Instead of students of poetry, she could be studied by students of physics, as the perfect perpetual motion machine, an example of ever-increasing entropy that never burns itself out.
The first story entered her repertoire before we had a proper diagnosis. It made me uncomfortable from the beginning, listening to her reminisce about a lover who was not my father. I didn’t even fully tune in the first couple of tellings – I caught that she regretted caring about the difference between dish soap and dishwasher soap, but I couldn’t imagine a more boring distinction, so I simply nodded my head and murmured that I understood.
It was during a trip to the grocery store that I finally did understand. As I stood in the kitchen cleaner aisle, trying to decide between Lemon Fresh and Green Apple scents (the former was on sale, but the latter smells so good), my mother started telling the story once again. But after only a few seconds, she started sobbing. The kind of sobbing that leads to hyperventilation, to hiccups, to other people staring. I put my arm protectively around her shoulders, with one eye on the strangers who wouldn’t stop staring, and told her it would be okay.
“It won’t be okay,” she cried. “Danny was the best thing to ever happen to me, and it was my fault he left.”
Danny. I knew that name. Danny was the man my mother dated throughout her high school years and into college. I actually met him once, when I was a child. That meeting had also been in a grocery store. He was big and burly to my five-year-old eyes. He could’ve been a lumberjack, in his plaid flannel shirt and full beard. The complete antithesis to my perpetually clean-shaven and suit-clad father.
And now, here I was, in a second grocery store, and again I had Danny on my mind, and how he compared to my father.
I asked my mom to tell her story again, and this time, I listened.
She told me of the time they stole away to the Ozark Mountains during junior year spring break. They rented a cabin with two other friends and spent the days hiking and swimming. They planned oatmeal for breakfast and peanut butter pita sandwiches for lunch and four bean chili for dinner. And they realized after only one day that they had no way of cleaning their dishes. So my mother asked Danny to drive down the mountain, into town, to buy dishwasher soap.
Danny was a good boyfriend, who followed directions. She asked for dishwasher soap, and he returned with dishwasher soap. This upset my mother, however, for the cabin they rented did not have a dishwasher, and he should have known that she meant dish soap, the kind you use in the sink with your hands. Frustrated, and perhaps embarrassed that she had mistakenly said dishwasher soap herself, she embarrassed him in front of their friends, until he went back outside, drove back into town, and returned with dish soap.
But when he left the cabin for the second time that day, not all of him returned. My mother points to that day as the day he started pulling away. She didn’t see it at the time, but by the time their break-up came seven months later, she could trace all of their problems back to that day at the cabin. When she had taken something beautiful for granted and so lost it forever.
As she wrapped up her story of her fight with Danny, she reiterated how silly and young she had been, with eyes full of the future, and she said she’d return to that day and take it all back if she could, and I said, “I’m glad you can’t or I wouldn’t exist,” and I was only joking at that point because I didn’t know what she’d say next, which was, “Well, no you wouldn’t, but that shouldn’t bother you because you wouldn’t know you wouldn’t exist.” And I said, “Mom, are you telling me that it wouldn’t bother you that I wouldn’t exist, because if so, then that does bother me.” And she said, “Of course I love you,” and I said, “That doesn’t really answer my question.”
The second story my mom tells is of the time she lost her child. When she relives that day, one would think she lost her only child. And I suppose, because it was her first, if she really is back in that moment, then it was her only child at the time, so I try not to let it get to me.
I didn’t even know about this baby until recently. My mom had never felt the need to share with me a miscarriage she suffered in the first trimester of her first pregnancy. But now, as if to make up for lost time, she tells me again and again.
The baby had a name, Christian, which they would have used whether it was a boy or a girl, though my mother knew it was a boy because they say you don’t get as sick with boys, and she never once threw up or felt tired or had any thought at all other than utter joy at the life growing inside her.
Occasionally, though less and less often these days, her eyes refocus on me, and she sees her child who actually made it to term, and she says, “That’s how I knew you’d be a girl. Never have I gone through such misery as I did during my first three months of pregnancy with you.” And I prompt, “But I was worth it, right?” And she says, “Of course, dear.” Then she’s lost again, wondering what Christian would have been like, looked like, where Christian would be today. Her son, Christian. When her daughter is right here, has been here every step of the way, and just wants her mother to be here, too.
Everyone recognizes this disease as one of loss. One that descends quickly but with precision, stealing parts of your memory, parts of you. But what I find so cruel about what it has done to my mother is the ironic manner in which it chose the parts of her to leave behind.
Three stories. That now seem to be the whole of what comprises my mother.
Although the third isn’t much of a story. Just a sentence really. The thought she returns to most often. That she had always wanted to be a dancer, that she should’ve been a dancer, how different her life would have been if only she had been a dancer.
And so all three stories are stories of squandered opportunities, of missed chances, of regret.
My mother who was no longer exists. All that remains behind is the woman who could’ve been, but never was.
So I have to wonder, is anyone left at all?
Our neighbors have called the cops on us three times so far.
Well, to be precise, the neighbors have called twice and the alarm company once.
The first time was when I was weeding in the back garden about a year ago. Weeding has become my mindless escape, an activity I can turn to that keeps me home so that I’m not far from my mother, that allows me to release a bit of pent-up rage as I pull and effectively kill any plant that I determine not fit to be present in my world, and that results in the most aesthetically pleasing creation I’ve ever had a hand in producing.
But my mother does what she can to interfere. That day, I was gardening, and I heard a neighbor, Mr. Allen, calling from the front yard. As I walked around the side of the house, I looked up and was surprised to see he had my mother by the elbow. He had found her at the entrance to the neighborhood, barefoot but with a winter coat pulled tightly around her dressing gown, despite the summer heat.
I was in the midst of apologizing and offering him a glass of lemonade or water when we saw the cop car pull into my driveway. Mr. Allen declined the drink offer, taking the police presence as his cue to leave.
The cops were pleasant, kinder than I would’ve expected, stating that they simply had to check on the report they’d received of an elderly person in distress. One of the policemen told me his uncle had had Alzheimer’s. “Seems like a tough spot. And I wish you the best of luck.” And with that, my first brush with cops was behind me.
The following Sunday evening, there was a knock on my door. Two men from down the street asked if they could speak to me about their “concerns” for my mother. They stressed the danger she had been in and what might have happened had Mr. Allen not reached her when he did, and they told me they wanted my mother placed in a home or they’d report me to the HOA. They flinched as I laughed. I have no money to place my mother in a home. I cannot afford professional help. I receive a couple hundred a week from Medicaid to take care of her myself, and a whopping 70% of that money goes to keeping the house, and if the HOA had any suggestions, I’d gladly lend them an ear.
Yes, I have thought of selling this house. Not a single offer.
Yes, I’m worried about her, too. She is my mother, and I am trying my hardest.
Now if you’d be so kind as to leave, so that I can get back to taking care of my mother.
The men hesitated, clearly unsatisfied with how little progress they had made in this discussion. One of them finally made the first move to leave, and the second took just a beat longer, looking me in the eye and stating, “This is not over.”
I shut the door behind them and looked at my mother. “No, it’s not over.”
After I had finally put my mother to bed, I called Mr. Allen to ask if he might talk to these men and explain that my mother hadn’t been in danger. Or to simply ask if he had any advice. He told me that he hadn’t minded helping my mother, but that he wasn’t interested in getting involved in any neighborhood disputes. He mentioned that a co-worker’s mother had Alzheimer’s, and that it seemed tough, and he wished me the best of luck.
Three days later, I got a call from Social Services. A woman with a kind voice, even considering the circumstances, explained that she was responding to an anonymous tip concerning possible elderly abuse. She wanted to come by the next day to follow up.
I had trouble sleeping that night, more so than usual I mean, my mind racing with possible scenarios of what was to come. The meeting, however, turned out to be the most positive interaction I had had with anyone in months. The Social Services woman seemed to know immediately that there was no abuse occurring, that this was simply a sad case of two people doing their best with the hand that they were given, and that there was nothing Social Services could do to improve the situation. As she got up to leave, she told me that her grandfather had had Alzheimer’s, that she knew it was tough, and that she wished me the best of luck.
Then she stopped. And she asked me if I had heard of the Alzheimer’s Association. She wrote down their website on the back of her card and implored that I check it out.
I did, later that night, after my mother had gone to bed. It was heartening at first to see that there were other people out there in my exact position, but then I realized that I was still stuck in my same position, and I decided I didn’t really foresee any relief coming from this association at all. Before closing the site, however, I took note of a single piece of advice that I would follow the next morning.
And so upon waking, I called an alarm company and requested that they install the most basic system available. I submitted the expense to Medicaid in hopes that they’d see this cost was related to caring for my mother, but they denied the claim.
The day the alarm was installed, I had to pick my four digit code. I looked over my shoulder at my mother and asked, “What’s my birth year?”
“I’m sorry, dear, I don’t believe you ever told me. I’m sure I would remember if you had.”
I faced the punchpad and typed in 1956. And a second time, to confirm.
It took her about seven weeks to get out again. I don’t know how lucid she must have been to not only realize that she needed to disarm the alarm system to exit undetected, but to remember my birth year, and to think to attempt my birth year as the code in the first place. Part of me wishes I had been there to witness it.
Instead, I was taking advantage of her naptime to run to the grocery store. I normally had my groceries delivered, but Safeway had just upped their delivery charge to a minimum of $3.50, and in one small act of defiance, I decided to skip the delivery that week.
I returned home to find Mr. Allen pacing nervously in my driveway, next to the two men from the impromptu neighborhood meeting, two new policemen, and in the middle of all of the commotion, my mother. It took a little more effort to get rid of the policemen this time, though they did escort the two angry neighbors off my property as soon as I asked they do so. They also waited while I called Ms. Stewart from Social Services, and after they confirmed with her that she’d swing by to check up on us again, they finally left.
Mr. Allen brought in my groceries, though all of my refrigerated food was spoiled by that point. And the next day, I paid Safeway $21.97 to bring me $18.47 worth of replacement perishables.
I changed the code to the alarm. I used a random number generator online to come up with the new four digit code, an idea I was quite proud of.
Like my plan to save delivery money, however, it didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped it might. And it only took four days to unfold.
It was about two thirty in the morning, and my mother decided once again to leave. And I don’t know if she typed in my birth year or if she just punched at the pad until she grew bored of it, if she attempted to disarm the system at all, but disregarding the warning that the alarm would sound, she opened the front door and marched outside to greet the night air.
I didn’t wake up until the alarm went off, and then it took me at least a minute to fully process what I needed to do to shut it off. My house phone started ringing as I made my way to the punchpad, and for some reason, I answered the phone before turning off the alarm. The alarm company employee spoke loudly into my ear, asking for the code phrase, but instead of providing the correct answer of “strawberry shortcake,” I shouted, “Mother!” and dropped the phone, racing out the door.
So the alarm company called the police. And as I answered their questions for the third time, I held my mother’s arm in a way that I am ashamed to say created bruises that popped up the next morning. She, in turn, gripped her own hands, wringing them as she fidgeted from one foot to the other and repeatedly asked that we let her go because she was already late. One of the officers finally looked at her and asked, “Late for what?”
My mother stopped, stunned, suddenly uncertain of where she needed to go and perhaps even how she had ended up here.
And as I watched her facial expression change from impatience to confusion to fear, I wondered the same thing.
How did I end up here?
A week after my father died, my mother disappeared for two months.
I was fourteen years old.
I waited until 10 p.m. before calling my grandparents. Who then spent an entire night, a mere four days after putting their son in the ground, calling hospitals in the area to see if his wife would soon be joining him.
I found out years later that she had been in a hospital, just not one of the sort we had called that night. She had checked herself into a psychiatric ward a few hours upstate. Didn’t think to warn anybody. Just drove herself up there one Saturday and drove herself back down eight weeks later.
My grandparents threatened to sue for custody, but once she offered to sign me over right then and there, they backed down, muttering something about a mother, even a sick one, being best for a child.
Perhaps any mother but my own.
But she was the only one I had. Except for those two months, of course, when I
had none at all. And now, when I have only a stranger in a living room.
And at some point soon, she’ll abandon me for the third and final time. I look ahead to that day the way I envision parents look ahead to the day their teenage children will leave home for college. With a sense of excitement for the hours of freedom that will finally be granted, and with a sense of utter dread at the thought of having to fill those hours. Unlike the empty-nesters-to-be, though, I don’t have future holiday gatherings to look forward to, when my house will be filled once again with the people I love. Nor will I have a spouse to lean on when my nights grow long and lonely. The thought of my life after my mother’s death terrifies me as much as the idea of having to face each day that she continues to live.
My mom stops stirring her coffee and asks me if she ever told me the story of how she lost Christian.
In a way, I suppose I lost Christian, too. What a great help he would be right now. He could be the one who gave up his career to care for our mother. Or I could take days but actually have someone to pass Mother off to when evening came and Christian returned home from work. Or, and my heart actually quickens at the thought, as if this were a real possibility, both Christian and I could work, and our combined income would be enough to afford around-the-clock hospice care. An actual professional to take care of Mother. What a life that would be.
Although the thought suddenly strikes me that if my mother hadn’t lost Christian, perhaps she wouldn’t have felt the need to have me. She might have stopped at one child, the way she ultimately did after me.
“I should’ve been a dancer,” my mother says.
Regardless, if she hadn’t lost Christian, everything would’ve been different. Even if she had had a second child, the chances that I would’ve been created are, in all practicality, as close to zero as I could possibly fathom. If anything about my mother’s life had played out differently, I wouldn’t exist.
If she hadn’t lost Christian, I wouldn’t be here.
If she had married Danny, I wouldn’t be here.
If she had been a dancer, I wouldn’t be here.
I wouldn’t be this frustrated.
“I always wanted to be a dancer.”
I wouldn’t be this tired.
“I had the body for it. Everyone said so.”
I wouldn’t be this alone.
“I should’ve been a dancer.”
I wouldn’t be here.
Yes, Mother. You should’ve been a dancer.