She arises when daylight penetrates her bedroom. She has slept fitfully, frightened by nightmares, noises, rambunctious cats, barking dogs. She thinks someone entered her home late in the night, stole something; she’s not sure what. Fifteen years ago, the home she lived in was burglarized. So she hides her purse under her bed, takes off her gold wedding band, places it in a shoe. Hides the shoe. Every evening, she props a chair and wastebasket up against the front door. Closes windows and pulls draperies tight. Waits. Worries.
She dresses simply: a short-sleeved cotton pullover with a scoop neck (the only style neckline she has worn for decades), soiled gray polyester slacks, knee highs with runs, black canvas slip-ons. No underwear. Her wig is matted, her dentures loose.
She comes from wealth and prominence: her father was a prosperous farmer and real estate owner, her mother, a socialite and scholar. She went to private schools, rode thoroughbred horses, drove a Packard. She married three times, the third lasting thirty-four years; she’s been widowed nineteen. She had four children; one son died twenty-three years ago. She hasn’t remembered him for three, maybe four years. She doesn’t remember the names of the three remaining children, or that she has children, or that she ever married. When asked her own name, she appears confused, embarrassed; she’ll look away. More and more, she replies with a shake of her head, a giggle. Days, months, years, seasons and holidays hold no meaning for her, and she no longer inquires about them.
She often recalls her father and mother. She speaks of them in present tense, and thinks they have recently traveled to this home 3,000 miles from where she was raised, from where they lived and died, more than forty years ago. Family photos punctuate the walls of her bedroom. She cannot identify one person in them, not even a younger self. She remembers that she rode horses, and once sailed on a ship from Portland to Boston. She doesn’t remember that she lived along the East Coast in various villages and suburbs and cities, that she was fashion model, or had a good job at a large hotel in NYC, that she traveled on subways, and was never mugged; made love, read mysteries, cooked dinner every night, baked Christmas cookies and pies and birthday cakes; lived in a high-rise with a Manhattan view, shopped at Macy’s, danced to Lombardo and watched Lawrence Welk; read stories to her children, caressed her grandchild, voted for Nixon, played the piano, knitted afghans, wrote poetry, and reminisced ad nausea about her childhood; that she saw a UFO, two ghosts, and had premonitions that always came true.
Nothing works anymore, she quietly complains. She thinks her TV is broken; it’s unplugged. The microwave puzzles her; she hides things inside it. Her uses the refrigerator to store kitchen towels, broken knickknacks, garbage bags, bracelets. She forgets to close its door and ants get in and travel up. She removes food containers from the freezer and places them in dresser drawers or under her mattress. A Lean Cuisine entrée makes a solid bookend, until it thaws, softens, leaks.
She identifies three cats and a graying, arthritic toy poodle as “my children.” Usually. She mistakes one cat lying on her bed for a man, becomes frightened. Why is the man lying there? Why won’t he leave? She talks to the dog and believes he responds. His is the one name she still holds firm in her mind: “Tommy says . . .” One day the dog’s back blistered, and his fur fell out in chunks. Something toxic or scalding had spilled on him. A bald scabby patch marks the spot. She touches the spot and asks what happened. Who knows?
She sits on the sofa, chattering and pointing, the poodle tucked in next to her. Dysphasia prevents her from completing sentences or making sense. She seems content, almost happy. She doesn’t need diapers, and she doesn’t wander. Yet.
A woman comes daily and brings her food. She is always surprised to see her, and greets her with a smile, a hug and a kiss. She doesn’t realize the woman is her daughter, but tells her, “I love you.” Habit. Occasionally, she calls this woman “mother.” The woman brings her breakfast and dinner, leftovers from her own meals, cans of Ensure, yogurt, cheese and chocolate. The woman checks to see that there is toilet paper, that the bed sheets and blankets are still in place and unsoiled, that water and food is available for “the children.” The woman scoops out the cat litter box, kills the ants, removes the garbage. Bundles up the laundry.
The woman sits on the sofa next to her mother with the TV on, volume turned up, the noise of it and her mother’s babble blending. The woman looks at her mother’s face and sees her own reflection. Momentarily. She says nothing that expresses the sorrow and fear she feels; says nothing about her activities, her accomplishments, her joys, her sense of loss; tries hard to repress her anger, and show patience. To understand and accept remains a goal. She sits there for an hour—or a little longer. She leaves, and nothing remains from her visit.
03 October 1995