My parents’ 43rd anniversary

Aug. 3 is my parents’ anniversary.

43 years of marriage.

My father cues my mother to stand up from her chair:

He takes her hands and says,

“One, two, three, up!”

She looks up at him expectantly,

Wanting to do a good job.

A good Girl Scout, she used to call herself.

Sometimes it takes a few tries

For her to get it.

Finally, she bears down on his hands

And pulls herself to standing.

“Good up,” Dad says, pulling up the waistband of her pants,

Which had slid down.

In their wedding picture,

My father’s tux pants were a couple inches too short.

My mother is wearing the sleeveless straight white dress

That she let me use as a

Halloween costume when I was the

Bride of Frankenstein’s monster in high school.

It’s a color picture

But it’s faded into yellows and greens and grays.

43 years.

Last year we were at a wedding.

My younger cousin and her new husband

Came out of the reception hall

Into the hotel lobby to say good night to

Aunt Marti and

Uncle Bob.

My cousin hadn’t seen my mother in years,

And I watched her wedding smile

Freeze up

As she tried to greet my mother

Who stared unblinking at her for a moment,

And then started fidgeting with her dress.

This is marriage.

A white-haired main leading his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife by the elbow

Into the parking lot of the hotel,

Into the dark spring night.

The script my brother and I wrote

Was that


Would take care of


In their old age.

If you’d known them then,

You would’ve thought the same.

She was the one feeding us vegetables at every meal.

She was the one balancing the checkbook at the dining room table.

She was the one deep-cleaning the oven at night.

God chuckles at scripts like that,

And shores up my father for his

New life.

She did take care of him for many years.

And now he’s taking care of her.

Not always with perfect patience or skill.

But with a

Willingness and a

Devotion that’s a

Small miracle.


Last night of taking care of my mom

It’s my last night of putting


To bed.

Eleven days and nights of caretaking her

For my dad, who’s on a trip.

I haven’t touched her this much since I was a child.

Steering her thin arms with their

Cool, white, wobbly skin,

Anchoring my hand to the only solid part of her left:

The hips and lower back,

Disentangling her clutching fingers from straps and pieces of clothing,

Pulling her pants up the haunches with their empty hanging sacks of skin.

I see things I remember about

Her body

From when I was a child:

A mole on her lower back,

The way her thin hair streaks against the base of her skull when

Pulling a shirt over her head,

The knuckle-knobs on her hands.

We have the same hands:

Long narrow fingers,

Knobby knuckles,

Blue vein tubes leading into the wrists.

I used to press on her hand veins when I was a child

When I was holding her hand.

But at a certain age,

10 or 11 probably,

I didn’t want to

Touch her

Or be touched by her


If I ever handed her something and her fingers,


Would brush against the top of my hand,

I would wipe off her touch on my pant leg.

And now,

Here I am,

Her nurse.

She is easy, as Alzheimer’s patients go.

She is light enough to lift,

And gentle, agreeable, trusting, quiet.

(I am sure I will not be so easy if my mind goes.

I will be heavy and contrary and paranoid and I will

Screech nonsense constantly.)

But still.

It’s been hard.

A dependent child

Seems like a worthwhile investment of energy.

They’re the future of the world, after all.

Investing energy in an elderly dependent parent …

They’re at the end.

It’s just comfort now.

What’s the return?

(The return is for me in the giving, I suppose.

Another tough-love parental gift.)

Giving comfort doesn’t come naturally to me.

I would make an efficient,


Perhaps harsh nurse.

The kind a sick person would cringe at,

The kind who would jerk an injured limb,

Or scrub a wound too hard.

So not only am I touching

And touching

The maternal body I avoided for 25 years,

But I’m trying to be

Gentle and


Yesterday was hard.

She spilled her cereal, juice and milk

On her pants and the floor,

Broken glass.

Lifting the bird-like body in and out of the car.

Mutterings and delusions.

She messed up my plans.

I wanted to go to both


And a 12-step meeting.

But I could only choose one.

This caregiver got one hour off duty.

And driving to yoga,

Alone in the car, I thought,

“You know how people say they won’t want to be a burden to their children?

Well, Mom, you’re a burden.”

But at the end of class,

Sweat-bathed and lying on my mat,

I started crying silently,

My tears mixing with the sweat rolling down my temples into my ears.


Laying her into bed,

I looked into her eyes and said,

“I love you, Mom.”

And her blue eyes focused for a moment and she said,

“I love you, too too.”

And I said, “I miss you.”

And she closed her eyes.

Spending Memorial Day with the living, avoiding the dying

I suppose I should have spent

Memorial Day

With my mother,

If Memorial Day is for


Those who are

No longer with us.

Then, she would’ve been the

Appropriate one.

If you think of a person as a

Sum of three parts,

As I do:




Then at least

One-third of

My mother–

The part centered in her

Atrophied brain–

Is gone forever.


So I should’ve gone over there.

Paid homage to the

Memory of her mind,

And helped my father maintain her

Body and


But I didn’t.

I spent Memorial Day with the

Vividly alive:

My husband,

Our children,

And friends.


And lounging around on plastic lawn chairs

In the sun,

The finally hot sun.

I typically make it a point to

Think of the dead

On Memorial Day:

All my grandparents,

An uncle who died at 10 years old,

An aunt and cousin killed in a car accident,

A cousin who drank himself to death.

Some of them I’ve never met.

But this year of all years,

With one of the


Still available,

I avoided her.

The crispy bones in her back and shoulders

When I pat her in greeting;

The jaw ticking

Ceaselessly back and forth;

The milky eyes watching my nose,

Then my hair,

Then looking past me as I

Talk and smile.

I never want to be there,

With her,

But I’m usually willing to go.


I wasn’t even willing.

This Memorial Day,

I chose the living.

The first memory of Mom

[We’re going to try something, the psychologist said.

Tell me your


Memory of your mother.]

It’s my earliest


Of her.

It’s at our old house,

The dark brown house.

It’s a summer morning.

My mother


Is in the garden in the

Back yard.

And I come out the

Back door,

And I run

Toward her.

I’m probably about four years old.

I am barefoot,

And the grass is

Wet with dew.

The sun is bright and warm.

The sky is completely


The air is still morning-cool

But you can feel it will soon get hot.

I’m laughing

And running past the

Apple trees

Toward Mom,

Who is in the garden.

She is wearing jeans, and a blue t-shirt,

And a bandana triangled around her

Ears and face.

She stands up,

She rises

Out of the garden,

And is smiling at me,

As I run

Toward her.

The sun,

The sky,

The warm air,

The grass,

The trees,

The smell of soil,

It’s all

Awash with


It is


All of it.



[Do you get to her?

Do you reach her?]

I don’t have a

Memory of

Reaching her.

[But what would happen next,

If you could create?]

She would step out of the


She would walk toward me

In the grass

And catch me up in her


We would both be


In the sunshine and air,

Under the leaves of the

Apple tree.

[What would happen next?]

I would say,

“I love you,


[What else?]

Then my


Would be there, too.

And my


It would be the four of us,

And maybe our old collie dog,

There in the summer yard.

[And then what?]

Then her brothers would

Be there.

And their wives.

My cousins.

Her grandson, my son.

Her parents would be

Off to the side,

Next to the house,

In the shadow,

Out of the sun.

They would be watching,

And smiling,

And waving to her.

[Anyone else?]

Her students,


We would all be there,

Crowded into the yard,

Surrounding her.

[What would happen?]

We would

Gather her up

With our hands,

All of us touching her,

And we would

Lift her toward the

Sun and


And she would lay back on our hands,

And she would be



In the

Warm sunshine.


Good for you

For weeping.


My mother’s brain

My mother is dying.

I mean,

We’re all dying,

But her

Brain is



She has dementia,

Let me describe it to you:

[After five minutes of sitting and thinking of how to


My mother’s behavior and words,


Not being

Able to:]

It’s so hard to show.

The words

She mumbles

And the actions of her


(Still manicured, my father sees to that)

Are so


I can’t

Recall them


I would almost have to

Film her

And transcribe

What she says,

And describe her

Actions as I’m watching

To show you how she is.

My brain,

It would seem,

Likes events and words to

Make sense.

And almost nothing

My mother does

Or says

Makes sense.

Her failing brain

Confounds my


My memories of her,

Even from a few days ago.

Me and her,

We’re all tossed together

In some weird



You can’t


Get pulled in

When you’re around her.

Listening to the mumbling,

Watching the fumbling hands,

You start to wonder,

“Is this normal?

Has it always been like this?”

Next time,

I will try to

Describe her Alzheimer’s.

This time,

My brain feels too