Sometimes late at night, after all my energy for thinking is spent, I sit alone and watch the shadow of my hand on the wall. I make a slow prom queen wave, a voila! turn of the wrist, a hula-like flutter and sweep, and I stare at the effect of my gestures in stupid fascination, becoming for the moment a child or a madwoman. Death feels close, and I’m aware of my past stretching out farther behind me than the unknown future extends ahead. Invariably, I begin to think about my mother.
My mother is both child and madwoman, all the time. She doesn’t know what day it is, or what she did one minute ago, or even the names of the few friends who still call or stop by to visit. She gets angry at the trees for dropping their leaves in autumn and can no longer understand why it’s a bad idea to share her chocolate bar with the dog. Dementia has wiped out most of her past, leaving behind a shell of personality that exists in a perpetual, baffling present.
She still recognizes me, however, and when I appear at her little house in the country, where she’s determined to stay, she’s hungry for my attention and approval. Every few minutes, she urges me to admire a large doll perched on a table in her living room. It’s a blond-haired, blue-eyed poppet, dressed in a smart gray coat and a velvet-trimmed hat—an expensive collectible for adults, not really a toy. “Have you seen my new doll?” she asks again and again, like a proud little girl. Yes, I have seen the doll. I gave her the doll. Or, to be more precise, I gave it back to her.
I’ve never liked those aggressively pretty fashion dolls. When I was a child, their perfectly fixed, glittering gaze scared me a little, and I didn’t understand what they were for, other than to make fat, freckled girls like me feel ugly by comparison. But my mother, who grew up in poverty, has always loved them, coveted them, in all their sparkly allure. I was in my thirties when, in the time-honored way of a certain sort of mother, she gave me the thing she actually wanted, certain I’d be thrilled by her generosity. I accepted the doll in that spirit and kept it in a closet for twenty years, resisting many times the impulse to dump it at Goodwill. I feared she might ask to see it, and then what would I say? After Alzheimer’s had destroyed her memory but not her delight in gifts and dolls, I was relieved to return it to her, its rightful owner. Now the jewel-eyed little blonde is her prized possession.
We have a complicated history with dolls, my mother and I. Throughout my childhood, she denied me the ones I wanted—the rag dolls, the black dolls, the trendy Barbies—while showering me with baby dolls and pretty, pink, porcelain dolls that appealed to her. There were regular eruptions of mutual fury and disappointment between us. She, of course, no longer remembers this war of the dolls, and though the fight was long ago put to rest, I still sometimes find it hard to accept that my opponent no longer exists. I can’t find her anywhere in the sweetly vague woman who is my mother now.
When I think about what’s become of that other mother, that loving, needy, difficult mother, I sometimes feel sick with grief, as if some monster that feeds on time and memory has shredded and devoured her. But in reality there’s nothing awful or even particularly tragic about the mother who sits happily beside me on the little blue couch, close enough to touch the precious doll perched on the end table. This mother is aging, shriveling, shrinking, becoming unrecognizably old, but she still smiles her own smile, the one I knew long ago, and when it overtakes her face, the present collapses into the past. Like the Cheshire cat, she becomes that smile. It contains all she was and is.
But there remains, as ever, the faintest hint of something not quite happy in my mother’s smile. These days that unhappiness looks to me like fear, a lurking anxiety that never lifts. When I was a child I read this darkness behind her smile as sorrow, perhaps because I couldn’t accept the idea of my chief protector being afraid. There were plenty of things in our lives to fear then—my father’s alcoholism, his erratic behavior and occasional bullying chief among them. But my father is long dead, and it’s hard to grasp what fear might still haunt her. She expresses no worry about anything. The confusion that sometimes unsettled her early in her mental decline doesn’t trouble her now. Even existential dread seems beyond her.
I wish I could say the same. When I sit alone on those late evenings, watching my hand shadows, I can feel my whole past alive within me, existing all at once as the totality of my self. I am my memories, and they feel utterly essential. At my age—55—the fear of death is no longer abstract. It visits often and terrifies me by promising the disappearance of that constellation of thoughts, impressions, and recollections that equals me.
And yet, when I look at my mother, this notion of my identity crumbles. For all the memories she’s lost, my mother absolutely does not lack a sense of self. On the contrary, it’s the one thing about her that seems completely intact. The distinction between who she was before dementia and who she is now is a rift I perceive. She doesn’t appear to sense it at all. She’ll say things like “I’ve always loved food,” even though, if asked, she usually can’t name any of her lifelong favorites. She’s quick to acknowledge her characteristic quirks—“You know how I am”—and still frets over her clothes and makeup, concerned as ever with the way she looks to a world she can no longer navigate on her own.
When we revisit the family pictures she’s looked at countless times over the years, she often misidentifies or simply doesn’t recognize the people in them, including her siblings and her children. But she never, ever fails to recognize herself. One day she became fixated on a photo of her feeding cake to my dad at their wedding. She remarked disapprovingly on her dress and noted, as she often does, how painfully skinny she was as a young woman. Then she pointed to my dad.
“Well, I guess he was hungry,” she says, laughing. I can tell she doesn’t know who the man in the picture is. That’s Dad, I tell her. That’s your wedding cake. She looks slightly appalled, then bewildered.
“Oh, no,” she says. “I didn’t marry him.”
In fact, she married him twice. Theirs was a long, tumultuous union, with a two-year divorce inserted in the middle. But I don’t correct her mistake. I draw her attention to a different picture, and as she chatters on about it, I look at her thin legs, clad in purple knit pants. Her top is purple, too. Purple is her favorite color. Just as she fought with me about the dolls, she fought with my father for decades over her fondness for purple. He hated it in every shade, and she mostly eschewed it out of deference to him. Now she wears this same purple outfit almost continually. As with the doll, she’s lived long enough to have her way. She’s outlasted all opposition and become the winner by default, though she’s past taking any pleasure in the victory. Now she only knows her delight, and it comes to her free of any discord from the past.
The loss of memory is so awful a prospect, yet memory is, at best, a mixed blessing. It’s a source of torment as often as pleasure, the place where pain and loss reside. Grudges live there, and so do shame and regret. My mother, as far as I can see, is relieved of all those things. The deprivations of her childhood, her difficult marriage, the baby she lost, her thwarted dream of a singing career—all gone now. No memory means no grieving. And yet, there is still that disquiet behind her smile. There remains some unbeautiful mystery in the place she now dwells, something bad that is unknowable to me, unnameable to her.
I keep running up against that something whenever I try to find comfort in my mother’s liberation from her past. It’s so tempting to deny the darkness I see in her, to choose to believe she’s entirely happy, and I’m not sure whether that’s for her sake or mine. Even when I was a little girl battling with her over the dolls, I desperately wanted her to be happy. I realize now that I thought her happiness would make mine possible. My fate was all bound up with hers, and that still feels true. What haunts her haunts me. The darkness is something shared between us, as real as our blood and just as elemental.
The (mostly) sane woman may envy the madwoman, but it’s a false envy, driven by an impossible fantasy of escape. There is no freedom from sin this side of the grave, the Christians say. Likewise, there’s no freedom from suffering. The pain is built in. That’s one thing the sane and the mad share, the one truth I understand more and more, especially when I sit alone, making gestures to the wall.