I sit with my mother on white wicker chairs in her care home. Like the swallows revisiting Capistrano, Mom always returns to the white wicker, her movement based on time of day, and season. She is seeking warmth from the sun. And though warm today, as we have just walked outside around “her block”, there is no sun. However, light bounces off white and gives the illusion of heat.
“Lots of traffic today,” I say aloud to Mom, watching the residents move along the corridors.
Mom nods her head, as she scrutinizes each resident who passes us. P. is always walking. Thin, with sturdy shoes, P. also owned a little dog, but I’m not sure what happened to him. She is on her third lap, when she bumps into the marketing staff person, accompanying a new resident and family.
Sons and staff are convincing this woman she is in her new home. As the woman enters the hallway, her son magically appears to coax his mother towards her room.
These are the games we play. As family, we don’t always play nice, like our mothers chided, but we play with the best intentions.
P., when encountering all the fuss, looks up and says, “Great, just what we need. Another person living here.”
I nod with a smirk. There are sixty rooms here, about 50 full most of the time.
Just what they need, she means, is another person she has to adjust to, become familiar with seeing, but not remembering.
While this interaction with P. has been taking place, J., one of the few males, is now doing laps. Mother shys away from J., often shooing him away. His blank stares scare her, but other than that, he is harmless, and when I look into his eyes, I see fright in them too.
When J. circles back around, he is now locked arm in arm with R. R. often stops, when I am cranking the Frank Sinatra, as if he too is transported back to a time when life made sense, or at least Frank Sinatra did. I often wonder if he wants to ask Mom to dance, but Mom would chase him away too.
As the strains of New York, New York, kick up in volume, another woman, S. has stopped to ask where Room 43 is, and as much as I have spent time here, have to answer, “I don’t know.”
Its beginning to feel like a parade, as five minutes later, S. has stopped by our sitting area again. Lost, again. She too is tuned in to the music, “I get a kick out of you….”
She overhears Mom, who utters a well-worn line whenever she hears Frank. She will interrupt whatever is happening, and point to the sound, or grab my arm to force me to halt, and say, “Now wait minute…..what’s that sound?”
Mom doesn’t actually mean, “what”, she knows the “what”. It is the sound of her youth, before her disease, before her kids, before Dad.
But she can’t always put her finger on the “who”, in that she can’t name him. Almost as if the naming is sacred, but really the name just escapes her mental grasp.
“Mom, its Frank,” I say.
“Oh, yes, that’s right.”
“Old Blue Eyes?” I ask a knowing question.
Then she gives me a stern look, as if I am speaking down to her, “Of course, its Old Blue Eyes, did you think I didn’t know that?”
S. is standing over us, still confused, looking for Room 43. But it’s clear that she has made a connection to the voice.
“Did you like Frank Sinatra, when you were younger?” I pose to her.
“Oh yes,” she responded.
“Did you ever see him in person?”
“Oh, once or twice, in Chicago and Indianapolis.”
She could have been making this up, but she answered so emphatically. “He was a big part of my life when I was young, but I don’t remember anything anymore.”
“My mouth never shuts up, but my mind doesn’t do anything.” S. sighed, and walked away. She really hadn’t given herself enough credit. That was more than I will probably recall.
The parade continues this day, reminding me of the Italian social tradition of passegiatta, where folks would come out in the evenings, following dinner, and promenade around the piazza. Mothers looking for activities for their youngsters, older gentlemen deeply engaged in the day’s or world’s events, young men looking to impress the young girls, and young girls pretending not to care. There is an art to this act of strolling, depending on who you are.
Mom instantly rises because she hears a noise, and walks around the first corner, then the next, and spies her singular moment of recognition in the past hour, a poster that contains the Ten Commandments of Health Care, as practiced by the center. She is drawn to the swath of blue ink at the bottom of poster, and always is fascinated by its odd shape, a hill irregularly sloping downward.
“What is this?” she asks, tracing the line with her finger.
I shrug. She shrugs.
“C’mon Mom, let’s walk,” and I nudge her away from the only thing in this hallway anchoring her to the present.
We rejoin the lappers, making their rounds, adding their voice to whatever conversation makes sense to them. Here, the passegiatta, though it happens a bit earlier in the day, is its own art, demonstrating to others, I am still here, convincing the self, I am still me.