One of the first times I noticed something strange was when she asked me to show her how to sew on a button. She said she didn’t remember how.
My mother, a lifelong seamstress who’d made custom tailored clothes all her life, was telling me she couldn’t remember how to sew on a button.
One day some time later, she was making kitchen curtains for me but couldn’t remember how to measure the fabric and, another time, I saw the treasured wooden fork my grandmother had brought from Italy burned black as charcoal laying on top of the kitchen counter.
The disease that leaves you not knowing when someone really dies– when the doctor pronounces them dead or when they forget how to sew on a button.
“How about we have a mother/daughter lunch,” I suggested. I had to see what she was like without my father around.
I took her for lunch near my office and couldn’t find a place to park.
“I’m going to let you out here mom, just sit on the bench and wait for me.”
It took five minutes for me to park and five minutes for her to get up and walk away and get lost. Thank God someone had noticed. I found her wandering down the middle of the street.
“Ciao, Melanie,” she said when she saw me, as if walking down the middle of the street not having a clue where you were was normal.
Inside the restaurant she told the waitress she wanted two hamburgers. “Beef is brain food,” she said smiling at me while I sat there wondering what she was really trying to tell me.
Looking back on it now of course, I know.
We drove her to the nursing home; me and my dad and my mother’s horrible lonely suitcases that were supposed to be going with her on a trip to Italy someday not on a trip to nowhere. They brought her inside and put her in skilled nursing. She needed 24-hour observation. Then they took her dentures away.
“She’s on a soft diet anyway.”
My mother, the glamour queen turned toothless hag overnight.
Her hair got greasy and gray and they put stupid little socks on feet her instead of shoes and got her clothes mixed up with somebody else’s and when I went to see her she looked at me with glass eyes and I thought it was probably good that she couldn’t see herself out of those same glass eyes — I’m sure I would have seen tears in them.
One day, before she was diagnosed, when she was still living at home I’d found a small potted plant on the front porch. There was a scrap of paper attached to it with a seamstress’s straight pin in the characteristic way my mother would attach invoices to her customer’s finished dresses.
“I may be little,” the note said, “but with the proper sunshine and water, I’ll make it.”
That was when I knew she knew. When I saw her prayer — not a prayer for a struggling little plant — but a prayer for her own struggling little self.
For years I would cry every time I thought about that note.
After a decade in the nursing home, when the call finally came and I was out of State when she died, it was okay with me. How could seeing my mother dead in a bed in a nursing home with a morphine drip in her arm make me understand more deeply her anguished hope for survival?
With her actual physical death– the death that came from leaving her starved because she couldn’t remember how to swallow food–I felt relief. Relief that it was over and that wherever she was, she would be able to sew on buttons all by herself again, measure curtains again, or eat all the hamburger/brain food she wanted to eat again.
After years of struggle, after years of dying a little bit every day in some strange little way, she’d be getting all the proper sunshine and water she needed and neither one of us — neither me nor she — would ever have to cry for her again.