She begins her hourly dance. It takes her ten steps until she can fully straighten her legs. She over-balances forward and threatens to fall into his arms. He slows the pace of his retreat as she finds her center and in a minute they have completed their circuit of the carpeted expanse. Daniel gently lowers Faith into the chair where she began. He puts the finishing touch to her blanketed lap with a gentle tuck and hands her a floppy stuffed cat. A sideways shuffle left brings Daniel before his next partner. With a soft Romanian-accented invitation, “Come on, Iris. Let’s dance.” Daniel smiles and takes Iris by both her knobbed and stiffened hands and pulls her from her chair…
At 11:30am sharp, we pulled up to the foster home. It was the appointed time to pick up Mom for her weekly Wednesday trip to see Linda at Riley’s Beauty Parlor. It was also the last. For sixty years, you could know when Riley’s was open for business by the giant ring of Phyllis’ keys hanging from the door lock, where they would dangle until she closed and locked the door at five. After this Wednesday, it was a door that would open no more. Ladies with a taste for tight curls, sculpted and hair-sprayed into a helmet that would weather the rigors of cooking and housework for a full week between appointments, have become few and far between. Beauty operators with the chops to effectuate these industrial-duty friseurs are fewer still. Sometimes doors close the last time and forever.
As we lightly knock and step into the foster home, we can see that Faith is home today. (She is always there, but not always home.) Today her eyes follow us into the room. There is a ghost of a smile as her hands reach out for a double-fisted grip of silent welcome. Her beautiful eyes say it all. They must. Her lips, her tongue, her throat lack the flow of words to fuel them. On the days when Faith is not at home, she sits and stares at her hands in her lap, ignoring her floppy cat. Or, more correctly, the eyes point at the hands in the lap. The use of the personal pronoun implies a person in attendance. Some days Faith is not home. But today is a good day. Faith is home today.
Mom sits in the fourth recliner. She’s the bossy one. The princess. And, according to her, the saint.
Iris is a singer. All the verses of every hymn rise up from a throat unused to the mundanities of secular speech. Start a song, she is suddenly awake, upright and singing. Her vocal coach, is rumored, was a fallow pasture’s rusty gate: too few visitors to give the moving parts exercise. The song creaks to a close as she settles back silent again into her chair.
Esther runs hot and cold. Cold, she sighs and stares into a melancholic present. Hot, she’s ready to dance. Esther does not need to be lead in the dance. She dances all on her own. Eyes aflirt, her speech a rapid-fire torrent of verbs and indeterminate pronouns punctuated by the soft susurrus of laughter. “…once he told me to do that. In them days it was all like that, you know. ‘Course, you might not remember. It wasn’t long before she came in with a whole stack them things to be dealt with, and none of us knowin’ where to begin. It’s hard sometimes…”
Rachel is the newest member of the circle, having joined the household just a week before. She is already showing remarkable improvement, having progressed from incessant plaintive wailing and occasional violent outbursts. She now sits quiet and content, completing crossword after crossword with random letters and symbols of her own devising. Daniel asks, “What’s my name?” between his dances with the other women. “My name is Daniel”, he explains for the millionth time. Clare and Daniel have a real gift for rescuing these drowning souls, for bringing them smiling back to the surface and keeping them afloat for whatever brief time is left
Mom sits in the fourth recliner. She’s the bossy one. The princess. And, according to her, the saint. I first met Mom (more precisely my mother-in-law) when I was 15 years old. I had come to pick up her daughter for our first date. She watched me through the living room curtains and decided I was acceptable because of the way I folded my fringed leather vest and hung it over my arm before coming to the door.
When Liz and I had been married for thirty years, Mom and Dad moved into a little apartment we built for them attached to our house. In four short months, Dad was dead (brain cancer), and Mom spent the next ten years of her life with us, in and out of grief, as her mind slowly melted away.
Some days she forgets her husband. Some days have no words, only constant searching, straining, compelled to give voice to a thought or feeling only to have that feeling swallowed by the overwhelming frustration of lost language. Some days it’s all German.
First came forgetfulness. We all have that at times. Then the imagined convoluted stories. Mom was missing a gold bracelet. She swore a distant acquaintance had stolen it. Mom said she called the acquaintance, accused her and insisted she send it back. Supposedly, the acquaintance returned it via UPS, whence it was stolen from our porch by a passing florist. Who laughed cruelly at Mom when she went to fetch it back. Mom would not be dissuaded. Liz called the acquaintance (delicate), UPS (awkward) and the florist (just plain embarrassing). Nope, nope and nope. Six months later, Liz found the bracelet stashed under the silverware.
Mom came into the room, naked from the waist down. “Mom…” She looked down and burst into a belly laugh. Giggling, Liz returned with her to her bedroom to help her into a fresh diaper and pants. Once, we found her standing in her kitchen, tearfully staring at a cup in one hand and a teabag in the other and having absolutely not the foggiest idea of what they were or what to do with them. It was becoming clear that Mom was in need of full time care and supervision. We decided to move Mom into a foster home with four other women struggling with dementia under the caring eyes of Clare and Daniel. The day we dropped Mom off, now a year ago, Clare told us to take a vacation. When we came home a week later, Mom had no memory that she had ever lived with us. Some days she forgets her husband is dead. Some days she forgets her husband. Some days have no words, only constant searching, straining, compelled to give voice to a thought or feeling only to have that feeling swallowed by the overwhelming frustration of lost language. Some days it’s all German, which Liz and I speak. Daniel and Clare do not.
This day, we’re taking Mom to Riley’s. We pull Mom to her feet. “Where are we going?” “To see Linda, Mom. We go every Wednesday.” I lift Mom’s arm as Liz maneuvers her hand through the sleeve. “Are you coming, too?” “Yes, Mom.” (Linda doesn’t want Mom in the beauty parlor alone anymore. She has more than once tried to escape, and once socked Linda in the eye while trying to keep her under the dryer.) Second arm in. “Where are my hand-shoes?” (German again – hand-shoes are gloves.) “Right here in your pocket, Mom, right where they always are.” (Unless you find them sometime when no one is looking and stash them under your pillow or behind the dresser or in the medicine cabinet.) Getting ten old fingers into a pair of ladies’ gloves is no mean task – and no task at all for the impatient. Mom’s stubborn sense of style would never permit mittens. “Where is my geh schteck?” (German again – a go-stick is a cane.) “Where are we going?” “To see Linda, Mom. We go every Wednesday…”
Liz holds Mom’s arm as I rush to open the car door. It’s silly to rush. There are long minutes negotiating the twenty-foot journey from Clare’s front door to the car. Liz spins her one-hundred-eighty degrees, takes the geh schteck, and coaxes Mom’s knees to bend, holding her arms so she doesn’t drop too hard into the seat. Each micro movement requested, explained, cajoled and finally executed, sometimes by Mom herself (victory!), sometimes by Liz taking the misunderstanding joint in hand and manually eliciting compliance. Liz passes me the seat belt, which I make fast in the buckle. Mom watches in wonder as this miracle of technology and teamwork transpires. She checks that Mom’s feet are clear, closes the passenger door, then hops in the back. I take a left out of the drive, another left at the end of the street, and we are finally on our way to Riley’s.
“Br-r-r-r!” Mom shivers. She always says b-r-r-r as if she is cold, even when it’s hot. It is her universal utterance in response to any change of environmental state. Mom keeps up a running conversation as we traverse the countryside between McMinnville and Carlton. “Those are the good ones.” (Hazelnut orchard.) “I’ll buy you that red.” (Truck for sale.) “Sensodyne.” (Speed limit sign. She always says Sensodyne whenever she sees any word beginning with S.) “Clouds.” (Just clouds.) “Those are the good ones.” (More hazelnuts.)
I wait at the coffee shop for the hour that Liz and Linda are busy keeping Mom in her seat and under the dryer. Linda is a saint. All of her patrons are in the same boat, on their last slow paddle down the river of life and into the vast ocean of whatever comes after. They go with immaculate hair. Linda, already in her seventies, retires as of today. St. Peter will soon mark the sad decline in feminine grooming among the new arrivals at The Gates.
Liz calls, I head back to the car. Coat, hand shoes, give her the geh schteck, walk, take the geh schteck, sit, seat belt, door, drive. You know the routine. Mom does not. It’s all new to her. Only the eternal now. Om mani padme um. We head for Dairy Queen. We used to go to La Ramble for shrimp. “I love shrimps (sic).” She loves shrimp, chocolate, ice cream, french fries, flowers and popcorn. Mom would sit, plowing happily through a dozen jumbo garlic prawns. Until the day she missed some shell, turned and spit it across the restaurant. Now we only do drive-through. We get a couple of sundaes. Chocolate today because Mom’s wearing brown. We drive to Wortman Park, where we sit and eat and watch squirrels through the windshield. The squirrels are having a busy day. Mom is interrupted midway twixt cup and lip and gestures with a full spoon splat against the inside of the window. Before we can get it cleaned up another spoonful sails into Liz’ hair. Every chase, chatter, scramble and spring sends another glob of runny ice cream wrapped in formerly-hot fudge flying across the interior of the car. By the time we wrestle the dish and spoon from her hands, the interior of the car looks like a Willy Wonka war zone.
Drive. (Senior-care kickstarter: windshield wipers for the inside.) We get back to Clare’s. Park, door, seat belt, stand, geh schteck, walk, geh schteck, hand shoes, coat. Just in time for Doctor Oz. Mom’s own doctor, Doctor Spock, Doctor Scholls, Doctor Phil, Doctor Pepper, Doctor Kildare, Ben Casey, Marcus Welby and Doogie Howser. All concatenated, confabulated, condensed and contained in one epic, square-jawed romantic ideal: Doctor Oz. Five ladies in Lazy-boys lean into the wide-screen smile for another blissful pre-nap hour with the good Doctor. It’s a good thing he is protected behind glass. You can slice the sweet memories of pheromones with a scalpel. “Goodbye, Mom.” “Aren’t you staying for Doctor Oz?”
Beauty parlor. Shrimp at La Rambla. Ice Cream. What will be the next thing crossed off the list? What will be the last? When will you cross the first item off your list? Or have you already? In two weeks, her roots will show white. In three months, she’ll be two-thirds white. One haircut after that and she will not even know that her hair ever had any color at all. “Goodbye, Mom. See you maybe Friday.” Friday. Maybe.
Peter Crockett is a graphic designer, writer and pretty-good guitar player. He and Liz, his wife of 40 years, are enjoying their long coast into retirement on a small farm outside of Carlton, Oregon.