Monday, January 1, 2018

Love and Memory

by Hilary Reyl

Before her dementia, my mother was the rational one among us.  As the daughter of a psychoanalyst, she had learned to indulge the emotional outpourings of others. I have endless memories of her on the phone to her friends, asking leading questions, providing supportive, feminist responses.  But I cannot recall hearing her confide.  Her manner and vocabulary were so straightforward that there was nothing confused or needy about her.  She had no place for histrionics in herself.  I supposed she didn’t think her own emotions would be particularly interesting to others.  Yet I longed to know them.  

The author and her parents.          photo credit: Joanne Leonard
When she met my father in the early 1960’s, he was suffering from throat cancer and had been given three months to live, a reality she successfully denied.  She acted as though it were the doctors’ job to be conservative and hers to keep life moving along.  Buoyed by her stubbornness, and soon by two daughters, my father lived on for thirty-four years.  Having lost his voice to the cancer, he spoke in a whisper that sounded like static to the untrained ear.  Only my mother, my sister and I could understand.  We translated for him to the outside world.

When our mother talked about the early touch-and-go years when my father was in and out of surgery, she did not discuss passion, but neither did she discuss duty.  She let the fact of her loyalty speak for itself.  It was left to my sister and me to overlay her story with our own considerable romanticism.  We told it to each other as a miracle, a leap of faith, an epic of sacrificial love.  But these were our own notions. Our mother made it clear that she was not a nurse, and that our father had to care for his own wounds in private.  Ours was not a sick person’s house.  We had a disabled father, like we had a pianist father and a Chinese scholar father.  She did not indulge in any cult of victimhood.

Our mother was realistic about the fact that she would be the family breadwinner.  Once my father had exhausted a series of academic grants allowing us to vagabond through Europe for a few years, we moved back to start middle school in Pasadena, California. It was decided that my father would be the parent at home. My mother would support us and make sure we had health insurance.  Since she was a visual artist, she said she wanted to use her eyes; she turned to cytotechnology, screening cells under a microscope for signs of cancer.   She trained for two years and went on to work for twenty-five.  

When my sister and I told her we felt guilty that she had to spend her days in a lab instead of an artist’s studio, she replied that we shouldn’t worry about her: if she’d had the burning desire to be an artist, she would have found a way.  Others had: she mentioned Toni Morrison, writing all night surrounded by babies.  It wasn’t our fault that she didn’t have such ambition.  She said this with a smug optimism, pleased with herself for coming up with an airtight, logical argument.  Her smile was unassailable.  She was fantastic at strategy games, even though she said she didn’t care about winning.

My sister and I were sometimes frustrated that our mother didn’t have more ego.  Seeing how smart she was, we felt she could have been “somebody”: a big lawyer or a judge, maybe, or an art director or bestselling crime novelist.  But she liked to read crime novels, take baths, and help people.  

She helped found an alternative school to combat segregation in the Los Angeles school system.  She went to Guatemala to screen pap smear slides because cervical cancer was the leading cause of death for women there.  She talked her friends through endless troubles and joys.  She nurtured my sister and me with beaming pride and her conviction that we were wonderful.  Once we were off to college, she opened our house to groups of Central American refugees.  She went to Ohio during the first Obama election to help people get to the polls. 

When our father died, he left a letter asking for his ashes to be scattered in a stream in Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierras--his favorite trout fishing spot.  He died in January, 1997.  We had to wait for the snow to melt to drive up to Yosemite with our mother, our fiancés and our father’s two best friends.  The night before we left, our mother stayed up all night, sewing silk pouches for us to carry his ashes in.  When we told her she should get some sleep, she said quite firmly that she felt sewing these pouches was what a wife should do.  But otherwise, there were few words.  She took care of us by giving us beautiful vessels, by comforting us, by not drawing attention to her own pain.

Nearly ten years ago, when our mother began to lose her memory, my sister and I came unmoored.  We argued with her when she misremembered, trying to bring her back to reason, to set things right again.  She was the rational one, after all.  How could she not remember which granddaughter did gymnastics and which one loved dogs?  How could she not remember the plans for tomorrow that we had discussed over and over again?  How could she not know how to roast a chicken anymore?  Where was she?

Over time, slowly, we began to let go.  There was a moment when a close friend’s father died, and I called her for comfort.  This was a man my mother had liked immensely.  He had thrown an engagement party for my husband and me.  He was part of the fabric of our life.  My mother gave me generic words of support over the phone, but I could tell she had no idea who I was talking about.  She could no longer nurture me.

These days, as her hold on the present continues to loosen, the emotions our mother long left unspoken are surfacing.  As her rationality dissipates, she is becoming sentimental in her own right.  And she is letting us into the private landscape she shares with our father in her mind.  She speaks of him often, extolling him, missing him, making sure we know how much he mattered to her--and to us.  Her logic is fantastical, but then, the truth is no longer in fact.  She tells us that he is responsible for all good things in our life.  When we are driving now, no matter which car we are in, she invariably says how lucky we are to have such a good, safe car, and how thoughtful it was of my father to buy it.  “He took such good care of us,” she says.  Often she follows this by “Do you remember him?  He was a wonderful man.”  We tell her that he lived until we were twenty-seven and twenty-nine.  And she exclaims, “So you did know him!  I’m so glad.  I have to write that down so I don’t forget.”    

Last time I was in California, I took one of my daughters swimming and my mother watched us.  Afterwards, she told us that my father had taught her to swim, and that swimming was one of their favorite things to do together.  I did not remind her that my father had had a tracheotomy and that if his neck was ever submerged, he would drown.  She was channeling the stories of his prowess as a young man, when he was a star on his high school and college swim teams.  She had forgotten the many anxious hours she spent while he fished for trout on motor boats on Sierra lakes.  If he ever capsized, he would drown.  But not anymore.  Now, in her romantic delusions, he is her strong partner in the water. 

Our mother lives in a retirement community called Ocean House, on the water, across from the Santa Monica Pier.  She goes for long walks on the beach.  When she takes off her shoes, she sighs and tells us how much she loves the feel of the sand between her toes.  The mother who raised us would never have bothered us with her own physical impression of sand.  It is a gift to discover now.

She tells us that she is having memory problems, that she can’t understand what is happening to her, that she hasn’t always been “like
this.”  Often she will attribute her confusion to something physical: low blood sugar, or a concussion from an ice skating fall when she was a girl.  But more and more, she talks about missing her husband.  

“Do you know why I am like this?” she asks. 

“What do you mean, Mommy?”

“I’m like this because I lost the love of my life.” 

Hilary Reyl is a writer who lives with her family in New York City.  Her latest novel Kids Like Us was recently published by FSG.

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