Someone always asks me, "How is your mother doing?" and I cringe. A question that should have an easy answer, "fine," no longer fits. In a way, Mother is fine. She is 90, requires no medication, and can walk miles without exertion. But she has dementia, and since August 2003, has been living in the locked unit of a nursing home in Michigan.
She, who once studied Greek and passed university tests with As, now tells me she's been stealing horses or has stumbled over a dead soldier. She, who could bake elegant Danish pastries filled with plum or apricot jam, who could make a delectable Swedish rice ring floating in a lake of tart cherry sauce, cannot begin to read or understand the simplest recipe.
Yet on any given day when I am in Michigan and I see her, I take pride in the fact that she recognizes a photo of Jackie Kennedy in a magazine or can color a mitten and stay within the lines. She can still speak three languages fluently, but what she says makes no sense.
When I talk to her on the telephone, I write down every word she says so I can reread it over and over again. What I hope to see is a pattern of association, an extended metaphor I can decode. I am pretending her mind is a surreal poem and I, teacher of writing and literature, can read her as if she were a book.
My imagination fails me. No matter how hard I try to see the world through her eyes, I am confounded. Sometimes she will say the word "students," and I know she believes she is in the classroom, teaching. At other times, she will give me a knowing look, and point with her chin toward a staff member, whispering under her breath, "She's a cunning one," and I assume Mother believes she has been imprisoned by Communists. On a day when I cannot find her in the dining room or at the nurse's station, she is inevitably wandering up and down the halls. I ask her if she is lost, and she says, "Yes." I recall her former nightmares, all those variations of being lost or trapped in forests, tunnels or mazes, and I wonder if those long-ago dreams could have been signs of things to come.
In desperation, I give her tests. Father is dead, but I ask her how he is doing. I am astonished when she says he must have died. But then she pauses and adds that maybe that is not the case, because just the other day she saw him in the little attic room. I have heard of this room before. Its story, like many others, goes back to Latvia, to a time before my birth.
I am obsessed with locating the crucial moment - as if it were a mountaintop from which I should have recognized the desiccation of Mother's mind as if it were the rain forest of the Amazon laid out before me. But I am confused myself. When did Mother first hallucinate, tell me the hospital was a whorehouse? When did she ask me how was it I knew so much about Ursula's childhood? When did she speak to me as if I were someone else, confiding in me, "Ursula, the tall unhappy one, is too defensive. The other Ursula, the little one in the green coat, is always joyous"?
When did she tell me I was her and she was me? Each time seemed an anomaly, an isolated episode. I was not thinking in terms of a progression, nor was I adding one bizarre statement to another. I could not see the mounting evidence. For the regular phone calls continued; Mother still cooked, she knew how to laugh.
Their house, the rooms, the yard - everything shielded her, cloaked her with its familiarity. In that setting, she seemed herself. Which summer was it that I noticed the hairpin holding her little twist of hair in place seemed to be forever loose, her hair just a bit untidy? Like a strong gust of wind, powerful but unseen, the state of her hair swept me off my feet after I placed her in the nursing home. That which had appeared normal in the mirror of her blue bedroom seemed shocking in the impersonal disinfected corridors. Mother did not know how to comb her hair. She could not figure out the machinations of a hairpin. How blind could I have been?
It is as if Mother's mind has been somehow scattered like the seeds of a dandelion bloom. I am reduced to wishing: if only I could make time run backward, catch the seeds of her mind in my hand.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing at Western Nevada Community College. She's the most recent addition to the Fresh Ideas columnists, who appear on Wednesdays in the Nevada Appeal.