I was in Michigan the month of June in order to visit Mother, who lives in the locked unit of a nursing home. She no longer tries to escape, and I often sign her out for the day, but her mind is in decline. It is as if she is sinking into a deeper and deeper twilight. Yet when I am with her, I can't help but want to pull her back to daylight. I hunger for a coherent sentence, anything that will point to the integrity of her mind.
About four years ago, Mother and I were on the phone when she told me she had recently reread the letters she and Father had written each other during the war (World War II). Although she had not wanted to read them because she was afraid of reliving the past, she did read them and, with a self-conscious little laugh, told me there was a lot she had forgotten.
"Afterwards," Mother said, "I had trouble placing you."
"How do you mean?" I asked.
"Well," Mother hesitated, "there are two of you."
"Two of me?" I echoed dumbly.
"Yes," Mother was definite, "and even now I'm not sure which one I'm talking to. Are you the little Ursula or the big one?"
"The big one, Mammit. The one who lives in Nevada."
There was a silence, and I had the sensation of air turning heavy when Mother said, "I don't know that one."
She didn't know me? I felt strange, as if I had been suddenly erased, and my mind went blank. Once again there was silence between us as I groped for something to say. The phrase "that one" - it was as if she were speaking about me to somebody else. Then who, I wondered, does she think she IS speaking to?
Her voice sounded distressed, almost apologetic, so I squelched my own panic and tried to reassure her, saying those letters had taken her back in time. Reading them must have been like watching a movie that made her forget herself because for the moment the past seemed more real than where she was now.
"That could be," Mother said, her voice more hopeful than the words themselves. I elaborated further, aware that I was trying to convince myself as much as Mother. Yet even as I spoke, I knew that "going back in time" did not really explain why in her mind I had split into two people. But we both wanted to be convinced, and soon enough we were chatting about everyday things. By the end of our conversation, I felt relieved. Mother sounded like herself.
I suppressed my doubts. Maybe reading old letters really could wipe out the present. With Mother, anything was possible. She had always been psychic. She'd had prophetic dreams and out-of-body experiences; she had seen ghosts, once heard her dead mother's voice tell her it wasn't her "time" when Mother was certain a semi truck was going to smash her when her own car skidded right into its path one icy winter day.
The next Sunday, Mother asked me again whether I was the little Ursula or the big one, and when I answered, "The big one," Mother stunned me by saying, "I like little Ursula better."
Immediately, I felt confused. What did Mother's statement mean? Didn't she like the woman I had become? And who was I, anyway? Wasn't I still that little girl? I felt off balance. I found myself visualizing Mother coming to Michigan from a far-off country called Latvia, the little Ursula standing beside her, holding her hand, smiling up at her. But who was this woman from Nevada? Surely it wasn't me?
I don't remember the rest of our conversation that day, but I was troubled. I couldn't get rid of the feeling there were two Ursulas. The little girl I had once been was not merely myself, but a flesh-and-blood sister, some little demon who was taking my mother away from me.
For some days I felt unloved, rejected. But after a while, the feeling passed and I realized I had a lifetime of knowing how much Mother loved me.
When I was with her last month, Mother sometimes said my name, sometimes not. One day she said, "Ah, those are Ursula's feet." Another day, commenting on the argumentative behavior of two other patients, she turned her head toward me (usually she looks straight ahead, somewhat like a robot), winked, and said, "They're a little crazy."
And yet another day, Mother reached up tentatively and put her hand on the back of my neck and moved her fingers, then traced my collarbone. I continued to caress her back, making one large circle after another, probably comforting myself more than Mother.
n Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.