Ladies die well
by Chris Moses
For some it would be clichés or wisdom or admonition, but for my mother it was a keen way of stating the obvious: people come in all shapes and sizes. She’s angry because she wants what she can’t have. Clean up one mess before you start another.
I think a good part of this aphoristic talent came from her father whose Depression-era rearing mingled with a Yankee sensibility that missed all the declarative pretension of a self-made Franklin. Always clean your tools. (Yet never so precious as to forget—they’re tools, and if they don’t hold up then let them break and be done with it.) He had gotten by because he worked hard, but more because he had suffered, kept his eyes open, and taken every damn piece of good luck he could find. And he knew it well. Any sense of pride would have been too risky, too easily taken away. The one piece of voiced accomplishment he held onto had been built before his eyes and with his hands and paid for over three long decades. My house, free and clear. No one can take that away.
I worry that amidst my own fondness for clear comment I have attributed more to my mother than I should. Or that as I’ve grown older and seen the less attractive, conflicted and unpleasant makings of adulthood, I’ve made extra additions so the balance sheet always tilts slightly in my favor. The good stuff must stand out or otherwise my own receipt might skew negative and I have always had an aversion to meanness so that would never do.
As Alzheimer’s slowly eroded her mind and clarity metamorphosed into confusion which ultimately became stark, worrisome incomprehension, I realized how passively adamant care-givers and friends were to compensate for this lack of self with papier-mâché personality—carefully wrapped whole, kind, caring, loving Susan. Some reminders and stories made her smile and brought a sense of ease, whether actual events or play-time make-believe that proved soothingly real. More sinister and more loving strategies attempted to pacify concern or temper resistance as with a child—now a good girl wouldn’t do that—or to excuse the understandable anger and frustration a demented person creates for a fully sentient one—I told you that already. Now just sit down. How could you do this?
I tried to listen. Often it didn’t make sense, sometimes she wanted help filling in pieces or was left with an undesired blank spot, but mostly she just cruised through inconsistencies and switched names around and had a pretty good time of explaining things.
Fun moments together didn’t abate the tedium and frustration and feeling of being in a hurry that can arise no matter how mellow my day if I’d heard the same story and answered the same question and responded to the same compliment an uncountable number of times still in a measure of minutes all too easily tracked on fingers and toes. Such listening is excruciating. Particularly when it’s done explicitly as a way not to correct, to add, to steer. Infuriating, even. Like Dante’s ninth circle—abandon all hope—for to enter is not to be changed but to loose the very possibility of change itself.
Change did happen though—for me this was more frightful than any forgetting. Against all characterizations of her disease my mother absorbed things like a sponge. Not memories like you or me, but emotions, fears, prejudices, bitterness, spite—base defenses most easily taken against uncertainty. Some of these renounceable and puerile insecurities distilled borrowings lent from her second husband. But they were taken up, home-grown and nourished through roots perennially strong. Obvious became nasty: she’s ugly. Fat. Gay. Bad. Dirty. Stupid. The sort of mangled grammar, illogical rage, mumbled screeching of a third-rate supremacist that convinces beyond all doubt how serious, real, frightful they are. This from my mother. Who couldn’t even remember her own name.
As much as I cringed, as much as I started to absolve and reclaim the right-thinking woman who had given me such an eager, curious and open-minded sense of difference, I had to stop and recognize this person so pronounced against the outward-going tide of more pleasant reminiscence.
Partly I wanted the pain, to do the penance, to suffer my own doubt. Partly I wanted to let her find whatever comfort she could, however awful it sounded. Most of all I realized how much effort had gone into making her a lady, casting her into a feminine milieu of deference that veiled criticism and made sweet the most acid, excoriating judgments—I saw how much creative energy was being poured into making her happy and content and at peace. The surly men met with disapproval, scolding. Yet they had the pride of being stuck in their old ways. The world had made a woman and couldn’t help but remaking, remaking, remaking—chintzy outfits, soft colors, polite good wishes—easy cover.
My mother might have countered: covering up a problem doesn’t make it go away. My house, free and clear. No one can take that away.
So instead I tried to listen.