The way my mother thanked me made me feel that I could recall
in unbelievable detail the long-gone memories of a forgotten life. I remembered every kind feeling I had ever had for my mother. I remembered with a painful exquisiteness that she was my mother and that the
fact I existed at all had something to do with the woman I had helped
into this small hospital bed. Only months before, when visiting home,
I had taken my parents to dinner, and now an image came back to me
from the strip-mall Italian place where my mother had ordered a plate
of fettuccine. With great effort, she had tried to eat the pasta with her
shaking hand. The fork proved a challenge, and though she didn’t want
my help I’d felt tears starting in my eyes, prompted simply by the look of
concentration on my mother’s face as she negotiated an errant noodle. It
had never struck me as poignant that hunger could be so passionate and
slightly vexed in this peculiar way. The look on her face as she settled in
for a nap now struck me as identical. Her body was conspiring against
the simple rest and rejuvenation she required of it, but the pleasure of
these things hadn’t worn off, not a bit.
“Let me sleep,” she said, and I staggered into the hallway.
My mother beckoned me from another doorway, and I went in to
help with her pills. When I came out again, like a sleeper entering yet another dream, I saw down the hall my mother struggling to get up from
her wheelchair. No one helped, so I went to her.
“You’ve got every room, Mom!”
She looked up and snapped, “I want to look out the window” as
though it were a well-known painting she had been prevented from see-
ing for an unendurable length of time.
When I got her out of the chair and across to the window, she talked
about the river running by, asking me questions.
“Is that the river?”
I looked out at the grass and the trees and the sky. No river appeared.
I told myself that if I was waiting for it, then it might materialize. A
semi–dream state only looks like delirium. Maybe it was real but tucked
out of the way.
The doctor had called it incipient dementia, I remembered.
Leaving my mother, I wandered the hall again, dropping into every
room. She sat or lay, scowling or smiling, in all of them, like a rhythmic
variation on a famous theme. Overwhelmed by all the confused mothers, each of them happy to see me, I didn’t know which of them I could
truly help. Their happiness upon seeing me paradoxically made their