Her gaze, somewhere between curious and indifferent, held me. Almost unable to breathe, I crisscrossed her Great Room, hoping against hope for the slightest glimpse of my once-alert mother. I had hurried to see her, and then as now, I believed there must be some sort of a magic spell that would bring her back to us, back from the prison of Alzheimer’s, and from the world of all things forgotten. Why hadn’t she taught me that spell? (Or had she?)
She’d always glowed whenever I discovered even the slightest bit of our family’s history, saying to me, “Oh, my, look at all you have learned…” So I had to believe that the cure for this, the cure to return all things unforgettable, had to be hidden away, recorded in an old family history book and just waiting to be discovered. You know, as if from a perfect Book of Spells, the cure called out to me, as if to say…
“I know you are but who am I?”
Making my way past low furnishings, upside down books and off-centered bric-a-brac, her eyes caught me. Here, even in the midst of it all, she still held court. There under the Great Clock she pretended, her humorous ways mesmerizing anyone who might come by. I like to think I wasn’t just any caller that day, though; indeed, I was her son. But the easy vacancy in her eyes told me that I was no more than “someone” to her – the memory of my identity lost in her mind’s need to survive.
[She] had an innocence about her, with no masquerade, and a look drawn from long ago.
Today, and in visits that followed, she would give less and less, losing more of herself in this world. Now she saved only enough memory for the wayward alley-cats she fed, they who chased her shadow, disloyal and fleeting from the porch yard.
Oh, she did not look silly or dimwitted that day, or even appear especially contemplative. And while her Sage family’s ancestral scowl had started to take root, she had an innocence about her, with no masquerade, and a look drawn from long ago. Sitting down beside my mother, I was beginning to see that, even in the turbulence of her disease, there was still an art to her ways.
Sweet and unassuming, she had become an oracle of the unknowing. I felt her immutable spirit, and her very pulse seemed to beat in time with my own. Along with this came the realization that I would never regain any foothold in my mother’s heart. Her devotion belonged now to a forgotten world, to the nagging beggar cats, and to the bag of Friskies she kept, crumpled, ready at the door.
Looking at her now I understood why my father had married her, and she him. How ridiculous it had seemed to me, these two awkward high school sweethearts. How impossible their marriage would prove to be – like the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. Dad purveyed the American Dream, always aspiring to drive home next year’s Cadillac, and subscribing to the philosophy of Let’s Make a Deal. Mom, who tried her best, was never able to keep up with Dad’s keeping up with the Joneses. Mom was content with the ’62 red Falcon wagon in Naugahyde – secreting away a few dollars for those many “what-ifs” in life, hers was a spirit of another kind altogether.
There in her Great Room, watching her absently dangle a half-socked foot off the couch, I realized what it was that had brought mom and dad together (outside of raging teen-age hormones). I saw it then, where it had always been, showing simply in her quiet regard. You see, my mother was no less a huckster than Dad, no less a pretender, just one of a different sort. (Now I’m kind of wondering if she ever truly liked that red Falcon.) They had somehow been two sides of an improbable whole.
You see, my mother was no less a huckster than Dad, no less a pretender, just one of a different sort.
Today she affected a curious look, her fingers kneading softly at the sofa’s brocade, her forgotten Kleenex in hand. I saw her simple beauty. However, she could no longer pretend as well as she once did. Now she traversed this world only in her “memory loops,” her better scripts lost and secreted away. In reality, she had returned to what we all are in our purest form – innocent, without pretence.
My visit and stay did not last long. I’d planned a day at the ocean with her, naively thinking that this might be part of a spell that would make her “all better.” That day I helped to dress her, hurriedly and briefly, ashamed of myself for doubting her. I’d driven far to see her, counting on that unknown number of last days we all count on – and begging God for just one more. I drove the two of us down to the beach. It was a warm October day, but the sunny winds had set a familiar bite to the air. We sat mostly silent, near a bluff overlooking waves washing against the shores of our long-ago home, and a time when things had been, well, somehow simpler.
She’d managed nevertheless to hold court that day on the bluff, smiling at strangers and other well-heeled dogs passing by. She’d greeted them all with her same mischievous quirk of a laugh. She still had it; even then in the early stages of “not knowing,” she was indeed unforgettable. The strangers flowed past us like water, many drawn to her without even knowing it.
My time with Mom that day was beginning to grow short, as time always does. Yes, all of my days with her were running out. I could do little now but pray for her safety, and hope the memory of a beautiful beach day wouldn’t fade too quickly. Such would not be the case, as later that same day – after I had gone – she wondered to my stepfather when “the doctor” might come back to take her for another drive.
Yvonne (Lee) (Record) Guerry 1935-2018
 A play on the words of Bart Simpson, The Simpsons, “Lemon of Troy,” a television cartoon originally broadcast 14 May 1995: “I know you are, but what am I?”
 Let’s make a Deal, a television program presented by Monte Hall, first aired 30 December 1963.
 Arthur R. “Pop” Momand, “Keeping up with the Joneses,” comic strip, The New York World, 1913–40.