My mother sits on a coral reef, her gray hair undulating around her head, face blank, her eyes like a fish’s. Green filtered light slides in patches down her shoulders, moves like cloud shadow over her hands in her lap. She sees me and smiles politely. Small air bubbles cling to the black weave of her socks. Her shoes are buried in the sand. The sinuous valleys that spread from her ankles resemble a desert seen from the air, or sculptures from her body of artworks in plaster, which explored the layered strata beneath the earth’s skin.
As I approach, her smile grows, though her eyes shift and spark uneasily. When she makes the connection her whole body livens. “Hi, Baby,” she says. “What a surprise.”
“Hello, little Mom,” I kiss her cheek, and take her hands into mine.
“What brings you to town?”
“I’m here for you. It’s your shine-up day. We did a shower this morning, got you all scrubbed clean.”
She fake frowns, placing an arm across her breasts, and a hand, protectively over her crotch.
“I know you don’t like it, but you feel better, yes?”
“Oh, don’t be so naughty.”
I have become the caretaker of the intimate and the integumentary parts of my mother—body, hair, nails, her bedding and clothes. Our shower routine is a pas de deux of sweet prodding and resistance. Though the weekly visits entail five hours of driving, and a much longer ride emotionally, our time is precious, a privilege befallen me.
“Next, we’re going to get your hair cut.”
My mother lifts her hand to her head.
“With Abby at two o’clock. Then I’ll clip your nails and you’re good to go.”
She smiles showing her browning teeth. “Where to?”
“Wherever you want to go, Mom.”
My mother has moved twice in the last three years, her space distilling into ever smaller versions of itself, from her house to an apartment in a senior living complex, to this single room in assisted living. I unfasten the name tag from the vest she is wearing and set it on the table beside the white marble Buddha. Cat sized, weighing twenty pounds, the Buddha has resided with her for decades. I remember when she brought it home. After falling in love with it in San Francisco, she flew back with it cradled in her lap. It sits lotus, eyes closed, serene. Two strings of purple Mardi Gras beads are slung around its neck.
“Where did these come from?” I finger the shiny beads, suppressing my impulse to remove them.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs. “Somewhere.”
In another version of my mother, the beads would not stand. Not on the Buddha. Not anywhere. The aesthetic of her spaces has always been elegant, formally composed, and earthy. Always walls of shelves holding lines of books: the science of the cosmos, art, literature, Judaism, spirituality. Displayed with the ceramic vessels and blown glass, and held in equal esteem: agates, geodes, shells, fossils, the driftwood tree root she pulled from the bottom of a lake while fishing with my father in the north woods, each object storied, each a manifestation of sublime energies. On her walls, original artworks, mostly hers. Her furnishings a mix of Asian design and the French pieces that came with her in 1938, when at four she emigrated from Alsace Lorraine.
“So what are we doing?” my mother asks, as I zip up her snow boots.
“Going for a haircut. Here, wear your ear puffs.”
She fastens the furry black cups over her ears. Black wraparound sunglasses, black wool coat to her ankles. She looks like a beetle. She looks like a movie star. In her life she’s enjoyed effortless beauty. Sterling eyes. Black hair. Beautiful bones.
She recoils as we walk into a frozen winter day where the latest snow layer has formed a brittle crust, the chimney plumes rising unwavering. And though the sunlight plumbing through the atmosphere seems to reach the earth devoid of warmth, as I enclose my mother in the car, the sun sparks small fires in the crystalline window frost.
“So what are we doing?” She turns in her seat.
“We’re going to go see Abby to get your hair cut.”
My mother’s brain is shrinking from her skull. She can no longer form a memory. Her life consists of the present moment and a past to which she is also losing access. Within her hippocampus—the long-ridged floors of the lateral ventricles, buried deep in the limbic system—toxic Tau proteins are killing her neurons, while other protein fragments harden and block her neurotransmitters. The progressive nature of Alzheimer’s disease portends its spread into her cerebrum’s cortex, the brain’s many-valleyed outer layer. As the illness runs its course it will halt her language, as well as her control of bodily functions. It will rupture her connection to place, and to the people she loves. The disease is ruthless, inflictor of a million microscopic deaths. We both are surviving them as best we can.
“How are you doing over there?”
My mother nods noncommittally. “Hear anything from your siblings?” she asks.
“I have.” I go through them one by one relating the same news, or non-news I told her earlier, my words entering and exiting her consciousness as fleetingly as skipping stones.
A handful of crows cross the opaque sky as we travel a road that parallels a marsh. Today, the marsh is a quiet white plane of snow collared by dry beige reeds. In summer, the reeds stand a succulent green, the small expanse of water mirroring blue sky, or the bottoms of floating clouds. We saw a Great Blue Heron in the autumn, its stick legs half-submerged in reflection. My mother has long felt particularly connected to the large chalky graceful birds, often pointing them out in flight, their massive bodies, the majestic slow beat of their wings. “Here’s where the venerable heron lives,” I say. My mother sits face forward, her gloved hands in her lap. “This is where we saw the heron.”
She leans forward, her goggled face peering over.
“Well it’s not there now, but it may come again in the spring.”
“Hmmmmm.” She’s begun to use the utterance frequently. It’s not the flat “hmmm” of thoughtful consideration, but a sound that rises and dips, denoting interest and agreement, a replacement for words from a once highly articulate and opinionated woman.
As usual, we arrive early to the mall. Though the salon is not far from the entrance, the traverse to its door is one of millions of years. Inside the foyer, cold sloughing from our coats, I take my mother’s glasses and stow them in her purse. At once, her attention drops to the limestone floor, its tiles imbedded with Jurassic era fossils. She used to pore over the tiles on our visits, naming and explaining like the beachcomber she once was, collecting fossils washed ashore along the Gulf of Mexico. Now, she walks quietly, hovering above the tiles with the distance of a snorkeler.
“Ammonite,” I say, pointing to a fossil, a favorite of ours for its sheer beauty. Ancestor of the nautilus, the ammonite’s shell is a coil of chambers that form an exquisite spiral. Once, she would have explained to me, or to anyone who’d stop to listen, how the animal enlarges its shell as it grows, creating ever-roomier chambers to inhabit, sealing off the smaller ones it leaves behind. The whorl of chambers is logarithmic, mathematically the same as the arms of a spiral galaxy, the same as the nerves in the cornea of the eye.
On a table in my mother’s now abandoned studio, lay hundreds of fossils she had picked from the Gulf sands. Ten-thousand-year-old horse teeth and mammoth tusk loosed from the strata and washed in on the surf. Pieces of animals that may have died naturally, fell prey, become stuck in the mire and slowly buried. Turtle shell, deer antler, Glyptodon armor, mineral deposits filling up pores, hardening in bone and enamel as shallow seas repeatedly advanced and retreated. While most people walked the beaches hunting perfect pastel shells, my mother sought the black fossils. These treasures informed years of her artwork, inspiring themes of time, embodiment, and transformation, pieces titled: Ancient Memories, The Old Ones Speak, Messenger, her black-boned Guardians.
I stop abruptly causing a shopper to veer around us. “What’s this one called?” The shape in the tile is of a small cigar. I’ve heard its name, she’s told me. I can’t remember. She knows but can’t retrieve the word. She used to say “Why don’t they bring classes here and teach people?” She used to get exasperated. “No one pays attention to what’s right under their feet.”
Sweet Abby, a tall blond with pink-streaked hair is always happy to see my mom. “Georgette, how are you? I’m almost ready.” She sweeps a pile of hair across the floor, and then settles my mother into a styling chair. Wafting open a black plastic cape, she lets it drift down over my mother’s legs, fastening it around her neck. The two meet in the mirror’s reflection as Abby recites the usual plan: cover the ears, keep it soft at the nape, but my mother is largely unresponsive. Abby glances back at me questioningly as she leads her to the hair-washing sink.
Throughout the cut, my mother is silent. I can’t tell what she is seeing in the mirror as she sits eye to eye with herself. She doesn’t engage Abby in their every-time conversations, how fast mom’s hair grows, the similar birth order of their children. When Abby wields the blow dryer, my mother closes her eyes, her hair rippling wildly. “I know,” I mouth to Abby’s concerned sadness. I should have called ahead and warned her. The disease is one of plateaus and sudden drops.
My mother’s purse is large and cumbersome, with multiple pockets and a tangle of cords and clips meant to hold everything inside. I find her card and pay at the register. “Maybe you could use a new purse. Something smaller and simpler? I can look and bring you one next week.”
She furrows her brow, brushing off the suggestion.
I still have one errand to accomplish, but clearly my mother is too tired to come along. As we cross back over the floor of fossils, she moves slowly and a little unsteadily. She looks at them but doesn’t pause or comment.
On the ride home, she remains quiet, her face toward the window and the snow-covered marsh. There are tracks now crossing the flat white plane, human, and those of a zig-zagging dog. “What are you thinking about?” I ask.
“Nothing.” Her tone is terse.
Back in her room, her beetle coat shed, my mother heads straight for her bed. She now spends most of her hours there, sleeping, or listening to music. She grumbles as I remove one of her socks. “It’s cold,” she draws up her leg, and curls on her side. “Well your fingernails can wait, but your toes need to be cut.” I get a towel and the clippers from the bathroom. “Scooch, over,” I sit on the bed, spread the towel, and lift her foot. Singling out a toe, I hold it carefully. Click. Click. Hard slivers of nail drop down to the towel and stick into the nappy loops. I’m sure she held my foot with the same care long ago, when I was a child, my toes like slugs.
Replacing her sock, I survey her small room. One from what was a pair of upholstered chairs. A single bookshelf, once a set of four. It holds selected volumes and objects, which stand in proxy for the missing others. Her sound system is now a radio that comes on to a simple touch. Sometimes she connects to music, sometimes not. She enjoys, or used to, the selection of photos culled from the stacks of family albums. She doesn’t speak of them anymore. There’s life and there’s quality of life. An older version of my mother would not let the new stand.
I lie with her and snuggle a while. Errant snowflakes fall past her window. She pats and softly rubs my arm. Though I can’t fathom her inner world, it’s clear that she’s still connected to love.
The sky is darkening as I venture out again, the marsh blueing down, the zigzag tracks purple. At the store, I mean to be quickly in and out, but after finding the items she needs, I wander aisles, look at purses, buy none. By the time I’m back in the car, it is dark and snowing heavily, thick flakes dropping from the sky.
The snow streams in my headlights, and streaks past the windshield as if I’m hurtling through outer space. I don’t know how time moves for my mother, whether my absence will have seemed a long while, or whether the time slipped past like a thought. Outside the senior center, the new snow lines the fence, covering empty parking spots and the rounded roofs of cars. I sign into the book at the front desk, and head down to find her.
My mother sits on a coral reef, her gray hair undulating around her head, face blank, her eyes like a fish’s, her hands curled in her lap. Fading light sifts down around her. She sees me and smiles politely. Bubbles rise from the ridged floor around her. The sediment has thickened. It encases her calves.
Mother. Little galaxy. Contracting spiral. Little nautilus in reverse. I cannot save you from the rising sand.
But I will stand witness as the sediment collects, circles your waist, rings your neck, fills your throat. Until you’re enclosed. Until you’re gone. Until you’ve become every Great Blue Heron.