Mom’s diaper is full. The director sees me headed her way and before I know what’s happening, an aide rushes to my side, and orders me to wait outside Mom’s room. When the aide comes out, Mom looks like Bette Davis in Baby Jane crossed with a white rabbit on meth, strapped in a wheelchair. She points to the CD player. Somewhere between Honorary Doctorate in Peace Mediation from NYU Law and her three time’s the charm broken hip, my mother’s brain rewired itself into country music lover. When I was growing up, only opera was allowed on Mom’s stereo. I remember Mom swooning in time to Nessun Dorma. Me stirring a can of peas as it bubbled on the stove while she rinsed the iceberg lettuce. Like she never heard of romaine. My mom was a looker. There was something delicate in the way she’d gnaw on those lamb chops Al the Butcher saved for her. She’s still a looker at 92.
Now that her mind is a tangle of white string, there’s only room for one song. About the man who stopped loving her today. When it comes on, if it’s one of her good days, she sings along. This woman who can’t remember my name knows all the words. Right down to the wreath they placed upon his door. I know there’s a story in there. About Mom and some guy. And if things were different I’d be interested in finding out. Who is this man, did he love my mother all these years, or did she love him and he didn’t love her back.
I can’t imagine my mother in some grand, love affair, or even one like the mushy lyrics of this country song. The few times we talked about love, by which Mom meant sex, she had a knack for making the most natural thing in the world sound perverted. “If he demands you swallow his semen, refuse, and tell him to take a cold shower.” I hadn’t a clue what she was on about. Which is why I don’t care to investigate what this particular song means to her. We’re both too old to change who we are to each other.
One visiting day, when all the pieces of the puzzle interlocked, which happens sometimes, and there’s a name for it which escapes me now, she gave me a look, one I knew well. Opened her mouth and out popped complete sentences. “Don’t think I’ll ever thank you for all this, taking care of me, paying for this place, checking on the staff. I won’t thank you for any of it. You’re my daughter. I don’t need to thank you.” Then her Bette Davis eyes went more dead than alive. “You can be a real riot when you want to, Ma,” I said. She closed her eyes. That song on endless loop in the background. You’ll forget in time. He said, ‘I’ll love you till I die.’
She closes her eyes and smiles in her wheelchair. Maybe someone stopped loving her today, or maybe she stopped loving him today, or maybe the song is just one she likes to listen to, now that she knows she’s never coming home. I try to imagine what it will feel like, when this all stops. But it’s no good. I’ve got to get to the store before it closes, bring back more Depends. I could buy them by the case. But that would be like giving up. I check Mom’s diaper. All good.
Whenever I’m in town, I find myself driving to the home, even though I don’t know anyone there. Even the director, who used to lock herself inside her office when she’s spot me at Reception, is long gone. I sit in the parking lot and hit play. I mouth the words. He stopped loving her today. When the song’s over I think I see her at the 3rd floor window, waving to me. It’s been five years since I donated her pine bedroom set.
It’s mausoleum day. Can’t believe that song’s living in my head 20 years. I can hear her high heels clicking, the cadence that signaled that Mom was home from work. I close my eyes and I’m in Florida, the winter my first husband walked out. I’m crying in every boutique, every flea market, in the clubhouse, at water aerobics with Mom in front of all her friends. She used a carton of tissues on me the first day of what turned into a 10-day rescue mission. I never said thank you. Not then. Not years later. Not when I held her hand as she curled into a ball of dust and the moaning stopped for good. I run my fingers along the marble, trace her name and how long. I’m sorry he stopped loving you that day, Mom. Whoever he was. I say it like a prayer, one she can hear.