- White Petals
Dressing up for her doctor’s visit, my mother considers each piece of clothing like it’s an object left behind by aliens. Underpants. Bra. Camisole. She stops every few minutes to rest.
“I am slow motion!” she says. It always surprises her, as if she went to bed one person and woke up another, of stiff mind and body.
“Who is this Ako?” she asks. “Ako” is our family version of her name, Agnes.
My father used to say Ako was built on springs, she’d jump up so zestfully to prune a rose, start dinner, fetch a thermometer when our foreheads felt hot—all the while humming hymns from church or show tunes from Broadway. Today’s Ako, though, concentrates in silence on the task at hand. It takes her an hour to dress. When she’s done, she has on black slacks now two sizes too big, a green cashmere twin set, and orange lipstick. She’s brushed her hair as best she can, but the back still sticks up, thanks to the inordinate amount of time she spends lying down. I try but fail to slick down the hair. My mother smiles her thanks, her mouth a ruin of missing teeth.
But still, she looks stylish. She’s always worn clothes well.
The doorbell rings and I rush to answer. One of the amenities of the senior community is doctor house calls. We scheduled this appointment after my mother’s warfarin dosage went haywire due to lab errors and office miscommunications. Warfarin, also known as Coumadin, is a drug used to prevent blood clots. Too much and my mother could bleed to death from a cut. Too little and she could have a stroke. The drug’s other use, for its anticoagulant effects, is rat poison. So every day, in essence, we hand my mother a dose of rat poison, which she takes with a shaky hand and swallows with trust. [End Page 85]
The doctor rushes in all bubbly and sits down on the couch. She’s a big woman, an SUV not a compact. Next to her, my 90-pound mother looks like a little bird that has dropped out of its nest. Too late, I notice three big runs streaking up my mother’s knee-high stockings, something she never would have allowed in her Chanel and spike-heel days. I resist the urge to jump up and bring her a fresh pair of socks.
With a visitor sitting on her living room couch, my mother does what she has always done. “Welcome,” she says. “May I offer you a coffee, or some juice?”
“No thank you,” the doctor says. “I don’t have time to waste.”
I cringe but say nothing. My mother’s offer of coffee is an essential social ritual, one of the ways she remains intact as herself.
About a year earlier, I’d noticed that my mother would start to cook rice and forget whether she’d put in one cup of water or two. Standing at a department-store cash register, she’d stare at her checkbook like she didn’t know what to do next. I took her to a neurologist. He asked her what day it was. He asked her what month it was. What year. She didn’t know. He asked her to count back from 100 by sevens. She got confused after 93. He asked her to draw a clock. She drew a laborious circle, then labeled erratic numbers outside it—12 at the top, 6 at the bottom, but then what? He asked her to remember three words and then repeat them later.
Tallying up her failures, he said she probably had Alzheimer’s.
After coming home from the neurologist’s that day, my mother went to the kitchen to make coffee. As I sat in the living room fumbling through medical papers, her quivery soprano rose in a hymn I’d never heard before: “Someday the silver cord shall break, and I no more as now shall sing,” my mother sang. “But, O the joy when I shall wake within the presence of the...