- All the Things We Once Thought Ordinary
Do you remember the hudson?”
I always try to call my mother back to me with the name of that river. “Mom, can you still say, ‘Hudson’? Do you remember the barge?”
And then, slowly, articulately: “Do you remember Troy and Albany? What about those Yukon lakes and your Arctic ground squirrels? Do you remember Checkpoint Charlie, or singing with your Battenkill Chorale in the Moscow cathedral? Can you still hear Dvořák? Stabat Mater? Do you remember your bees at the edge of the marsh on the farm?”
I try to teach her the world again through words, as she once taught words to me through the world.
Calling it “Alzheimer’s,” or even “dementia,” seems reductive. It’s like calling that massive black animal, studying itself in the grass on the farm where my mother once lived, “the bull.” What about deep inside the brisket? What about its lowing, the heats its loins are responding to? What about the fact that its silence is bigger than any library?
In the beginning, I try to visit my mother in Vermont as often as possible, though I live in Germany now and have for the last eighteen years, and though what actually happens when I am with her is something I must reinvent each time. The storks leave white streaks on the red rooftop. If I am lucky I can hear the young, thumping in their nest, the adults clapping their beaks together like wooden spoons. Or maybe it is just the ceiling fan in my mother’s room at the nursing home. I don’t know anymore. She says it is storks and I want to believe her. I tell myself it is her new way of saying hello, of recognizing me, because her ability to recognize me is still what dictates my love for her. I don’t really know how to greet her anymore. “Mom,” I whisper. “Mom, it’s me. It’s Molly.”
I try to touch her physically as much as possible, to say hello with my hands, to massage her feet and legs or rub lotion onto her face, to stroke her hair—intimate gestures not always possible in our earlier lives together. I want her to take me to wherever she has gone.
What I do know for sure is that real moths gather at her window on many nights during the first summer I am home for a longer visit, driving from the farm to the nursing home almost every day. I can feel when I look out at the moths that they urgently want to get closer to the light, the fluorescent lights in my mother’s room, or sometimes, when I turn these off, the candlelight I bring with me, the light collected in past years by my mother’s bees—as if they had known then that this moment inevitably would come. Her face is exquisite [End Page 27] in this softer glow, which was gathered on the buckwheat field behind her own house. And it is in this light that the moths flying into the window screen seem to become the new words, the embodiment of everything the doctors say my mother has forgotten. I am tempted to open the window and let them in, let them land on our skin and on all the lamps and candles.
Though the doctor said three years ago, while looking at his watch, “Six years is the average”; though she has lost weight and indeed what we call the ability to function, I often still have the feeling that my mother is simply one step ahead of us, that she is the music that pushes the chairs out of the way for the dancing—and the dancing sounds not like the language of words but of wool and hooves, bodies ramming into each other until they are all moving in the same direction. The words are less important than the music of calling—as it was when we used to call the cows and the bull home.
Whales circle her room, singing high-pitched songs my mother can...