We had a funny bit of intimacy in the bathroom earlier while trying to get her urine sample in a cup. It isn’t easy: crouching,aiming, approximating where in the space below you the stream will collect. Add a daughter trying to micromanage her mother’s urine flow and a line of weak-bladdered patients queuing outside, rolling their eyes and tugging at their waistbands, and you have all the ingredients of a Mike Nichols and Elaine May comedy sketch.
Sometimes, my mother and I are indeed a traveling comedy duo, arguing in circles in front of strangers in dizzying fluorescent hallways. We are the Nichols and May of post-hemorrhagic-stroke-induced-dementia. At last, I’ve found my niche in the entertainment industry. I’ve only been a performer for 30 years, after all.
Did Nichols and May ever confront the specter of eternal loss in their routines? Unlikely; death tends to be a real comedy killer. Yet somehow, between the bickering fostered by dementia’s time warps and the lost threads and the impatience of a child-turned-caregiver, hilarity does ensue.
As my mother and I sit in the brittle air of a winter’s day and wait just outside the hospital for the bus — only one stop away — I feel a moment in suspension. Brain injury and years of hospital visits seem, for one moment, not to have left creases on our history. We’d gotten on unusually well today. I sense a curtain is about to rise.
We’d left the doctor’s office 10 minutes earlier, and I am wondering if 10 minutes is enough time to erase the memory of the doctor laying out my mother’s choices and our decision (my decision, really) to operate immediately on some new horror they’d found. I stare at a brick wall opposite the bus stop. It is a dingy housing project. A bleak house, I think, and laugh bitterly.
“What? What is it?” my mother asks. Because she doesn’t remember our conversations, I’ve grown weary of telling her what I’m thinking. The effort is mercilessly futile.
I look at her. She’s 75. I love telling doctors that fact; I never tire of their expressions of disbelief, so clearly genuine. My mother was a dancer and a figure skater. In the last two months, she’s had abdominal surgery, a blood transfusion, and a cranky thyroid that sends her body on roller coasters of chills, sweats and panic attacks. She has soldiered through the results of a November afternoon in 2009 when blood soaked two thirds of her brain in a devastating hemorrhagic stroke.
The attending physician told me at her ICU bedside that she’d never wake up. She mumbled a bit and had no idea who I was. Two days later, she opened her eyes and demonstrated some ballet steps for the wide-eyed residents. When I told her that her boyfriend was headed in by train, she asked me for mascara and a hairbrush. She knew exactly who I was, too. She discarded the playbook and made her own rules. Still, the bleed soaked the short-term memory pathways, and for the most part, they did not regenerate.
Aside from her gaunt frame, the trauma hasn’t seemed to touch her physically. All you see are her big brown eyes and red lips and bobbed hair and her legs, still so beautiful in her old bell-bottomed jazz pants. All you see is a dancer bouncing down the hallway. You’d never know she couldn’t remember her own birthday, her own address, or her grandchildren’s names. You might not even guess she has grandchildren.
I look at the brick wall in the wash of gray light.
“I have a confession, Mom.”
My mother loves winter, partly, I suspect, because she enjoys being an iconoclast. She was a figure skater, so she’s used to braving the brutal cold. It can be tiresome, her frequent pretense of shock when people find the winter difficult and depressing. She loves to be baffled by the norm, to be at odds with routine human feelings that are discordant with her unusual take on life.
Marriage transplanted my mother to Los Angeles for many years, and my sister and I were raised under palm trees, our “winters” dipping to maybe 50 degrees at night. A New York City winter was the stuff of movies, of my mother’s childhood performing at Rockefeller Center, of “normal” life with four seasons. “Normal” and Los Angeles couldn’t be farther apart; even while growing up there, I knew that. We didn’t rake autumn leaves, we didn’t build snowmen, and we didn’t take refuge by fireplaces and radiators. Due to a romantic nature and an unreasonable loyalty to my mother, I’ve taken on the mantle: Having lived in New York City half my life now, I profess an honest thrill as autumn descends into the darkest days of winter.
“I confess I’m really looking forward to spring, Mom,” I say. “Something’s happened to me this year, and I don’t want any more winter. I want the sun and the light and the flowers.” I wait, ashamed, for her reply.
“Me too,” she says. “That’s happened to me, too.”
My heart freezes and splinters. If her obstinate love of the wind and ice has vanished and she now longs for the sissy holiday of spring, what remains of my mother? Is she the same person? How do you define a person, anyway?
We sit next to each other, staring ahead at the brick wall.
Suddenly, I change my mind. My mother and I are on the same path, looking out in the same direction. Greeting cards tell us that this is the definition of a healthy relationship. In the last five years, our relationship has been many things: fierce, devoted, fractious, and corroded by sorrow and loss. It is nice to be in a healthy relationship, suddenly, with my mother. We agree. Together, we look forward to spring.
If obstacle and discord are the lifeblood of comedy, I will trade every moment of hilarity with my mother from now on for companionable agreement. You’ll never hear a Nichols and May sketch about two people agreeing at a bus stop; it’s boring.
But because of spring, my mother and I experience a rebirth of our relationship at this sooty, ice-encrusted bus stop at January’s end. She won’t remember our communion, but on the upside, I don’t need to swear her to secrecy. And I’ll never forget the moment when the understanding we once shared — before her stroke — was resurrected. We share a secret, even if only I know it.
I can keep it for both of us.
Did my mother die that November day five years ago? Am I communing with a ghost? Or has our constant treading of the same conversational ground brought her back? Today, she changed her mind about something. She felt something new—something at odds with decades of intractable tradition.
Is there any better definition of “alive?”