by Kami Westhoff
“Have you seen Charlie? He’s all alone now. I’m worried about him.”
Millie asks me this every Tuesday and Thursday when I visit my mother at her memory care facility. I know that Charlie, Millie’s husband, has been dead for four years, but she isn’t able to lacerate new events into the flesh of memory. I say Charlie’s fine, promise that Stan, her son, is caring for him. She tiptoes her wheelchair to where I sit with my mother, scooping yogurt onto a spoon she’ll try to bring to her mouth. My mother is hungrier than usual today—the soup from lunch is identifiable by the splotches on her shirt. Her hand quivers as she lifts the spoon, the jerking more pronounced the closer she gets. She looks at me for help—she’s always been quick to let others do things for her, but I put my hands in my lap and let her collapse into the struggle.
“Then who’s caring for Stan?”
“Do you know my name? I know I have one.”
Muriel’s fingertips are like moths on my arm. A bruise the shade of a plum orbits her eye, cuts scatter her lower lip in hyphens. She hovers behind my chair, her mouth inches from my ear. She asks again, her breath flutters against my ear. I’m holding a photo album of my daughters, reminding my mother of each image’s context. Some days I can’t tell if she recognizes the little girls in the pictures, the ones wearing the matching cupcake hats she knitted, the ones contented only in the cocoon of her arms. Other days I’m sure she doesn’t, but I speak their names as if she does. Her caregivers advise to avoid asking Do you remember—instead, I dictate her memories, and she nods after each telling. Muriel touches my shoulder, the pressure more whisper than demand. I say, “Your name is Muriel.”
“No,” she says. “That can’t be right.”
“Why is everyone still alive?”
Greta must be one hundred years old. Her chest is in the constant furl of kyphosis, so much so her line of sight is always fixed on the ground. I don’t know Greta’s story, only that she is often troubled by her state of survival. I’m tempted to craft her catastrophe: the single surviving member of an interned family; the girl that locked her sister’s bedroom door before the fire was set; the mother who once tried to slip from the grasp of her husband at midnight and start a new life with her infant daughter. Or maybe these are the stories I want to give my mother, histories that, compared to her past, render her present less terrifying, her future an amnesic reprieve.
Greta moves on to another resident before I can answer.
“Quelle est la chose que je cherche?”
Helene roams the hallways of the facility—her static route a tireless square so residents don’t get lost. The corners of her mouth tug earthward, her eyes flare with the panic of someone that turned their back for a split-second and can’t find their child. I’ve never seen her sit—at mealtimes, a caregiver follows her with a plate of food, hawk-eyed for the chance to feed her. She wanders into any resident’s room that is left unlocked and emerges with objects: a man’s hangered suit jacket; a framed photo of a family she’s never met; glasses, hats, a toilet seat riser. Helene only speaks French, so I have no idea what she’s saying, and though I watch her for even the slightest sign of the relief of holding these items in her hands, her expression is always only one of panic. Today, I’ve brought my mother a mocha and when Helene takes it, she offers my mother a pair of men’s slippers stuffed with socks. My mother looks at the enormous slippers then to me. They are ridiculous, nothing she would ever have worn, but she no longer knows what belongs to others and what she can claim as her own. I take the mocha from Helene. “This is hers,” I say, pressing my mother’s hand to her own chest with mine. “You keep looking.”
“Quelle est la chose que je cherche?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
Adele grabs my youngest daughter’s arm. Her irises have pearled, the whites of her eyes scribbled in red. My seven-year-old daughter, lips scattered with cake crumbs, nods. She’s barely taller than Adele, who has left her walker—my daughter is the only reason she’s still standing. It isn’t my mother’s birthday, but since she was too sick to celebrate earlier this year, we’ve brought her cake on a random Thursday. She keeps asking whose birthday it is and we keep telling her someone, somewhere. Adele declines our offer of cake, but doesn’t let go of my daughter. She tells us that her son wasn’t good and that she’s never forgiven him for driving his car into a lake and drowning. A caregiver unfurls her grasp from my daughter’s arm and leads her back to her walker.
She twists her whole body because her neck is forever fused forward, repeats, “Be a good girl.”
“Are you someone I used to know?”
My mother and I sit in the dim community room. Even inside, the air’s drenched with rain’s rage. Many dementia patients are acutely affected by weather, and the week-long douse of downpours has deflated the moods and cognition of many residents. Most days, a visit from me lifts my mother from the drench of depression, if only for a moment, but today when she looks at me, her eyes stay hooded by low lids, and her hands neither grasp nor clutch at mine when I reach for them. I’ve come during music matinee, and a man plays guitar and sings covers of songs twice his age. His voice, unpocked by age or suffering, saturates the room: “Maybe I didn’t love you, quite as often as I could have.” I know my mother likes this song, and holds it in some long eroded canyon of memory where we listen to it on our cassette player during those long, rainy June weekends, stuck in our camper for hours, playing round after round of cribbage and rummy, drinking strawberry Shasta until our lips and tongues were bright as blood, our fingernails stained orange from off-brand Cheetos, hoping the forecast might be right after all and the sun will finally crack the canvas of clouds and drench our world with light.
KAMI WESTHOFF is the author of Sleepwalker, the winner of the 2016 Dare to Be Award from Minerva Rising Press. Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in various journals including Meridian, Third Coast, Redivider, West Branch, Passages North, Eclectica, Whale Road Review, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Pinch, Waxwing, and Carve. She teaches creative writing to college and elementary school students in Bellingham, WA.
Photo: “Blue Tarp 40” by Mo