Time beyond remembrance and pain

May 04, 1994|By Jeri Watson

EVEN AS I carried the portrait to her room, I wondered why I had bothered. After all, the person I was visiting in the nursing home was not really my mother.

True, this white-haired woman looked something like her. But Mother herself had been kidnapped. Nowadays, another person lived in her body.

I entered her room with the dread I had learned to feel over the past few months. Each time I visited, Mom's once electric-blue eyes seemed dimmer, her moments of lucidity shorter. Weeks had passed since I'd seen her smile. Instead, her face seemed immobile, frozen in an anxious frown that changed only when she caught sight of some hallucinatory figure. Then, she'd look terrified.

My hopes surged when she murmured ''hello'' and ''I'm OK'' when I inquired about her health. But then she began the litany of nonsense syllables and babble that is sometimes characteristic of stroke and Alzheimer's victims.

''Oh, no, no, no,'' she'd say when I tried to converse.

She looked at a blank wall, at her bed, at the floor, everywhere but at me.

I wondered what she was talking about. Mom, what are you seeing? Where are you?

I decided not to put the portrait down, even though its heavy wooden frame dug into my flesh. Once she caught my hand, it was hard to get free. Somebody had explained that the grasping response in infants develops before the release; it seemed my mother was losing her skills in reverse order, returning to infancy.

''Remember this?'' I asked, showing her the picture I'd brought to brighten her room. The tinted photographic portrait showed a blond woman, her hair rolled into a 1940s bob, holding me as a toddler. I wore a pink ribbon on top of my head.

I took down the standard nursing-home flower print hanging over her bed and replaced it with our photo portrait.

''Do you remember how old I was when this was taken?,'' I asked, desperate to engage her attention.

''Oh, no, no, no, no . . .''

Then, suddenly, she stopped as my younger son, a college student, came into the room. At least she knew her family. People often told us we should be grateful for that. I tried, but all I could think about was a devil's bargain: I'd give nearly anything if she could just be herself again for one day, one hour.

My son asked, ''How old was Mom when that picture was taken?''

''Oh, no, no,'' she started, then abruptly halted. ''About two and a half or three years old,'' she said, quite distinctly.

''You were some good lookin' thing, Grandma,'' he continued. ''I didn't know you were so blond.''

''With a little help from a bottle,'' she said. She smiled.

My son asked about the clothes people wore in those days, and she was able to murmur something about skirt lengths and something called a New Look. Then we got Mother to listen, really listen, as my son told her about his summer job as a swimming pool attendant at a local country club.

''Oh, do you get good tips?'' she demanded.

When we went home, I felt I'd regained a little of my mother's lost personality. The sight of that slightly faded portrait somehow had awakened her sense of connection.

It seemed the benefits were to last awhile, too. For months, I had been unable to push her wheelchair more than a few yards down the aseptic nursing-home halls. But for the next three or four visits I succeeded in cajoling Mother into venturing further than the hall. We discovered a screened porch off the third-floor television lounge. There I would install her wheelchair in front of the panoramic view of weeping willows and the nearby lake, with its hundreds of ducks.

From our perch above the treetops, I felt free now to disregard the doctor's advice that one should never, ever humor a demented person.

Instead, we both said goodbye to reality. Mother and I played time travelers, drifting between memories and impossible plans.

From behind our screens, we'd watch the cliff divers in Acapulco, or stroll through the formal gardens of Versailles. Or we'd again enjoy the Drake Hotel ballroom, where Mother and Father often went to dance when I was a child.

I'd remind her of the sequined black dress she wore and how handsome my father looked in his best dark suit. To a little girl, they were a surpassingly romantic couple.

Impossible that time could touch them, change them, steal their glamour. It did, of course.

Father died of cancer at age fifty-three. And here was Mother -- old, nearly helpless, bereft of her reason.

Sometimes I tried to make sense of it -- Father having too little time, Mother living far beyond her own. But no good reasons or answers materialized.

And too soon, time stole the summer. It took away our coveted spot on the screened porch; Mother felt the chill too much to sit outside anymore.

After that, I visited her two or three times in her room. She seemed happy to see me but too weak to talk very much. Then, one evening as I made dinner and my older son mowed our lawn, the call came from the nursing home.

The images of my mother as a young woman and me as a baby watched over her from the wall as she lay in her bed, an old woman, peaceful in death.

Nowadays the portrait hangs over my own bed. Sometimes it makes me feel desolate. Usually, though, I sense her companionship.

And from that picture I think I've figured something out about the meaning of time.

I think maybe none of us is real. More likely, we are just figures in a portrait.

And I think that time itself is a portrait, a faded, tinted photograph that we inhabit a little while before we, too, move on beyond pain, beyond pleasure, beyond all we remember.

Jeri Watson writes from Bethesda.

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