Every night before going to bed, she presents herself to him, head bowed. If not for the two women holding her elbows, she would not be upright. As it is, she hunches, an inverted comma.
In his white kurta, he stands, ready for her. It is the most focused thing he does each day. Other times, he is lost in the murky grey of his eyes.
So she presents herself to him. They meet in the middle of the room, in a no-man's land with the sitting area behind her and the dining area behind him. Usually the TV is playing very loudly and the two servants sometimes glance back at it because the show that they were watching is not yet over.
So she presents herself to him, head bowed. He cups her face with his hands and kisses the top of her head. He has long knobby fingers. They almost meet at the back of her head. She turns her head into his hand. Usually she turns to the right but sometimes to the left. So she turns into either hand and then takes it into her own. She kisses his knuckles. There are dusts of powder on the nape of her neck. He kisses the back of her hand, the hand that encloses his. She wavers. The servants tighten their hold. He kisses her hand again. All the while, they are saying goodnight to each other. Her litany is at times soft and at times harsh because she cannot control her modulation. His litany is loud and certain, a promise of better times ahead. He says Allah madat karo, may god help us and that is usually the signal for them to part.
The servants lead her into her room, an artificial room that used to be a storeroom but now has been completely made up into a sickroom with a hospital bed which can raise or lower her. The bed has a metal railing so she doesn't get up in the middle of the night and run away from the illness that has consumed her so quickly.
He goes to his room, once their room which used to long ago have a large double bed and now has two single beds because he snored too loudly and she had to go to the bathroom too often and so it was thought that two separate beds on either side of the room would allow them to fully indulge these behaviors without aggravating the other.
Past the foot of the beds, against the wall is a three-column dresser: a vertical strip of mirror edged by two columns of drawers. At the base of the mirror, a shelf which holds artifacts of younger days: lipsticks and eyeliners and jewelry - all manner of necklaces with beads from the factory they owned. On the floor in front of this mirror is a faint ring, an outline of a short, wicker stool which used to be there for many years. The stool is now in the front room - she uses it to rest her feet as she see saws from upright to supine on the daybed where she spends, what else, her days.
I have memories of her sitting on that stool, in front of that dresser, carefully applying a dark rose lipstick and some blush. Her smile, when she caught me watching, would come sudden and quick and I would falter for a second before smiling back.
She would sometimes lower her voice and say: you know, I forget easily so keep reminding me okay. She'd speak in a whisper and what I registered was that she was taking me into her confidence, not that she was forgetting. What I registered was her telling me where she hid this bit of money or where she stored that bit of jewelry.
Now as she is forgetting more and more, I am remembering more and more. I am remembering the tiny blips, the small flickers along the way. I am remembering that she held a torch ahead of us and pointed to things on the walls, drawings and paintings of the birds and the animals and the people that now, she alone can see.
This piece describes a nightly ritual between my grandmother, who has Alzheimer's, and my grandfather, who does not. About 4 months after her sudden and rapid descent into the disease, I visited them in India. She was in that space where what she had been could still be discerned amid what she was becoming. I didn't plan on writing anything but on my return, woke up one morning with vivid images of their "goodnights" and so recorded them.
Reprinted by permission of the writer.
The day of her physical, my mother is wearing the same dirty, rumpled clothes she's worn the past four times I've seen her. Ma wears her greasy blue hat with the earflaps down. Her glasses, speckled with spots of food and flaked skin, cause her to peer out squintingly, scrunching up her nose as she rushes headlong into the hospital room. She hurries to undress even after I remind her that this doctor always keeps her waiting a minimum of twenty minutes. She grunts, knees popping, as she bends to remove each shoe, and each loose, grey sock. "Dzok!" my daughter Cleo reports from her stroller; "Sheoo!!" Ma's fraying cargo pants fall to the floor in a crumpled pile and she steps out, then gently folds them.
I glance uneasily about, my eyes avoiding her body. I have anticipated and avoided this moment. I've been watching the steady degradation of Ma's personality: the Loss Of. The loss of passion, the loss of opinions, of esteem, of self-esteem; the loss of self. I'm afraid of seeing my old mom so vulnerable, so weak: naked. I fear the sight of her sagging, flaccid, spotted flesh. At the same time, I regard her body with a morbid fascination. It shocks, it unearths me, to experience this slow but monumental shift from my laughing, competent, mother to a passive, humorless stranger. Her body will give me confirmation of her mind's deterioration, I think, when I witness that fragile old skeleton drooping with the flesh of the infirm.
So I look. And I look again, surprised. Her legs are full and alive. Their fleshy, muscled thighs and calves are shaped familiarly like my own. Something shifts inside me.
As she removes her bra, her fingers calmly following a course set by many decades of habit, she seems to give her nakedness before me about as much thought as Cleo does when I change her diaper. Out of Ma's bra emerge two full, round breasts, several sizes larger than mine, just as they always have been: big, earthy breasts. Why did I expect wrinkled tubular sacks hanging down to her bellybutton?
There she stands, a still-attractive, shapely woman. She stoops only slightly. Without her clothes, she is fully physical, generously feminine. Her grey hair falls sweetly to her shoulders as she slips into the blue gown. She climbs onto the doctor's table, tissue paper crackling under her, and leans back with a sigh, and I surge with renewed affection. My mother has grace; she has a natural, innocent composure. Her animal body has an ease that her worried mind no longer possesses. Her yellow chipped teeth, her graying hair, her muddied thoughts, cannot override the simple, beautiful fact of her womanhood.
I was at home with my two young children when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. My girls helped to refill the well, not just by cheering up the gloomy moments, but also by loving their grandma without judgment. I am also a member of a wonderful group of Berkeley writers called Motherlode. Writing and talking with them about child rearing, caregiving and everything in between saved me again and again.
"Naked" originally appeared as part of the essay "Grey" in Literary Mama magazine and Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined. (Seal Press, 2006). For information on Sybil Lockhart's most recent book on this topic, Mother in the Middle (Touchstone, February 2009) see her website: http://www.sybillockhart.com. Reprinted by permission of the writer.
Tonight, after my mother's steady breathing assures me she is fast asleep, I sneak out to the living room. I open a window and breathe in humid, fragrant air, grateful that Mom is asleep and won't complain about the breezes. I listen to crickets and night birds. Then turn on a reading lamp and get comfortable with my book and my solitude.
Ten minutes pass. Is that a doorknob turning? I decide that it isn't and return to my book. Suddenly, my mother appears in the living room. She is fully dressed. She has not dressed herself for a year.
"Good morning," she says. She looks quite refreshed for having only fifteen minutes sleep. And she looks beautiful. Intelligent and cheerful. She looks familiar. The dread I felt at having my time interrupted glides smoothly into pure delight at seeing her remembered face.
"Aw," I say, hating to disappoint her, "it's not morning. It's still nighttime."
"Oh, never mind. Come sit with me." I pat the cushion next to me.
She walks around the coffee table and sits on the sofa beside me. She looks at my face a long moment, then says, "You know, you are very pretty. There's just something about you...something special."
I say, "Thank you. You always make me feel special. That's why you are such a wonderful mother to me." At the word mother, I almost lose her. Her eyes slip focus a second, before she regains her composure. I warn myself not to ruin this time for us, to be careful of what I say. But I don't want to heed my warning, I am with my lifetime best friend and we are telling each other important things.
She notices my flowered nightgown and admires it.
"Daddy gave this to me for my birthday."
"Oh? Do you know Daddy?"
"Yes...I do." I stop myself from saying more.
"Well, imagine that!" She marvels over my knowing my own father, but I smooth that away in my mind. My whole being soaks up her presence. So many nights since I was a young girl she and I have sat like this -- the sounds of Bessie creek lapping at the dock, the occasional croak of the pig frog, the mottled duck's squawk drifting in to us and mingling with our confidences. This is the gift of one more night. I don't want it to end.
My mother looks relaxed and happy. She notices the opened window. "Goodness, it's black out there. What's that say?" She points to the clock.
"What in the world are we doing up?" With the expression familiar to me as a prelude to joking, my mother raises her eyebrows, gives me her impish look and says, "One of us is crazy."
Art and healing are natural partners. The essay "Reprieve" began as a journal entry in an attempt to heal myself from the confusion and contradictions presented during my mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease. The process of crafting the entry into an essay broadened the personal into the universal. The final transformation of the writing resulted in a fictional scene in my novel, Crybaby Ranch, which turned the story into the lives of any mother and any daughter facing change, illness, endings. Healing often creates art; art often creates healing.
"Reprieve" is included as a scene in the novel Crybaby Ranch (Denver, Ghost Road Press, 2006). Reprinted by permission of the writer.