The opened jar of Estee Lauder night emulsion cream lay on the toilet tank lid, forgotten in mid-application. Dozens of empty wire hangers grimly festooned the shower curtain rod. Wads of facial tissue dotted the bedroom floor next to the night table. Beside the sleeping form barely visible in the dimly-lit room stood a decapitated Virgin Mary statue and a picture frame without a photo. It was barely afternoon, but my mother snored softly in the semi-darkness. She’d succumbed to the liberally prescribed anti-psychotic the nursing staff administered to keep her from wandering about, pestering the less-demented patients.
The final stages of Alzheimer’s had stripped my mother of her intense anger, paranoia, and need to manipulate her family. She no longer talked about moving or taking the bus to the mall. She no longer ordered dozens of catalogue items that didn’t fit and subsequently got stuffed behind her couch or dumped in the hall incinerator. She neglected her meticulous skin care regimen and let her Clairol-dyed bob grow out to an unfamiliar shade of steel gray. The only emotion I could sometimes see behind her glaucoma-clouded eyes was fear.
But now and then, Mom would bend over to whisper something barely audible in my ear. My maid’s having an affair with my male nurse- you know him – the good-looking one, she shared sotto voce. They were using my bed in the afternoon while I’m at lunch. I know all about it. I saw the used towels in my bathroom and the crumpled sheets. Oh, I knew all about them. But I wouldn’t tell on them. I can keep a secret.
This woman I called mother was a woman of many secrets. Her age was a moving target, and by the time she reached 80, she had to ask me what age she was supposed to be. The only two proofs were her passport and her birth certificate. Those documents were locked away in a gray metal box, and her last will and testament expressly forbid us to put her date of birth on her gravestone.
I certainly knew that her hair hadn’t stayed naturally dark brown as she advanced into old age, and she finally admitted to a nose job in her 20s. But I wasn’t prepared for the additional revelations of her final years, unveiled by the Alzheimer’s disease.
Her initial psychiatric visit prior to her move from New York to Alexandria, Va. was a surprise, even to me. When she started flirting shamelessly with the middle-aged doctor (Mom was 82 at the time), and then unbuttoned her shirt to reveal her breasts, grasping them for effect, I was mortified red to the roots of my hair.The doctor was nonplussed and ignored her.
When we returned from the hospital to her New York apartment, she seemed initially happy to be home. She checked each room first and satisfied that nothing had been stolen or misplaced, she settled in for the night. I was dead tired and ready for sleep, but Mom suddenly became agitated. They’re using my bathroom again, she said. Next they’re going to want my bed. Sexy. Sexy. They took all my towels. They soiled my sheets. Don’t you hear their ceiling fan grinding away? They took my good pink pumps. I love those pumps.
Even so, I was never fully prepared for the disease’s distortion of her personality. I don’t think I ever anticipated the unraveling of her strict Catholic upbringing. Her overlay of sexual psychosis, while not completely surprising after the initial shock, still posed the questions: What caused this woman to sublimate so much desire that its only way out was through fantasies about her neighbors, nurses, and herself? Why did she choose to throw out certain objects that once had sentimental value? Why did she break treasured statues and tear up certain family photos? Why did she feel she had to lie about so many parts of her past?
I think my mother wrote her own oral history as she went along, and I believe she was more at ease with that fiction than she ever was with her real life. She changed her running commentary just like she bobbed her nose and dyed her hair.
I wish I hadn’t had to wait for Alzheimer’s to open some locked doors in her mind, and I wish I’d been able to understand her true reality better before it disappeared behind the blank stare of her stymied mind. The woman of many secrets would remain so – and that’s probably just how she would have wanted it.
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