First and again and again, if I haven’t said it this long summer week, thank you for writing me and telling me to take care of myself. In the midst of mother-care and father-visiting and driving back roads and long interstates, I at first balked at that advice. Finally I settled in to re-read your wonderful last letter about the public response to the work you’ve done and truth telling. Then a sentence from one of the many responses to that letter kept repeating itself to me and finally I settled in to write you.
Love, an old friend said in her response, comes through investment in people–not art. My heart has broken this week as I visited Kentucky and those I love there with such sweetness, such salt.
The nursing facility where my mother lives is across from the Floyd County Courthouse in downtown Prestonsburg, and is a good place for her. Only the two big bathrooms smell like urine and the staff has lined two main halls with shadow boxes, which are arrangements of photos and a small life story for each resident. I’ve gotten to know many of those residents. There’s Billy, who has a prominent hernia in the center of his big, soft belly, and loves the sweets I bring him, each visit. I didn’t ask you to do that, he says as he unwraps his miniature Reese’s cups and asks me, all over again, why I’m there and what it is I do. There’s Goldie, the oldest resident. One hundred and five, and mostly blind, she tells stories about her no-good husband who drove off some bridge with his mistress on a rainy night a million years back. Dot, who sits and stares with her big, sad eyes and eats her pound cake and has never uttered a word all the visits I’ve made. Evie, developmentally disabled, has probably spent much of her life in Prestonsburg Health Care. She laughs and moans with pleasure as she touches herself between her legs as she lies back in her tall, recliner wheelchair out in the corner of the dining room. Lois. Mary. Hubert. Phyllis.
And my mother. Pearlie Lee Baisden. She’s been at Prestonburg Health Care since 2010, after she fell at her house, where she’d been living by herself after my grandparents passed some years back. In the private DSM in my head, my mother has long suffered from OCD. From loneliness. From seething rage at my father, who took her back to Floyd County and left her after years of a sad, sad marriage. And now? Alzheimer’s. End stage. When I used to visit her at the home, my mother still had a repetitive language, OCD’s own song, a cycling countdown of stories about her marriage, about her love of chocolate, about the teeth she brushed for thirty two minutes each night, the house she cleaned again and again and again, her fear of salty food, weight gain, sex. She began to repeat stories about little girls in the back room, about boys trying to break in the house. By the time she got to the home, her ability to articulate had dwindled considerably. Her repetitions began to focus. Everything was chocolate.
These days, she speaks only random words that have any meaning at all. Go on then, she said, this visit. Pepsi and chocolate, she said, one time, and once, her brother’s name. She traced shapes on her pants legs. Rubbed her hands together, over and over. Was dull-eyed as they came for her to change her diaper. Her mouth spilled sounds. The fumbling for any words at all.
Love, Susan said in response to your last letter, comes through investment in people–not art. I agree with that. I ask myself again and again, my mother’s repetitions, her cycling language come to rest in my own heart, if I have loved enough. I ask myself, over and over, how one can love at all, with an inheritance of pain, with an inheritance of some story that has never been spoken at all, something I’ll never know that damaged her, violated her somehow, violated me in the aftermath, a wounding passed on from her to me and thus to the ones I myself am only now learning to love well. We invest in love, over and over and hope we get it right, as best we can.
And yet I watch her hands, these days. The way she picks at imaginary threads. The way she wipes at a spot on a table. The way she fumbles to wrap her tongue around a sound that might be a word, if only she could catch it, remember it, make it leave her mouth. I couldn’t feel any more vulnerable, or any more exposed by simply telling the truth about who I am, you said in your last letter. I couldn’t feel any more vulnerable as I sit with my mother.
Art, I have to believe, translates so much. Earth, become the potter’s beautiful gift. Paint, become red, luminous. Loss become words, become sentences woven across a hundred pages. My mother will die soon. Will her Alzheimer’s come to visit me, flying home to roost, a winged, dark thing in my own mouth? Will the pages remember?
With much love,