When I open my eyes in the morning, I see my mother. She’s draped in a silk piano shawl, and her wild black hair falls to her waist. Her long fingers are busy on the piano keys.
A large oil painting of my mother occupies an entire wall of the bedroom I share with Greg. If I stare long enough at the portrait, which was commissioned by my grandfather, I can almost hear the remote ticks of my mother’s metronome. When I rise from my bed to dress and get on with my day, she floats off the canvas.
I know the artist who painted her portrait—dead now of dementia. He got lost years earlier and never found his way back.
It’s time for my husband to bring me my coffee and toast. We sit together on the bed. He holds one of my hands in both of his. He tells me he loves me then asks how my mother’s practice is going. I laugh because I know he wants to take the painting down and replace it with a Miró of a yellow parrot.
We smile and kiss, sharing morning passion. We don’t know how much time we have that day and want to use all of it. He wraps me in one of his arms, the other arm in my hair. His soft lips linger a moment. When we part, I want to call him to come to me.
The brownstone, in the west seventies of New York City, has been in our family for generations. My father lives in the separate apartment on the top floor. As a writer, I take up the least space, so I have the smaller bedroom downstairs, which I share with Greg. Books line the walls, except the wall with the painting of my mother.
That painting destroys my grandparents’ marriage. My grandmother believes my grandfather was overwhelmed by his daughter’s beauty and talent. In later years, I find out this is true. When my mother grows up and marries, it is to a tall, handsome violinist, a teacher at Juilliard. They play together every night. I am born the next year.
When her concert life is over, when her fragile memory breaks her life into fragments, she is forced to stop performing. Her fingers still caress the piano keys at home, but her anxieties and phobias keep her from the spotlight and the concert grand piano. My father still plays the violin with her but misses the woman he married. He doesn’t understand the frailty of the brain. My mother hasn’t disappeared, not yet, not completely. But eventually, after she smacks and tries to punch me, Greg and my father take her to an Alzheimer’s facility. My father grieves this loss, although she has a lovely sunny room and she makes friends when she isn’t making enemies. She adjusts gradually, after several months of hysteria. The longer her past, the shorter her future, until she’s living in the middle of nowhere.
Initially, we aren’t sure whether the facility will be able to meet her needs, but she calms down when her peers hear her play the piano and beg for her to play again. She plays the piano solo version of Symphony No. 2 by Rachmaninoff. There is silence when she brings her long fingers down on the last chord. Then her audience lets out a chorus of kudos.
When my father visits with his violin, the facility really comes to life. My parents play foot-stomping Yiddish tunes, classical waltzes, old familiar songs. They don’t play anything too long that it would try the patience of the others. One day, my father brings their little white poodle, Lizzie, to visit my mother. The dog adores my mother and everyone else she meets there. It is then expected that my father will bring Lizzie every time he visits. One day he arrives without her. Everyone is concerned about the dog. Then they forget about her. I want Lizzie at home with me.
At home, I weep for no reason and stay in bed for a couple of days. I drug myself with Valium. Eventually, I return to life and go back to writing my collection of short stories. And the piano. My mother’s portrait is replaced with the Miró.
I feel the very beginnings of my mother’s illness trickle down to me. The process is slow. I have good days and bad. I recall something—a name, a book, a friend—and then it flickers through my mind and disappears. I look things up on my computer and write them down until I have a list of things to recall.
My husband takes me to my mother’s neurologist and explains my symptoms. I can still write, love Greg, love sex, play the piano, but I’m also depressed. Some days I just sit on my bed. Greg stays with me as long as he can and then has to work.
“It feels good when you’re here,” I tell him.
When I write, I commit word after word to page after page and print them out so I can reread and edit them, so I can remember what I’ve done. I’m grateful for my computer and that I remember how to use it. The neurologist explains briefly and simply what I might expect, and it seems I have several good years left before I’m crippled with my disease. I receive an acceptance letter from The Paris Review. I can still appreciate this, and I jump around laughing. That week I also sell an essay on mental illness to the science and health section of the New York Times. A check is enclosed in the envelope. Greg and I celebrate with small glasses of wine. My father is beside himself with joy. In our family, the New York Times is the pinnacle of success. He tells my mother, and she gets nasty.
“Since when is she is a doctor?” my mother asks him.
Greg makes certain that I recall my most recent successes. I do. The Paris Review and the New York Times, I repeat to myself. He dearly wants me to remember. I want to go out alone. Greg won’t let me. He’s afraid I might turn around and get lost.
I have temper tantrums now and then. I insist that I want Greg to return the portrait of my mother to its place. He refuses, so I let it go. I don’t really want to see her all the time. He suggests I return to practicing the piano—my mother had given me lessons when I was young, and I quickly played my way into extraordinarily difficult pieces. My fingers fell where they belonged, and I read the old pages of music without difficulty.
After writing and piano we go out to walk. Greg takes a break from his painting, holds my hand, and walks with me. The streets are still familiar to me, and I enjoy shopping. By nightfall I’m exhausted and sleep well after taking an antidepressant the neurologist has prescribed. Greg crawls onto the soft bed next to me. He puts his long arms around me and we kiss and fool around, but we’re too tired for the final intimacy and need sleep instead.
My husband invites friends over for dinner, friends who are aware of what’s slowly happening to me. I don’t know that they know and so I relax. I take a dose of Valium.
After dinner, over drinks and dessert, a friend of ours, coached by Greg, asks if I might like to play something for them. Liszt, perhaps, as I am particularly drawn to Hungarian Rhapsody no. 6, or the last movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. What the two pieces share is difficulty and wild speed. But for me it is as if they play themselves.
Without giving more thought to this request, I’m at the piano, my mother’s parlor grand, seated in the lyre-back chair. I start in on the Liszt. It increases to a mad whirlwind of octaves. My fingers come down with certainty and bravery on the last chords. My friends are standing. It’s a small group, but it sounds like an ovation. My husband is at my side. He turns my head to his and kisses me.
We leave the dishes for my caregiver. I’m exhausted, and so is Greg. It’s still early enough in the course of my disease for my mood swings and insecurities to be a strain. My husband is my main source of help when I’m having a bad day. He takes me to Oregon Health Science University, where I’m tested and participate in a discussion about how I’m progressing. I can tell the neurologist about my family history. My memories are haphazard and go in and out. I know my mother and I never got along. We hated each other, and I threatened to kill her. But I still feel love for my husband and enjoy my caregiver’s company.
Considering how quickly my mother deteriorated, I have a reference point to know what is happening and where I might be going. My physical workup is normal. The score of my mini-mental state exam score is lower than I want it to be, but I comfort myself by playing the piano and reading, although reading is more difficult than it once was. I read sentences slowly to take in their meaning. These are contemporary novels, not quantum physics. I play chess at the first level against my computer and win one game. I want to leave it at that but I can’t.
What I want to know is profound. I want to know how my mind is failing me. I go on neighborhood walks and to Forest Park four times a week, with Greg or the caregiver or both. Sometimes we go to the coast for a weekend or to the mountains. My husband goes with us if we’re going to be away for longer than a night. My caregiver believes in routines, so that nothing knocks me off course, nothing sends me spiraling down into hysteria because it is suddenly unfamiliar.
I’m stable for more than a year when a more serious set of symptoms chases me down. I still play the piano. And I’m still writing short stories. But some places I’ve been and friends I’ve known for years play hide-and-seek with me. My caregiver is still with me. He fixes my hair and takes care of my skin with a light touch. Fair skin with pale pink cheeks and lips. I may not recognize the face in the mirror, but the two men do.
I used to keep a simple journal with notes on my mother’s deterioration. I reread this now. I screw up the courage to visit her. I haven’t seen her for a while. She doesn’t recognize me and starts to scream and scratch at me when I approach her. I sob and run out of there. A few months later I try again. Whether or not my mother and I got along over the years is no longer an issue. I miss her now. This time she smiles when she sees me. I ask if I can join her for lunch.
“Of course,” she says.
We sit and sip tea. My mother doesn’t eat much.
“What’s your name, dear?” she asks.
When I tell her my name, her eyes water.
“I used to know someone by that name. She was a beautiful girl. And sweet.”
I fight tears. Then my dad arrives to rescue me, with his violin under his arm. My mother perks up when he approaches us.
“Oh, that man I like is here today,” she says. “I’d like to marry him.”
“Would you like to give a concert today?” he asks her.
“Of course.” She looks up at him. She has gone from 4’11” to 4’9”. She’s lost a lot of her hair, and what remains is white. My father is still 6’2” and handsome. She seems to know him, but not how she knows him. The piano sits in the dining room, and together they fill it with their music. Everyone stops what they’re doing and listens.
My father and mother play old songs and some Chopin waltzes. I watch the audience, how they enjoy the music. I stop and briefly talk to my father.
“I’m glad you’re visiting her,” he says. “I believe she’s enjoying her life more now than before she came here.”
“How can she enjoy living her life here?” I ask.
“You were with her today. She doesn’t recall much of her life before here. She has no future she can imagine. And no past she can remember. She has the present moment in which to exist. She has nothing to bother her.”
The middle of nowhere, I think.
I have my blood tested every other month to make certain my medications aren’t harming me. The neurologist and my husband wait for good news, a breakthrough in the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, a trial of a new medication. Twice a year, I have a mini-mental state exam to track how my disease is doing. My caregiver, my husband, and my neurologist encourage me to continue to practice the piano and to write my short stories.
My mother’s poodle, Lizzie, passes away. My husband brings home a little dog who loves me and follows me everywhere. We go out for walks in the neighborhood, and though I don’t recognize all the faces we pass, everyone who knows us waves hello.
TagsArt and Music, Family, Memory
1 comments have been posted.
It's so interesting how the the mother, narrator, father, husband and even the dogs feel interchangeable in this story. Im struck by how cultivating and being in the present moment is an aspiration for spiritual seekers and the only alternative for someone losing their memory. I enjoyed the story; the pacing of it, the rhythm, the theme of steadfast music as a thread that connects when things start to fall apart.
Natalia K Burgess | October 2022 | Portland, OR