“I have to pee,” my mom said, moments after I arrived for our visit. We were entering her room, and so I turned her right around and took her into the hall bathroom. The sink in her room was broken, and I wanted her to be able to wash her hands afterward.

The hall bathroom has a shower and a separate toilet, with a sliding door. I led her to the toilet.

“Wow,” my mom said. “What do I do?”

“Well,” I said, “you pull down your pants.”

“Like this?” she asked, managing to get them down to her knees.

“Yes, and a little further,” I said. “And then you sit on the toilet.”

“What is this all about?” she asked, sitting down as I tried, from the other side of the door, to slide it closed. I didn’t really want to watch her.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said.

“Oh, I’m certain you have,” I said.

“My mommy never did this,” she said against the sound of tinkling.

“I’m sure she did,” I said.

“Do you do this?” she asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“Every day?”

“Several times a day.”

“Oh wow. I can’t believe it.”

She needed help with the toilet paper.

“How much do I take?”

I couldn’t help without opening the door and joining her. So I did.

After we left the hall bathroom, we had a cookie and a call with Kathy and then a nap. It was a nice visit.

A few weeks ago, we had the type of visit we haven’t had in a long time. She was upset and fretting about her inability to make sense of anything. She seemed aware of the loss she’s experienced and was grieving it.

For a little while, I couldn’t tell if I wanted her aware yet suffering or happy and totally out of it. (Wait. I still can’t decide about that.)

“Help me!” she called out to me from inside the bathroom in her room that day. She was worried she was going to clog the toilet and wanted me to intervene somehow.

“You’ll be fine, Mom,” I called back. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine!”

“Please, please help me!!”

It had been a long day and I just wasn’t up to dealing with my mom’s bowel movement.

“Everything will be fine, Mom!”

“Help me!”

“I promise you everything will be fine! Just finish and flush!”

“You hate me!” she said. “You hate me. My own brother won’t even help me.”

She repeated it many times as I sat on her bed, unable or unwilling to move.

It doesn’t bother me when she thinks I’m her brother. Or when she thinks I’m her sister or her mother. Or when she forgets she even has a daughter named Beth, or any children at all. When all she remembers is her mother. In some ways, she’s climbing back into her mother’s womb. I can live with that.

But I hate when she takes me back to childhood, accusing me of hating her and trying to control me by guilting me. It doesn’t happen that much these days. And for that I thank Alzheimer’s.

The last time I visited, last Friday afternoon, we sat in the dining room where they’ve moved the TV room. Hebrew Home is making some changes. It’s a bizarre setup, meant to make better use of their space, but I have to believe they’re still in transition. A TV is mounted to a wall at the end of a room full of tables for eating, and a couple of rows of armchairs like orphans are set up haphazardly in front of it, with no sense that any of it belongs.

“Sit here,” my mom said, but there was no seat for me until I dragged a chair over from a table.

It felt like sitting in an aisle, where someone might step on us.

“Were you upstairs before?” my mom asked, and I nodded because there was nothing else to do. Upstairs? There is no upstairs.

“Is mom there?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “She’s at home.” (I never tell her anymore that having been born 137 years ago, her mother is now dead.)

“She’s home?” she asked, and I assured her, right away, that it was okay.

“She’s not alone,” I said.

“But what about me?” she asked. “She’s supposed to take me home!”

“She will,” I said. “She will.”

In all the fog and confusion, one thing is clear. Sitting in the TV room which is now in the dining room, with no ability to find her own way to the bathroom and no knowledge that she has her own room, she is homeless. Nothing exists for her beyond that chair and occasionally, the deep past.

But her words rarely lead us back there, and when they do we go only so far; her words rarely lead us anywhere anymore. And the one consolation seems to be that she doesn’t know it, at least not most of the time.

How much do I want her to know? It’s a hard question to answer.

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When I walk into the TV room where my mom sits with the other residents, they are all motionless in wheelchairs and arm chairs. While they’re facing the TV set, their eyes are wandering or down, or to the side, or looking inward, or closed. TV is a waiting game for the next meal.

But this time, a Friday afternoon, it’s not TV at all that they’re “watching,” but a young woman distributing bread and grape juice, with songs in Hebrew playing in the background.

“It’s the Shabbos ritual, I think,” I tell Kathy on the phone later that day.

“Sounds like communion to me,” she says.

“Yeah, the Jewish communion,” I say, “only there’s no body or blood, just bread and juice.” I don’t know what it means.

“Do you want some, Mariann?” the young lady asks.

“Oh … I don’t … okay,” my mom says.

The young woman tears her off a very small piece of bread, and gives her about an inch-and-a-half of juice in a cup.

“Oh, you have to help me finish this,” my mom says to me.

“No, Mom. You have it. It’s for you.”

It’s unnecessary to say she doesn’t know what this ritual means, either. There is bread, and there is juice. And that is all.

There is no place for my mom to sleep and no clothing but what she has on her back, and not even that, unless she rolls up her sleeve and realizes she is wearing a shirt. And there’s no disposable diaper under her pants unless she notices it when pulling it down to go to the bathroom. And there are no sugar packets or spoons or creamers that she has sneaked into her pockets, because she mostly fails to remember she has pockets.

“Where are we going?” she asks.

“To your room.”

“What?! I don’t have a room,” she says.

“Just follow me,” I say.

We walk.

“See Mom? Your room,” I say, pointing to the photograph of her that’s hanging outside her door.

“Who put that there?” she asks.

“I did.” I say.

“Oh, you did?” She is smiling playfully.

But her room is lost as soon as we enter it because the picture of her is gone from her mind.

We lay on her bed.

“Whose bed is this?” she asks.

“It’s yours,” I say.


“Yes. See those pictures?” I point to Debbie’s needlepoints. Photos of the grandkids. “They’re yours.”

“Hmmm,” she says, but then closes her eyes. The pictures, the needlepoint, are gone.

On the bed, lying next to my mom, I call Kathy.

“Hi Mom!” Kathy says.

“Hi Mom!” my mom says.

“What did she say?” Kathy asks.

“Now wait,” I say. “Let’s try something. Kathy, say, ‘Hi Kathy!’”

“Hi Kathy!” Kathy says.

“Hi Kathy!” my mom says.

“See,” I say, smiling. “You just have to let her be a parrot.”

My mom chuckles.

We talk for a little while, and then we have the Jewish communion conversation. But it’s only Kathy and me talking about it, because the bread and the grape juice, out of sight, are long gone. As if they never existed.

After Kathy hangs up, my iPhone transforms from communication device to photo album.

“Look at this cute cat,” I say, pointing to a cat I’m looking after.

“Soooo cute,” my mom says, and coos a little.

I scroll.

“That’s Victoria,” I say, pointing to a woman with her arms around me, her face pressed to mine.

“Who’s that?” my mom asks.

“She’s my girlfriend.”

“Oh,” she says and looks away. Victoria disappears.

In the last 15 years I have brought no more than two or three girlfriends to her attention. This is a big deal.

We go back to the photo library, to more cats and small children. And then back to Victoria and me.

“Who’s that?” she asks.

“That’s Victoria,” I say.

“Who is she?”

“My girlfriend.”

“Oh,” she says. But it means no more than it meant the first time.

I love the picture I’m showing her, because we both look so happy.

“That’s Victoria,” I say again. “She’s my girlfriend.”

My mom says nothing.

One day, not all that long ago, she would have been very happy for us.


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Mother’s Day

I didn’t visit my mom on Mother’s Day. I had something else to do, and I couldn’t be in two places at once.

I figured I’d buy her a Mother’s Day card at Target that night and visit her the next day, on Monday. We’d celebrate then. It’s not like she even knows when Mother’s Day is.

When I’d taken her to the Easter service in April, she’d held the hymnal and turned the pages to the wrong hymns. I had to use my finger to guide her through the words of every song, so that she knew what we were singing, so that she didn’t turn the page too early.

“Do you remember Easter?” I asked her.

She looked at me quizzically.

“We used to go to church,” I said. “They always gave us flowers.”

She shrugged.

“Do you know what Easter is?”

She shook her head no.

“It celebrates when Jesus ascended to heaven. You know, after he died on the cross.”

A blank look.

“Do you know who Jesus is?”

“Jesus … Jesus…” she said. “Oh sure.”

But I didn’t really believe her.

Sometimes, she recognized a tune and started to hum it. That made me happy.

I thought about that on Mother’s Day night and didn’t bother to buy her a card. I realized it’s not that she doesn’t know when Mother’s Day is. It’s that she doesn’t know what it is. And no amount of explaining was going to help her understand.

She was standing in the hallway outside her room, talking to two ladies, when I arrived Monday after Mother’s Day.

“Oh … hi!” she said when she saw me.

“Hi, Mom.” I hugged her.

“Do you want to come with us?” she asked me.

“Sure,” I said. “Where are you going?”

“Oh, you know … ” she said. “But let’s put your stuff inside.”

As we entered her room, her friends walked away.

“Where are you going?” she asked, but they didn’t answer and she didn’t pursue it.

“Oh well,” she said.

I took her downstairs.

“I’ve never been here before,” she said as we entered the elevator.

We got off and walked to a lounge area where there were tables with chairs. I was carrying some coloring books and markers, and I put them on the table.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Color,” I said.

She needed me to show her how to get the cap off of the marker and what to do with the marker. How to hold it.

“Color anything you want, Mom,” I said. “Anything on the page.”

She froze.

I pointed to Charlie Brown’s hat.

“Color this,” I said.

“This?” she pointed with the pen.


“This?” she pointed again.


She pressed the marker to the page, and the ink soaked into the paper.

“That’s right, Mom. Now move the marker.”

She made small, discrete motions, not fluid ones, and the color went outside the lines.

“You’re doing great.”

She kept coloring, but the activity seemed foreign to her.

“How can you tell what color it is?”

“The pen cap shows you the color of the marker.”

She didn’t understand.

We switched from the Charlie Brown coloring book to the book featuring Mandalas, and she started filling in little teeny dots with green color.

“I’m doing red?” she asked.

“No, Mom. Green.”

“I thought I was doing red.”

We kept coloring.

“You’re fast,” she said.

“You’re doing fine,” I said.

“Do you do this every day?” she asked.


“I think it would be too much,” she said.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s okay.”

We continued for a while, and then she put down her marker.

“I’m tired,” she said.

We got into the elevator and went back to her room.

“Lay down,” I said, pointing to her bed.

She smiled.

I lay next to her.

“Let’s listen to music,” I said and opened the YouTube app on my phone. “I have a song I want you to hear.”


“Listen, listen, listen, okay?”

“Okay, okay, I’m listening.”

An ad started playing.

“No, sorry … don’t listen to that.”


“Just wait … okay, listen.”

She didn’t recognize the first few piano chords.

“Yuck,” she said.

“Just listen.”

“You must remember this … a kiss is still a kiss …”

Immediately she started humming.

She didn’t know the words, not most of them, maybe only one or two. But then Sam sang the verse many people don’t know, and she came out with a whole line, intact, a beat before he sang it.

“It’s still the same old story …” she sang, and then he sang it. Then he followed it with the next line, “a fight for love and glory,” and she hummed it.

Into the next song, sung by Doris Day, her breathing changed. Her head was on my shoulder, her arm around my stomach, her legs snuggled next to mine. She could have been my child or my lover. Or, I guess, my mother.

When I walked her down the hall for dinner, we were almost at the dining room when she stopped in her tracks.

“Hey,” she said, looking at me with longing. “I didn’t know you were Beth!” As if I’d kept it a secret from her. But she was so glad she’d learned it.

“Come here,” she said. “You can use this,” and she tried to get me to share her walker, to lean on one side while she leaned on the other, because I’m her daughter, and she wanted to share with me.

I was leaving her soon, and while I was so happy she’d recognized me, I was worried our departure would hit her harder than if she’d seen me as just a pleasant stranger.

Was I just a pleasant stranger when she’d let me show her how to color? Or when she’d nestled her body next to mine and fallen asleep with her head on my shoulder?

I want to say I was her daughter then, for sure, but I can’t say anything for sure. She is free with her time and easy with her affection, indiscriminate when it comes to her relationships. She could have known me forever or have just met me, and it would likely have made no difference in how she treated me.

Sad, I thought.

But only sad for me.

She gets to love without regard to the object. Without barriers, without end. She can put her head on someone’s shoulder — anyone’s shoulder — and fall asleep. She can get comfort from the world. She can have endless love.

Not such a bad fate after all.

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Carmen* is sad.

She’s been looking that way for weeks now, maybe even for months. She doesn’t smile when I get her attention like she used to. And she almost never looks up.

Yesterday, I saw her daughter Bianca* as I was boarding the elevator at the Hebrew Home. I walked her to her mother’s room, on the same unit as my mom’s.

“She’s like this all the time,” Bianca said, gesturing toward her mom, who sat on a chair inside her room, that same sad expression on her face. Maybe it’s not accurate to call it sad. It’s more like lost, her eyes not connecting to the outside world but looking inward on an unfamiliar terrain that’s baffling in its foreignness. And there can’t be any comfort in that.

“That’s mommy now,” Bianca says, “all the time.” She’s looking down.

Carmen had entered the Hebrew Home at about the same time as my mom, over three years ago.

“Hi, hi, how are you?” We would all beam and greet each other whenever our paths crossed, which was frequently, as whenever I was there, Bianca was, too. She was at Hebrew Home every day, or almost, as she lives in Riverdale herself. She spent almost all of her free time with her mom.

Within weeks, Carmen and my mom, recognizing each other from their previous meetings, came to believe they had shared a decades-long history.

“How are you?” Carmen would smile widely, as if seeing a long-lost friend, and my mom and she would break off from Bianca and me and talk to each other.

“We used to work together,” my mom said, and Carmen nodded vigorously in agreement as they both basked in a sense of recognition based on an invented past. Bianca and I would giggle.

Within a few months, Bianca moved Carmen onto a different unit.

“It’s much smaller,” she said. “And the residents get more attention.”

Eventually, though, Carmen was moved back to my mom’s unit.

When I saw Bianca yesterday, she was doing her mom’s laundry. For three years, every week, she’s been doing her mom’s laundry.

My mom’s clothes go through the industrial washers and dryers that mix the clothing of hundreds of residents. Her pants are stained with bleach and the colors of her blouses are dull. But not so with Carmen. She always looks well-groomed.

After seeing Bianca, I take my mom to the concert. The singer has a strong voice, and he belts out tunes as he walks up and down the aisles between the wheelchairs, leaning over to take the hands of audience members.

“I just turned 75,” he says, and we are surprised, because he seems younger than that. He is one of the most active performers we’ve seen at those concerts. And he is only about five, or maybe seven, years younger than Carmen, who is sitting in a chair in front of my mom.

When he asks how old the folks in the audience are, I hold my mom’s hand up in the air and shout, “89!” She repeats it.


Claire, a staff member, looks surprised to learn my mom is so old.

For some reason, my mom is walking better than she has in a long time, maybe because she’s had physical therapy, maybe because of her walker, which she isn’t using that day as she has forgotten it somewhere, and I have forgotten it as well. It is as if physically she has skipped backward in time.

And her conversation, pared down, is nonetheless still lucid at times. It is as if she has learned what is important to say and let go of the rest.

“He’s good,” she says, gesturing toward the singer.

“Yes,” he is.

There’s something very simple and easy between us, and between my mom and the world. It’s a lightness, a kind of freedom. Almost a transcendence. Her spirit is present, and at moments, it’s soaring.

Carmen sits alone as Bianca finishes her laundry. I can’t see her face, but from her body language, I can imagine what it looks like. The 75-year-old singer kicks up his heels.

Death is the great equalizer. But advancing age, and Alzheimer’s, are lands of persistent inequality.

*Not their real names.

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My mom was such a simple person — on the outside. She never lied. Or cheated. Or stole. Or smoke or drank, for that matter. She believed in God and prayed, and she loved her children. She was nice and polite and kind. She never said a mean word to anyone.

But behind people’s backs, she wasn’t always so nice. Sometimes she would gossip, and she would often complain about people. She distrusted, even disliked, people who spoke or thought well of themselves. In her mind, confidence was the same thing as arrogance, and she hated arrogance.

My mom never believed she was worth anything or that she was capable of much. And yet, she believed she was good. Strangely enough, she seemed to think that seeing herself as worthless was what made her good, as if her low self-esteem was an essential part of her goodness.

My mom was a very complicated woman.

I brought a coloring book to the Hebrew Home last Saturday. Mel had given it to me as a gift for myself. It was an adult coloring book.

“Wow,” my mom said. “What’s this?”

The pages were full of mandalas, intricate kaleidoscopic drawings with hundreds, even thousands, of tiny shapes to color in.

“It’s a coloring book,” I said.

“What do we do with it?” she asked.

“Color,” I said, taking the colored pencils out of my bag.

I handed her a pink pencil.

She looked at it quizzically. With a quick hand motion, I showed her how to color. She picked it up right away and started to color.

Sitting next to her, I took a pencil, reached over, and began coloring in the shapes on the side of the picture that I could reach, being careful not to get in her way.

Within seconds I knew why the coloring hadn’t caught on for me when Mel had first given me the book almost a year before. The hard feel of the pencil and scratching sound were anything but relaxing. And the compulsion to color every little shape a different color made the activity a torturous kind of work.

I watched how my mom moved her pink pencil. The color came out so light you could barely see it.

“Is this how I’m supposed to do it?” she asked.

She’d managed to color within the lines, sort of, but didn’t fill the whole space. As she continued coloring, she moved to the shape next to the one where she had started coloring, and then the space next to that. It wasn’t at all how I thought these mandalas were supposed to be colored — every shape carefully given its own unique color — and yet it was just fine.

“You got it, Mom,” I said.

After a little more pencil scratching, I took out the crayons. There was no need for the precision of pencils. This was meant to be a relaxing activity, and the feel of crayon against paper is far more relaxing than pencils.

I gave her a crayon.

“Ooh,” she said. “This is so nice.” She liked how dark and vivid the color was, especially when compared to the lightness of the colored pencil.

Sitting next to each other, we passed the minutes filling the drawing with color.

She began to color over the spots that were already colored, and then seemed to think she could transfer the color from the page to her crayon, as if she were coloring the crayon.

“Let’s get this color,” she said, holding the crayon over a spot already colored.

I tried to explain that the color went the other way, from crayon to paper, but I soon gave up. She wasn’t getting it.

When we finished the entire drawing, I told her I had to leave.

“No, no, no, no, no,” she said.

We went to her room so that I could use the bathroom.

“You are not leaving,” she said.

“I have to,” I said.

When I got out of the bathroom, she went in. She closed the door and started weeping loudly, continuing for several minutes, til she flushed and washed her hands.

I sighed and lay on her bed.

“Come here, Mom,” I said, when she got out. I asked her to lay down next to me.

“I hate it when you leave,” she said. “It’s terrible.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s hard for me, too.”

“But do you go into a corner and cry your eyes out?”

The part of my body that was touching hers shrank, just for a moment. As if wanting to escape contact with her.

“I want you to stay, and you never, ever will,” she said. “I’ll never see you again.”

“You’ll see me next week,” I said.

She looked at me and frowned, deeply dissatisfied.

I could never give her everything she wanted from me when I was younger, enough love or enough attention or enough obedience. And it would make me so angry when she would lead me again and again into the land of guilt.

I had hoped she’d lost her way, that Alzheimer’s had destroyed her internal compass, and for the most part, it has. But I guess at times she can still find her way there, and point me in that direction.

I know I’m not supposed to want her to forget, but sometimes I just do.

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L’Shanah Tovah

“HA-va Nagila, HA-va Nagila, HA-va Nagila Ve-nis mech-A!”

The musician was singing with energy and joy, and people were getting up to dance.

“What is he singing?” my mom asked.

“Hava Nagila,” I said.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I started clapping. She smiled and followed along.

We were at the Rosh Hashanah concert at the Hebrew Home. The singer wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t good, either, and his phrasing was terrible.

“We’re going to do Neil Diamond’s most popular song,” he announced, his booming voice reaching every corner of the room, urging us all to sing along. And yet, after he sang the words, “Sweet Caroline,” he mumbled the rest of the chorus. I couldn’t figure out what words to sing or how to sing them.

But it didn’t matter. I was having a great time, and so were a lot of other people. So, I think, was my mom.

She was raised Lutheran and used to worry about the fate of people who didn’t believe Jesus Christ was their savior. But that day, she was Jewish. No, she was nothing, or maybe she was everything. In any case, she was there.

And so was I.

Practically every week, I take my mom to the Hebrew Home concert. I try to be present. But too often, I’m only half there.

I may be holding my mom’s hand, and clapping and even singing, but a part of me is worrying about how she’s doing or how I’m doing or what the weather is doing or what I will be doing at my job the next day.

But not on this Jewish New Year. I was clapping and moving as if there were no other place I could possibly be.

When I had arrived earlier that day, my mom was curled up on her bed.

“What are you doing in bed, you lazy bum?” I asked, and leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

She looked up and smiled, and tried to formulate a sentence. She couldn’t. I’m not sure she knew who I was. That lasted a minute or so.

I’m seeing the disease progress.

Soon she was back with me, though. She knew me and within a few more minutes could speak more coherently.

On November 1, my mom will turn 89. Given my schedule and the demands of life, I could probably count how many times I will likely see her again, and how few times she will be mentally present. Some days it seems like we’re reaching the end of the countdown.

But then I concentrate on the moment, and it feels as if there is no end in sight. Only new things are on the horizon.

Old resentments I felt over how she treated me in my childhood drop away as we spend more time together. Regrets and guilt she may have had over my life struggles appear never to have existed. Ours is a relationship constantly re-forming, and the opportunities are endless.

It feels like a New Year every second, when anything can happen.

Many thanks to Ariel and Shya Kane, for helping me to see my relationship with my mom in this way.
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Being There

“Is my butt bigger than that girl’s butt?” my mom asked, pointing at a passing woman.

We were in the Hebrew Home sculpture garden, celebrating Grandparents Day with a couple hundred residents and guests.

I almost knocked us both over trying to get behind my mom to look at her butt, so that I could answer the question. I don’t know where my head was.

Obviously, I should have just said, “No, of course your butt isn’t bigger than that girl’s.” But for some reason, I didn’t.

I haven’t been thinking very clearly, or feeling very present, when I visit my mom these days.

More and more of what she says just doesn’t make sense.

“I lost it,” she said a little later.

“What did you lose?”

“The … thing … smitchit.”

“You didn’t lose anything, Mom.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. “You must have left it in your room.”

“Okay,” she said. “But now we can’t sing.”

“Sing? What do you mean?”


“You said we can’t sing. Why can’t we sing?”

“Well, how can we do it without that?”

I shrugged and tried to let it drop.

But it’s hard because more and more, our conversations sound like this. Words that aren’t real. Sentences that break down midway through a thought. Thoughts that bear no relationship to what’s happening around us.

My friend Nancy’s two-year-old daughter Rayne is making new neural connections every second of every day. Her hungry brain gobbles up whatever she hears. Everything Nancy says matters so much, because this wise and growing child is investing it with meaning.

My mom forgets everything I say. And nothing has any meaning.

I’m resisting this disease again, just like I did in the earlier stages, when it started to progress from mild to moderate. My mom was reverting to the past, asking questions that were no longer relevant. I wanted to keep telling her the truth, even when the truth was painful and she didn’t need to hear it.

“How is my mom?” she would ask.

“Grandma died 45 years ago.”

She grieved it anew each time I told her.

I wasn’t trying to be cruel. I just wanted her to continue to live in the real world. I wasn’t ready to give her up to Alzheimer’s.

But I realized there’s no point in fighting Alzheimer’s. And then I learned that I didn’t have to give her up if I just let her take the lead.

“How is my mom?” she would ask.

“She’s great.”

“Oh, I’m so glad.”

“Me, too. She’s doing remarkably well.”

And that was just the beginning. I went along with every scenario her mind could dream up, becoming a master at improvisation. Escorted by Alzheimer’s, she took us to places we’d never been.

It helps me to remember that.

Now we’re approaching another bend in the road, and I don’t want her to leave me behind. Resistance is pointless, and painful, and lonely. For both of us.

I’ll learn baby talk if I have to. I’ll rejoice when she makes no sense and repeat her made-up words. I’ll laugh with her and cry with her, and we’ll dance in our seats. We’ll sing until the words stop coming, and then we’ll hum. And nothing will ever have meaning again. But I’ll be there, wherever she is, and so will she, until she physically can’t be there any more.

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