I sneak up on my mom in the dining room and surprise her.
“Oh, don’t scare me. I get scared very, very….”
“Yes… no… very, very… greatly.”
We walk to her room and lay on her bed. I play Englebert Humperdinck on my iPod Touch. The device shakes as the tinny sounding music comes out of the speaker.
“Do you know this?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” she says. She closes her eyes and starts to hum.
“You know, Engelbert is in his 80s now.”
“Oh, then he can get together with me.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “You know, you’re almost 90.”
“Well don’t tell him that,” she says, not missing a beat. She barely knows what she’s saying, yet her timing is still impeccable.
She’s still totally into the blue Easter bunny stuffed animal who sings, “Jesus loves me” when she presses his belly. He’s with us on her bed next to a few other dolls.
I’m partial to the girl doll, with long brown hair, makeup and earrings, dressed as if she is going to the gym. I brush her hair with my mom’s plastic brush. I notice that my mom has put her own gold-plated watch around the doll’s neck, the watch face hidden in her hair, making it look like the doll is wearing a thick gold chain.
“Oh,” she says. “That’s where my watch is. I need that watch.”
She can’t tell time anymore, and the watch has stopped ticking. But she doesn’t know that.
“This little guy is so cute,” she says, snuggling the blue bunny.
“Yes, he is.”
“But he needs a friend,” she says. “There’s no one for him to be with.”
I offer my favorite doll, the long-haired gym girl.
“Hey, big boy,” the doll says to the bunny. “Give me a kiss.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the bunny says to the doll. In the voice of my mom, he’s being coy.
“They don’t look good together,” she says. “She’s so tall, and he’s so … short.” Then she gestures, looking for words, unable to articulate her discomfort over the interspecies quality of their mismatch.
“They look funny together,” she says.
“What does it matter how they look, as long as they’re happy?”
“Oh, that’s right,” she says and smiles.
The doll skips over to the bunny, leans in, and gives him a kiss. Then gives him another kiss. Then another.
“Now, slow down,” the bunny says. And with that, my mom presses his belly, and “Jesus loves me” starts playing.
When we look at the photo albums full of family pictures, she doesn’t know who’s in them. And she doesn’t know it two seconds after I tell her, or two seconds after I tell her again.
All of the talk about her nine siblings has given way to the occasional mention of her mother. She often doesn’t even recall her childhood home in Niagara Falls, the only place she wanted to be in the earlier years of her Alzheimer’s disease, having by then forgotten the New Jersey home where she raised me, and lived, for 35 years, or the little condo she owned for 20 years after that.
Everything, all of her life, disappears. There is no past and no future. No place but the bed and no friends but the dolls and no sound but the music and our voices.
And so we play. And in addition to breaking my heart, it is rich and nourishing and full of possibility.