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.