I walk down the hallway toward my mom, who is leaning against her walker with her friends surrounding her. They notice me and wave as I approach. She sees me, but she doesn’t wave, and when I come up alongside her and put my hand on her shoulder, she thinks, or appears to think, that she might know me.
“Do you know who I am?” I ask.
“Um . . . maybe,” she says. “Um . . . I think so.”
I say, “Let’s go then,” and she says, “Okay.” We start walking down the hall because I really want to put my coat into her room and to give her chocolate truffles that I brought her for Christmas. And lay down on her bed and unwrap the candies for her so that she can eat them.
And take a nap with my mom.
When we walk through the door to her room, she doesn’t recognize the bed as her own, but that doesn’t matter. It’s only been her bed for four years, one month, and nine days, as long as she’s been at the Hebrew Home. Not that long, really, when you consider she’s been on the earth for 90 years, one month, and 26 days.
“Yesterday was Christmas,” I say, “so I brought you this candy.”
She gives me a blank look. The holiday that used to consume her, send her to the stores months in advance to look for gifts and decorations and weeks after as she searched for half-off Christmas ornaments and sales on candy canes, just doesn’t register. It has been her holiday for 90 years, and she’s been telling the story of it for 80 years or more — the Sunday church pageant of her childhood, the box of ribbon candy given to her every year by the pastor, the warm feeling she gets when she sees lights on a tree. But not anymore, I guess. It is no longer with her, not in the way it used to be.
We call Debbie, and she asks, “Who’s Debbie?” I tell her, “Your daughter.” We listen as Debbie talks, and my mom falls asleep to the sound of Debbie’s voice. When she awakens, I say, “Do you know me?” She says, “No,” and I say, “Okay.” But then I try to tell her I am Beth, and she says, “Beth?” Her tone tells me she doesn’t recognize the name. I have been her daughter for 48 years. But now? Not in the way I used to be. I am the kind stranger who brings chocolates, and that is something, I guess.
She falls asleep again, and tired as I am, I don’t join her. I lay there, looking at Facebook on my phone, distracting myself.
When she awakens again, she begins a conversation with me. She has something to tell me, but I can’t make it out because the words don’t go together. But she works hard to say them, so I work hard to listen. She makes up some words because she can’t remember the real ones. It is a dream she is trying to recount, I think, or something that happened earlier in the day, or something that happens regularly. I can’t tell, because I don’t recognize the combinations of words.
I teach high school now, and we give students something called “sentence frames” or “sentence starters” to help prompt their writing. They fill in the blanks of sentences that start something like “In [title of book], the author conveys the idea that _________________. And that helps them continue to write whole essays about themes and literary elements and characters in books.
As I listen to my mom tell me her dream, I can pick out her own sentence starters.
“Yes, and then _____________________________,” she says. “I can’t believe that ______________________,” she continues. “We were so ___________________.”
But I can’t understand what she’s using to fill in the blanks. The words she uses, how she combines them, and the words she makes up . . . I can’t even reproduce them here.
I still listen, though, and I pretend to understand, to encourage her, in the way you talk to a baby or a toddler whose words make sense only to them. I follow the intonation and I respond as appropriately as I can, asking for more information, whether it means anything to me or not. Like improvisation, I respond never with “No” but only with “Yes, and…”
“She was really _____________________________________,” my mom says.
“Really? I didn’t know that,” I say (and I still don’t).
“Yes! It was so ________________________,” my mom replies.
“Oh, good!” I say. “And what else?”
It doesn’t really matter, I guess, only it’s sad, because the language, the English language, has been with her for more than 85 years. But now? Not like it used to be.