It obsesses me, this question of identity being defined by memory: if we cannot remember our past, does it mean it didn’t happen? Who are we, if not our history, the sum of our memories and past deeds? It frightens me to think that a life can be eclipsed with the erasure of memory. My fears are based on watching my mother-in-law’s personality slowly disappear, on watching my mother’s face recede into a slate of blank flesh when I ask a question she can’t answer. At which point in the disease do these women cease to exist, in the practical sense of the word? Not in the moral or ethical sense, but in the sense of being mostly present to their families and caregivers, as opposed to being mostly absent.
I wish I had the answers to all of my questions. I don’t.
What I do have, for now, are the moments when my mother is still mostly present — moments I can weave into a shawl of memories with which to wrap myself when she’s no longer here. Moments like the ones when I bring her from El Paso to North Texas, and we laugh and splash around in my health club pool. She wants me to hold her hands, so I clasp her fingers in mine as we move through the water, from one side of the blue square to the other, her legs a wavering blur beneath the surface.
“Walk backward,” I command, and she sings in Spanish, “Backward, backward, backward.”
“Ahora de ladito,” I say, instructing her to walk sideways. “De ladito, de ladito, de ladito,” she chants.
She’s 79, but sings like a four-year-old. I marvel: Could I have ever really resided in this woman’s womb? Could our blood have run and swirled together in her body, a symbiosis that nourished me until I could enter the world? And was it already written in that blood that one day, the reverse would be true and I would be the one sustaining her?
It occurs to me during one of these pool outings that the role reversal has gone beyond that of becoming her parent. We, her family, have created a womb to birth her regression in comfort. The thought startles me. Amazes me. And I long to hold this moment forever, to freeze time at this very pregnant moment. We could stay here forever, laughing and splashing together, my mother and I, in this watery blue womb.