The ones who have already gone

by mymothersbrain

John and his mom, Nina, in her room the week before Christmas

Her hair, which she once kept a short, neat blonde, is now gray. This particular evening it was freshly washed and brushed into a bob. Years ago, hair was a topic on which we could turn entire conversations, and I don’t believe that she would have ever worn hers this way. But now, so close to the end, there is only so much one can do.

We were at the memory care facility for an early holiday celebration, and John spoon-fed his mother her roast beef, sweet potatoes, green beans, salad and a cobbler with a bit of ice cream. For the most part, she barely looked at us. She just rubbed at some invisible spot on the table in front of her, occasionally landing a hand on her plate and dragging it toward her. But at one point, she suddenly turned to him and a look of surprise seemed to cross her face. She leaned toward him, the muscles of her face contracting as if about to speak, and I could almost see the thought: “Why, I know you!” She stared at him for a few long moments, and we hunched forward in anticipation. Would she speak? But all too soon, she went away. Again.

It’s sometimes difficult for me to be among her fellow residents, to see the confusion — “I can’t find my room,” – and the yearning, “Hi honey, I love you.” We reciprocate: “I’m sure we’ll find your room,” and “I love you, too, you look so pretty today.” It can be overwhelming; it can make me want to run.

After dinner, John rolled her into her room, positioned the wheelchair so that she was facing the Christmas tree and we sat there, the walls and ceiling illuminated only by the tiny lights of the tree. She used to love Christmas, delighting in putting gifts for others under the tree with tags that read “From Santa,” in her neat script. The moment was so rich with memories that briefly, I felt I could float on its surface without sinking into sadness, buoyed by the fact that at least, we were here, in the glow of tiny lights and supported by something bigger than ourselves: a recognition of our place in a long line of others who have already come and gone and carved a path for us to follow. Were they watching us? I think so, and I felt comforted. I ran my hand down the back of her head, smoothing the gray locks, and she leaned into my touch.

She’s not coming back, no matter how many times she may seem to recognize her son she’s not coming back, I thought. And it reminded me of so many others who aren’t coming back: the soldiers who did not return from Iraq, from Afghanistan; the men and women who left their homes for an hour to run an errand and never walked back through the door; the babies and children who were supposed to outlive parents and against all logic, did not; those who due to estrangement or long-held hurts remain beyond our reach; those of whom we’ve simply lost track; and those, like my mother and mother-in-law who are inching a steady path away from us and toward the ones who have already gone.

©text and photo, 2011 Beatriz Terrazas, all rights reserved.