My mother is standing with her purse open, clutching one strap and staring at a framed watercolor of a field of flowers as if it were a window, as if it were her window. She looks as if she were home, surveying the yard and the roses, monitoring her sister Alice’s comings and goings, worrying that Alice has been invited someplace she has not.
But this is not her window. This is just a picture in a frame; the flowers are not pink, not her roses, and this is not her home. This is something else to her; this place for old people to come to is giving up, whatever words I use. This is the stop where everything she knows is left behind and she won’t go quietly. She won’t let go of home. It is her most sentimental quality, one we share, our attachment to our place. She has not lost this longing: Her mind has not altered radically or broken in two; it’s more that the surface, the coating, has been rubbed away a bit. You can see more of what is there, the hard and soft, but she is still my mother and she still does not surrender. Or maybe this is how I need to think about her — unconquerable.
I rush up to retrieve her purse, which is full of dirty Kleenexes, loose charge cards, and an old Vuitton billfold I bought her in the city when she came to see The Lion King and I left the tickets in a suit I spilled syrup all over and sent to the dry cleaners. We have argued for hours about this trip to Tiger Place, which I have characterized — to her and myself — as simply an outing for information’s sake.
As she sits on the couch outside the administrator’s office, she glares at me as if being sold into white slavery, gearing up for a battle I don’t have in me. She knows that if she fusses enough, I will fold and give up this whole idea.
Waiting for our tour, Betty rummages in her purse, pretending to disregard the passersby, little ladies in groups, little birds in running shoes, who squint at her, assessing the new recruit. Betty just stares down at her old sandals, slowly pulls her feet back under the chair.
Everyone thinks Tiger Place is Betty’s best option. At the very least, even if she remains at home for a while longer or even permanently, we need a safety net, a plan in case she is suddenly beyond my care. The good places have waiting lists, and she needs to be on one, to be prepared. She has always dreaded the idea of winding up at Monroe Manor, the senior citizens’ home in Paris, Missouri, where Mammy, my grandma, lived before her death.
Tiger Place is a cutting-edge facility that attracts retired professors or the parents of professors. For my mother, who does not see how lucky she would be to get admitted here, this cast is not a selling point. When Jackie, our guide, mentions the lectures by visiting scholars, Betty looks pained, bored in advance. She is not the type to sit and listen. At church, a few ministers back, she developed the habit of holding up her wristwatch when the old man got long-winded.
“What is that?” she asks as I gaze at the lecture schedule. When I explain she asks if she will be able to get a gin and tonic.
She may not even be accepted for admission. Residents must show that they are able to care for themselves and become part of the community. There is a list of criteria that people admitted here must meet. Betty, inclined to fall inside herself, to just not register the goings-on around her, to refuse to do what she is asked, may be beyond assisted living here. But I don’t want her to fail further and wind up somewhere dismal. Dementia or Alzheimer’s facilities would be the end of her.
Without the stimulation of active people, she would fall fast and fade. But I can’t say these things to her, and she won’t see that I am just trying to take care, to be the strong one now. For her.
At Tiger Place, there are chairs upholstered in cheerful shades that make Betty grimace, and carpet that, unlike our own, shows no spills. The residents are mostly younger and in better shape than my mother. Would she mix well, I wonder, try to socialize or hide in her room? Would she dress in the morning or just stay in her robe, as she does if I do not force the issue? Would the ladies, gathered in cliques, understand or shun her because of her eccentricities? I just don’t want to see her hurt.
Dragging her feet down the hall, Betty looks a little sad, like the kind of old lady she has never let herself become. But she steels herself, trying to get through this day, to cooperate a little. My cousin Lucinda has joined us to help out, and Betty is more docile with her on hand.
No matter how I try to position Tiger Place as a fun-filled new lifestyle, as a relaxing relief from burdens, Betty will not participate in these fictions. She will not speak or comment as we are shown the studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units that, empty for display, are okay but not especially inviting. “These rooms are empty,” she tells Jackie, who says that of course she would bring her furniture from home. “I would never bring my furniture here,” Betty exclaims. She doesn’t want to break up the house. Maybe because there is no place for most of her things to go.
Our basement is piled with stuff. Late at night, I inspect everything as I listen for Betty to call out. I see what is ahead, picture the furniture lined up in the yard, all for sale — the antiques, chests with marble tops and tables, the candleholders, cups and saucers, the cloisonné, the brass tea set, the row of Japanese ladies from the top of the piano.
“Remember,” Betty always says, “those are hand-painted.”
Everything is for sale. Off to others. Someday soon. All the old things that witnessed everything, all the days and nights of our lives. I don’t have a place for them; this is a regret I have. The life that I’ve carved out is not equipped with extra rooms or empty cabinets. If Betty moves to Tiger Place, we may have to sell the house for financial reasons, depending on how long she lives.
I glance at Cinda, who has been the major reason for my maintaining a hint of sanity in the last few months. She looks at Betty and then at me as if to say, “What were you expecting?” I don’t know. The Golden Girls?
“Is she a craftsperson?” Jackie asks, but Betty, who rolls her eyes at this, does not knit or embroider.
She does not tat or sew and is not the type to linger over the creation of a lap robe. She cannot see well enough, nor does she have the patience. She is irritable, and now sometimes a challenge. Though she tries her best, she cannot always remember names. How can she make friends if she cannot call their names out? Who will come and sit by her? She has no hobbies; she once had friends instead. But now the country club in Moberly, where the couples of her generation once gathered for dinners, is gone, torn down. Moberly is no longer a place where many people can afford a country club. My mother grieved for months.
I try to smile at Betty, but she looks away. I try to walk with her, but she won’t let me be The Son.
“Please let me do for you,” I want to say. “Please let me help you. Maybe I can surprise you, make this all a little easier.” But she has to do everything on her own or it is cheating, breaking a rule. She suddenly looks tired and whispers to me that she just wants to go home, but Cinda and I guide her toward the exercise area. Betty eyes an exercise bicycle as if it were a guillotine. Staring at me, perturbed, she shakes her head. Nor does the prospect of yoga in a chair arouse her enthusiasm. “What kind of thing is that to do?” she asks.
“I want to go home,” she whispers to Cinda. “I want to go home.” So do I, but we can’t. We have to forge ahead. I have to lead; it’s my responsibility. Braving her resistance to public endearment, I kiss her head, but she pulls it away. “You won’t let him leave me here, will you?” she asks Cinda. I realize that she believes I have brought her here to abandon her. This is actually what she thinks. She believes I want to run away and leave her. Clearly I am, in her mind, the Joan Crawford of eldercare.
“Tonight,” I tell her, “we’ll buy peaches; we’ll go to the Junction for prime rib. We’ll do whatever you want.” But she will not listen. Perhaps because she feels I hold power over her, I am the enemy. When I turn to face her, she still refuses to look at me at all. She smiles at Cinda, her new ally, the one she considers persuadable, as I resist the urge to fold into the yoga chair and begin a round of chanting.
Watching Betty at Tiger Place, Cinda looks at me and seems for the most part amused. Again and again, she saves us: She knows the right questions to ask, makes a note or two as Jackie explains the walking tests administered each month, the bus for church pickups and shopping trips, the stages of care: Stage One, Stage Two. There are four stages. I think I may be a Seven.
When I manage to come up with an inquiry that actually seems on point — “Is there anyone to make sure she takes all her pills in the morning?” — Betty interjects, “I can take my own medicine.” But she doesn’t, and every time I hold them out she asks the same question: “What are these? Who said I had to take so many?” She acts like taking pills is some sort of hard labor.
Jackie introduces my mother to a woman with a fancy blouse passing by. “Do you play bridge?” Betty asks. When the woman, who looks a little startled, shakes her head, Betty turns away from her, stares at me coldly. I have promised cards.
“Older people eat small meals,” says Jackie as we head into the dining room for lunch. “They don’t get hungry like we do.” Cinda is a little taken aback, as am I. My mother eats enough for a camp of lumberjacks in the Maine woods. Betty asks of the lunch, “Are they going to charge us for this?”
Jackie overhears and assures us that the meal is complimentary. “Well,” Betty says moments later, staring down at what seems only the suggestion of a hamburger, “it better be.
“Don’t you offer to pay,” she whispers to me.
After lunch, we sit for a while in a courtyard filled with flowers. It’s a lovely place and some of the apartments have screened-in porches that look out onto this area. Sitting by the flowers, Betty rests, focusing on the blossoms. For years she has taken flowers to people from church who are sick and alone. Hour after hour, I have watched her standing by the kitchen table, arranging the stems.
“Who tends to these?” she asks Jackie. “It looks like they do a pretty good job.” It is her one concession.
The trek through these halls has worn her down and lunch has certainly not satisfied. “Did you get a look at that hamburger?” she asks me. I say nothing. “No bigger than a half dollar,” she adds.
Maybe I should just give up and let her be, I think, stay here in Paris, Missouri, see her through for as long as it takes. Then I tell myself I am an idiot for always going soft. That is not what the real Betty, who would have run me back to New York with a pitchfork, would have wanted me to do. She would have ordered me to live my life. Of all the changes that have transpired in my mother, it is her new belief that I should give everything up to stay with her that is the most surprising. This tells me just how worried she is, how much she cannot bear to leave her home.
Betty looks so woebegone when I explain to Jackie that I want us to go on the waiting list that I cannot look back at her. It is just a backup — I keep repeating this, trying to make myself believe this, to make Betty understand, but she just shakes her head as Cinda and I follow Jackie into the office to get the form to fill out and write a check. We have to do this. We have to make sure she has a pleasant place if she must leave home.
Betty will be number eight on the list; she can waive entry three times before she is taken off the list. Before she actually enters, she will have to undergo an assessment designed to test her level of self-sufficiency and “cognitive functioning.” The application fee is a nonrefundable $1,000, which I do not tell my mother about.
When I return to her side, she says again, “I want to go home.” She rests her hand on mine just for a second. “Please, George,” she says. “Please.”
I think Betty will never live at Tiger Place. She is falling too fast. Soon, I am afraid, she will be beyond movies with popcorn or exercise bicycles, though maybe she will remember flowers. Maybe she will find herself, on some future morning, running her finger along the glass of a painting in a hall she does not recognize, recalling in some corner of her mind the fat buds of her mother’s roses growing in her old front yard. On Facebook, a lady wrote that the days she gets to be with those she loves are “gold-star days.” I often tell Betty that these are our gold-star days. I have tried to make them special so she can carry pieces of these times in her memory. I am trying to pack her bag with things that might draw her back to herself someday.
I wonder if she will remember the cinnamon toast I make on Friday mornings. I wonder if she will recall Mammy washing her hair in rain — water from an old tin pan.
All the way home from Columbia, I break the speed limit. I want to check on the dog. I want to put an end to this day. My mother is mostly silent. She can no longer deny what is happening, and she is plotting, planning her attack. As we travel, Betty’s mood shifts. Suddenly, she is nice, so nice, too nice. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. She asks me if I need money. I turn the radio up. It is Reverend Lucius Love’s gospel hour. I need some lifting up.
When I was in high school, a man named Harold Long preached at the AME church, across the tracks from the white part of town, even then. One of his sisters, whose first name I wish I could remember, was in my mixed chorus class. She was big; her feet bulged out below the straps of her shoes. Stepping up on the bleachers winded her. But I always listened for her. There were all our voices singing together, and there was her voice, full of church, and the people she had come from, and feeling. Her emotion changed the face of an ordinary day, and I was drawn by it. If there was ever a time when I was convinced there was a God in the universe holding out his hand to me, it was when the Long sisters performed “I Believe.”
“If you stayed in Paris, you could keep that dog,” Betty declares suddenly, eyes glinting as if she has just been dealt a winning hand at the bridge table. She is playing for freedom. I have always enjoyed watching my mother in action. There is love and there is survival. At the moment, the latter can be her only concern. She will do whatever is necessary. Her independence is at stake. Her everything. Home.
I don’t want to take away her home.
“Can’t we just go on the way we are, just a little while longer?” she asks. “It won’t be forever.”
“You look pretty healthy.”
“I could die tomorrow.”
“I told you to get a flu shot.”
The ensuing moments do not fly by.
“Mother, can’t you see that I am trying to do everything I can to make you happy? Trust me, please. I’ll take care of you. I will do right by you.”
“I know,” she says. “I know.” And I think she actually believes it, that I can do it, that I can make it, somehow, okay. Outside it is so hot that steam is rising from the highway.
When I was in high school, I brought Mammy, very old then and not far from her death, home from the doctor in Columbia on an old country road. Her eyes never left the window; it seemed as though she was watching something, though she could barely see. Whatever it was, it pleased her. Finally, she spoke. “Look at all those pretty cows,” said my grandmother, the old woman who still remembered the farm. The blades of the windmills still turned slowly in the breeze off the fields in her mind’s eye.
“Look at those little calves,” she said, directing my attention to the window. But the pastures we were passing were empty. There was nothing there but the strip of highway running toward Paris and the room at Monroe Manor where she lived by then.