She had gotten lost several times on the way back from the store to her apartment on Edenhurst. She needed help navigating the long hours of the untethered day, the elusive word, the confusing exchange with a neighbor, the streets and houses that had no distinguishing features. It had been about nine months since we got the diagnosis from the toupeed neurologist, and she was still trying to disguise her losses. When asked if she returned calls from a friend’s aging mother who offered friendship, Pat said the new friend was “too busy,” and she “hadn’t heard from her in ages.” When asked why she didn’t show up for a planned dinner at our house, she claimed “I might be coming down with something.”
I imagine that her day began around 10 AM with a soothing cigarette and a cup of chem flavored Nescafe. When I visited, I beelined for the kitchen, unplugged the coffee maker and checked the stove. She often had a pair of forgotten slices in the toaster—a crime I often commit. She’d have an open book on the sofa, where she smoked and watched the news, and an overflowing ashtray that revealed a thousand silent moments. She was getting thinner and looking slightly less glamorous than usual. I brought books from the Goodwill—Alice Munro, a thriller or two, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – to add to her shelf. At that point she could still do the act of reading. Not sure what she maintained, but at least a book could occupy her thoughts.
That first year we still talked about her condition as “memory problems,” the doctor’s label. We had no idea what was coming for her or what to do in anticipation. I suspect she started on the journey to madness after my father passed in 2002. They had been married and living together for close to 50 years when he died from diabetic complications.
They say that kind of loss is like losing a part of yourself and I now believe a lot of what they say. Though my parent’s relationship was highly volatile, Jack was the love of her life. When he died, she wept while changing the sheets, brushing her teeth, or pushing her grocery cart down the aisles.
My brother, who lived near my parents in Chapel Hill, tried to tell me that Pat, his stepmother, was starting on the path to memory loss in the months after our dad’s passing, but I didn’t believe him. I’d seen movies where people had dementia and it seemed so much more dramatic. This confusion she had was initially sly, nuanced, subtle. My mother’s forgetting was in keeping with her demeanor. But I did suspect something was wrong. The circuitry was breaking down. She was slipping.
Slipping into a new self and losing parts of the old one.
After my dad died, she lived alone in a townhouse in Chapel Hill, smoking in her sunroom, staying up late, and tending to her garden in the late afternoon, having occasional visits from friends, until we decided it was better for her to be close to me and her grandchildren. My brother and his wife packed her things and helped her move to Los Angeles.
Pat lived with us in L.A. for a month or so until we found her the place in nearby Atwater. It was railroad style and had a little garden in the back. The idea was that she could enjoy her plants, walk to stores and restaurants, attend a weekly AA meeting down the street, and make a small life for herself. That never happened.
We wrote out instructions on a white board, introduced her to older people, invited her to all the kids’ soccer games, got her coupons for the elder taxi service, stocked her house with food, and tried to help her assimilate into this strange metropolis. I remember a feeling of promise when we bought plants and soil. We thought gardening would be a kind of therapy as it once had been, but the bags sat slumped on a rusty backyard chair, looking like a sentence that never got finished.
With nowhere to be and no one to call on her, Pat’s life became confined to the TV room, which smelled of smoke, and of the same Chanel perfume I remember from my childhood. The scent mixed with bags of carmel candies, Snickers bars, and nuts, diet sodas and dry skin lotions.
Her solitude became an opponent, the sound of loneliness an ache. Undistracted by the thoughts and comforts of others, we transport. We feel things with immediacy or revisit the past with sorrow and elation, allowing it clarity and depth and intimacy. We lose our sense of now and drift into then or when. I can’t imagine where she went on those countless days alone, or how she got there.
She had memorized the short, daily route to the gas station convenience store, more or less, and Mel, the jovial owner, kept an eye out for her. Once inside his shop, she picked out her things and he helped her decide which bill’s domination was appropriate to use when paying for cigarettes, hotdogs, and candy. He’d prompt her when she handed him a 20 instead of a 10. And he’d suggest she put the change inside her leather bag. When he could, he’d stand outside the store and watch her walk down the block and find her keys. He told me she said insisted she was moving back to New York City, even though she liked California and the kids. She insisted she was going to buy a car, maybe a station wagon, and drive across to “see some friends” in New York.
One day she started walking home in the wrong direction, so Mel pretended she had forgotten something in the store and chased after her. He caught up with her and guided her to the front door. He reached in her bag that was filled with candies and slips of paper and loose change and aging lipsticks to search for the key. She smiled at him, relieved he had found it. Mel waited while she got upstairs. He waited on the steps patiently, until he saw the light go on inside.