My mother has blue hands. I think she keeps looking at her hands, but maybe she’s looking at her blue pants when she keeps saying “Do you think it’s darker?” For two hours she repeats this theme, a loop she is as locked into as completely as if it were an instinct. “Which is darker?” or “Do you think it’s darker?” She does not know who I am. She hasn’t recognized me for six months now. When I answer her question with a “yes” or “I think it is darker,” she cannot hear me even though I sit leaning toward her, a foot and a half separating our faces.
She has abandoned the castle and now is walled up inside the keep, her watery blue eyes surveying a world unknowable to my sisters or brother.
On some rare days she ventures out through the gate and into a country we recognize. My sister saw her one day early in June, and she spoke lucidly for 20 minutes. R. listened without interrupting or managing the conversation. My mother stared out the window and seemed to forget that someone was seated next to her. R. copied some of her remarks:
Time is growing short. Listen to the birds. Look at the sky. Think of Mama so you don’t forget.
Think of what we used to do. Just stop for a while and think of the old people.
You can stop a clock but you can’t stop your memories. Stop and think of all the good times we had and all the fun.
We are getting older every day. The days are long when you are old.
We try to fill our thoughts and dreams with happiness. So many days in a year…you start filling them, and they are gone too fast. Never to return. Some days are so long you feel like screaming.
All of a sudden you’re old and things stop. Days are endless.
I cannot reconcile myself to what has happened to her. Inside I boil with something akin to savagery, but with her, trying to break through on this day of a repeated theme and no sign of recognition from the keep that I can discern, I hold her blue hands. Her skin is so thin and transparent that the veins and capillaries, a gray blue in color, dominate their landscape. Her circulation to her limbs must also be poor. Some of her fingers bend at the last two joints, an indication of the arthritis she has had for as long as I can remember. Her right shoulder folds into her body, and thus she tilts to the left in her wheelchair. She cannot be any more than 4’10”, probably less. She once stood 5’8”.
I cannot fathom why she goes on except on a physiological level. Her heart keeps beating. Her kidneys continue to filter waste. Her lungs continue to transfer oxygen to her blood stream. I do not have the answers I want to the relentless questions that are always there every time I visit: what purpose is served by this deterioration? What kind of personal god allows her to go on? Why?
She is my mother, and I want her whole until the end. Death is not the culprit in this scenario. I rage against decay. I rage against my own impotent rage.
My savagery is sometimes directed against the silence that stands in answer to these questions and against this pat theological cliché: we do not know the purposes of a sovereign god in allowing this to happen to your mother, but we have faith that those purposes are all good. I despise that answer. I do not have Job’s faith. I want the sky to open and a voice to say, this is why she suffers and then explain. I want that white, hot, empty July sky to acknowledge that her suffering has meaning. I want an oracular dream or a shaking stop-me-in-mid-stride-waking vision or a goddamn face to pop up on the darkened television and to show me why, wherefore, what is the ultimate reason.
Of course, I have answers. My mother drank little and occasionally smoked a cigarette or two of my father’s Camels when we were not home (I never saw her smoke). She ate a healthy diet. Her genes are superb. She was covered by good health insurance. Until my father died, her purpose in life was secured – to care for him. She and my father were invited into my older sister’s home where they had love, warmth, good food, stimulation, security from want. She continued there for some time after his death until she reached a point where she required around the clock care. I can follow the cause and effect of all of these answers.
Each Sunday I sit in church and our ministers attempt to explain God’s mysteries to our congregation. They do good work. Years ago I came back to belief because of the charity and kindness of another congregation. I have doubts, but I do Believe.
In spite of faith, my mother’s question plagues me: “Do you think it’s darker?” After the 12th or 20th time, I finally start to nod yes to her. It is darker. It is darker. Yes I say, it is darker.