Santa Clara University

My Mother Taught Me

Erin Pate ’04 won the 2003 McCann Short Story Prize from SCU’s English Department for this story.

Welcome to the Glenbrook Retirement Home. May I ask who you are visiting? Oh yes, you must be Mrs. Mitchell’s son. She talks about you so often. Right this way.

Ignore the other patients peeking from behind their doors. Walk past them, down the long hallway. You are the outsider here. Don’t forget that; you are now the crazy one, not them. In this place, sanity is like a dream that you struggle to remember throughout the day.

Scott, so nice to see you again. It’s been a while since your last visit. She asks about you every day. She’s just inside, go on in.

How is she today doctor? Ask anyway, even though the answer never changes.

Touch and go, really, no way to tell what will set her off. Honestly, she’s had better days. You don’t have to stay long. Just let her know you’re here and then you can be on your way.

Open the door; that is the first step. Open it slowly, don’t frighten her. She is like a child, and you the careful parent. Try not to cringe as you walk into the small room that your mother now calls home. Try not to smell the musty odor that pervades everything. Try not to wonder what sort of purgatory you have confined her to.

Who the hell do you think you are? Get out of my room! Doctor, doctor! Caress her hand as she whimpers. Stroke her wispy white hair and wonder why no one bothers to brush it anymore.

It’s me, mom. It’s me. Deep breaths. Just start talking, that’s the only way to get through this visit. Tell her one more time who you are. Tell her one more time about her grandchildren, her grandchildren who are too afraid of her screaming fits to come with you anymore. Tell her about your job and your new house. Tell her all of these things so she can forget them again. Know that is all that she can do.

I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before. Away…get away from me. Tell her your name, tell her that you love her, that you’re here for her. Show her pictures of the kids, tell her about Lisa’s school play and Taylor’s soccer game. She was the star. He scored the winning goal.

Stay for as long as you can this time, before saying, I really have to go now mother. Your real life is waiting for you. Tell her you love her. It is one more thing that she can forget.

Don’t take it personally, they say to you. Don’t take it personally. Remember that she is a sick woman. Struggle against the hatred that is growing inside of you. It is not her that you hate. It is this disease, it is forgetfulness, it is growing old. Don’t pull away from her now. She has no one else.

Why doesn’t she recognize me Doctor? I thought you said these new drugs were going to stop the progression. Things have only gotten worse.

There are no guarantees, they tell you. The drugs are experimental. Your mother is an experiment. You signed the medical waiver. You read the small print at the bottom, you knew the risks; the risk that nothing will work, that nothing can save your mother. The risks are that you allow yourself to hope again. And that your hope is destroyed.

Is she in pain? you ask them.

No, they tell you. She does not know pain anymore. She does not know anything. She is nothing but a shell, a shell of forgotten memories and lost thoughts. Fill her with your thoughts, fill her with your dreams and your happy memories. And ignore the hole in the bottom where they all seep out again.

How did it go? your wife asks you when you return home. Try not to hate her for being so blissfully unaware. How can she know? It is not her fault that her mother died quickly and easily from a heart attack. A heart attack you can explain. There are reasons for a heart attack. Her mother’s death was quick and painless.

Your wife cried at her mother’s funeral, but all her tears are dried now. She is back to routines, back to morning lattes and scones. Back to carpools and soccer games. Back to PTA meetings and yoga classes. Her mother’s memory is strong and healthy. No, your wife does not know what it is like to watch a memory fade in front of you. You can’t remember your mother healthy. And you fear that her forgetfulness is contagious.

She didn’t remember me again. I don’t know what else to do. Your wife doesn’t want to hear this. She wants you to tell her that the visit went fine. She wants to plan your next family vacation. She wants to be the perfect nuclear family. Two beautiful children, one rambunctious golden lab, no crazy mother-in-laws.

I thought the drugs were supposed to help, she says. So did I, you think.

There are no guarantees, you say. But really there are guarantees. You can be assured that your mother won’t remember your name. You can be assured that the fear of being one day in her place haunts you at night. You can be assured that your children will never know their grandmother. Yes, there are guarantees, just not the right kind.

Back again, Mr. Mitchell? Yes, you are back again. You are back again because you can’t stand the guilt that is building up within you. Walk faster down the hallway. They only have one sense here, they can sense your fear and guilt. They will watch you from behind their doors. They will know that the only reason you came to visit your mother is to get rid of the lump in your stomach.

Brace yourself, open the door. She is sitting in her rocker. She is holding a picture of your father. Of her husband. Of a face that she doesn’t remember. Walk into the room, before you let yourself back out.

James? Is that you? I’m so glad you came back for me, she says. She doesn’t see you in the doorway. She sees your father. Don’t argue with her.

Who could stay away from a face like yours?

James, you make a girl blush. Accept that in this moment she is sane. Accept that this is all you get, this is the closest to normality that she can come. Travel back in time with her. Walk over to the record player. Turn on the record, the only one she has. The one that you listened to every night growing up. The one that you watched your parents dance to when they thought you were in bed.

May I have this dance, Eleanor? Hold out your hand to her. Feel the thinness of her skin and know that her soul is in the same condition. Don’t tell her that she is wrong, that she has missed a few decades. Don’t try to force her, don’t try to understand it.

Bring her slowly to her feet. Support her frail body in your strong arms. Lead her in the waltz she made you learn when you were a kid. Forget that you hated the lessons, forget that you fought with all your might to stay home from them. Recognize that you learned these simple steps for a reason. Recognize that this reason is today; this moment.

I love you James, she whispers. This means that she loves you too, know that. I want to have children James. I want to have lots of children. Don’t tell her that she only has one child that survives. Don’t remind her that your twin sister died at birth, don’t remind her that her other son died in a car crash. Don’t remind her that ovarian cancer made it impossible for her to try again.

And what will we name them? Ask her, but don’t hope that she will remember any of the children that she brought into this world. Don’t expect an answer, don’t expect anything.

Scott, she says. I have always loved the name Scott.

Daddy, daddy…why are you crying? Pretend like you didn’t hear her. Turn around and wipe your eyes on your sleeve. When you face your daughter again be strong like fathers are supposed to be. Be strong like your father was.

Daddy’s not crying sweetie. I just got a little bit of dust in my eye. She will believe you. You have fooled her well. She still believes that Grandma is just sick. It is so easy to lie to children. Especially your own children. Wonder what lies your parents told to you.

Taylor says that Grandma’s dying. I don’t want her to die. I would miss her so much. Don’t tell her that Grandma is as good as dead. Don’t tell her that soon Grandma’s body will give out like her mind has. Pull her close to you and lie to her yet again.

No, sweetie. Grandma’s not dying. She is just very, very sick right now. Watch your daughter smile at you. Try to smile back. Don’t tell her that you have a fifty percent chance of forgetting her when you grow old. Don’t tell her that one day she may have to introduce herself every time she comes to visit you.

Does Grandma know I love her? Don’t cry. Don’t let her see you cry.

Of course she does. Of course she does. She just forgot.

Open the door. Open it slowly. Don’t wake them. Watch your beautiful children while they sleep. Wonder how you and your wife made two such perfect beings.

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…make him the cutest that I’ve ever seen… Remember your mother when you sing this lullaby. Remember the way her voice would make everything better. Remember the way she kissed your forehead at night. Remember the way she tucked you in tightly and checked under your bed for monsters.

Kiss your children’s foreheads. Tuck them in tightly. Check under their bed for the invisible monsters that haunt them. Hope that they remember these things.

I just don’t understand Doctor. Listen patiently while he tells you that your mother is dying. Her immune system is weakened. Her body is frail. She can’t fight anymore. Look at this idiot sitting in front of you. Fight the urge to yell at him that you’ve known these things for years. Ask him to tell you something new.

She doesn’t have much time left I’m afraid. Tell him that you’ve been amazed she lasted this long. But don’t really tell him that. Doctors don’t care about that. Let him tell you the bad news and leave. That is what doctors in this place do.

Leave the office and wonder how many other people in this hospital are dying. Stop in front of your mother’s door. Watch the nurse close the door gently. Don’t be jealous of this young woman who will probably be the last person your mother remembers. Know that you couldn’t handle her job.

I’m sorry Mr. Mitchell, she just went down for her nap. I can wake her if you’d like?

No, that’s quite alright, thanks. Wait until she leaves to breathe a sigh of relief. Turn around and walk down the hallway. Leave your guilt at the front door. You’ll be back for it later.

When you get home, don’t tell your wife where you have been. Tell her that your meeting ran late. Don’t tell her that you have been dancing with another woman.

How was work? she asks. Tell her you love her. Don’t wait until later. You might forget. Take her into the living room and turn on the stereo. Play the first song the two of you ever danced to. Remember the way her hair fell in curls around her face, remember way time seemed to stop when you saw her standing across the room. Remember knowing that this was the woman you’d spend the rest of your life with. Know that you were right.

May I have this dance? Don’t let her say no. Dance after the song has finished, dance in silence. Feel the way her body fits so perfectly against yours. Fall in love with her again.

Where did you learn to dance like this? Feel the softness of her breath on your neck. Hold her a little tighter. Hope that your children are watching from the top of the stairs. Hope that they remember you like this. Hope that they file this memory away. They might need it later.

My mother taught me.

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