It has now been a month since Ernestine moved into Hallworth House, a small nursing home. Today she and I sit in its warm shady brick patio looking over the varied shapes of downtown Providence, listening to the birds and the commuter train, watching without comment the tiny drama playing out between a visiting dog and a passing wheelchair. Mom shuts her eyes as the wind lifts her hair.
Last week, Mom asked me to tell her something about herself. She delivered her question with a terrible blandness I had rarely seen in her who had been so filled with restlessness, searching questions for the last year. But that person is not who I am sitting with. Today she has a memory to share. It seemed to have come upon her without warning, perhaps triggered by the small dog at our feet. She shuts her eyes and describes a wooden boardwalk leading to a dock over a river. The details emerge one by one. Some of the words do not fit the event or match up properly but we keep at it, me with my head full of words, her with a memory filling in as we go. The Susquehanna River. 1931. A day at the summer cottage. Jack the dog. A game of jacks. Sunshine. Sickly older sister Jane in bed. Her mother, erratic, moody, critical, fussing at someone else. A joy welling up inside her, long buried for safekeeping.
Ernestine’s mother Mabel had a temper and a sharp tongue. She scared her three daughters: Alice, Jane and Ernestine. Ernestine loved her father but he avoided his wife and his home, leaving his youngest to manage on her own in a house dominated by an angry wife and bullying sisters. Ernestine once told me a few of her family’s dirty secrets: her father taking her on a road trip to meet his girlfriend at a hotel; her mother raging when the repo man took the car during the Depression; her mother’s drunk uncle. Ernestine learned early to hide herself and her inner world from “females.” The anxiety that surrounded her native tenderness might have temporarily protected her from the vicissitudes of her family but it also dug deep moats around the castle of her heart. I understood the arrangement: I am a female. I am not to be let in too close. But today the memory of Jack the dog drops like a drawbridge across all her walls and I scamper across in search of my mother. I’m having one of those weird dementia moments I am coming to recognize. Ernestine’s joy as a girl, salvaged miraculously from the casual meanness of her mother and sisters, is now my joy. We are here together talking about Jack and the river and drunk Uncle Will who in this memory is the target of her mother’s irritation. The girl in me who longed to know her mother, who longs still to transcend the label “female,” dances at the access I am suddenly granted. We are both girls, together for an instant, with a dog as our friend.
On the patio I watch the small dog and the man who holds the leash say goodbye to an old woman curled up in a wheelchair and wave goodbye to this brother in arms. The warm wind rustles the shady tree above us and I notice I am happy. My heart is full. I am grateful when these memories return, a fragile blessing from long ago, back again to give us a moment of serenity, a fleeting point of connection.
A new blend of relief and shame settled into me. Besides caring for Naomi and Ernestine, my daughter May had a full schedule at high school, all of which organized my hours. But I had my own passionate pursuits. I began taking tentative steps towards becoming the person I might have been had I had more confidence in myself, had I had a sponsor for my aspirations beyond my own brutal self-assessment. I had begun researching a novel on the psychologist Harry Harlow, whose work with monkeys established the importance of attachment in primate—human and non-human– development. I wanted to write about those monkeys separated from their mothers after a few hours and who lived the rest of their sorrow-soaked days in the wake of that loss, that attachment wound. Quite spontaneously, I began to write from their point of view, making their voice the voice of my shattered baby body. These would be the germ of the novel. How can we study attachment and the origin of the theory without acknowledging the attachment wounds at the heart of it? John Bowlby, the man who first named it, relied (in the early days) on Harlow’s monkey research for the “hard science” of his new theory. The work with Riona, which had ratcheted up the more I cared for Ernestine, drew me deeper into my past in search of what drove me to abandon myself, to love anyone but myself. I divided my days with a writer’s life in mind: half the day for writing, the other half for my duties as a mother, sister, and daughter. I visited Mother every other day.
The nursing home where Ernestine now lived required very little from me beyond her clothes. They supplied diapers and medicines, relieving me of my weekly trips to CVS for supplies, and they shifted Ernestine’s care to their in-house medical team. The staff would take her to whatever outside medical appointments she might require. As we adjusted, I didn’t dwell on my memories of our field trips and outings. Any outings would now be purely voluntary. I imagined bringing Mom to my house for her birthday, to the park to see the trees in their fall colors, to the nearby Episcopal Church for Christmas and Easter services. The truth was that Ernestine left the nursing home only a handful of times once she moved in. The staff of Hallworth House officially retired her arthritic hips and knees as weight bearing joints. She acquired her own wheelchair, which she could move herself by shuffling her feet and joined the flotilla of wheelchair-bound residents who roamed the forth floor, weaving in between the lunch cart and portable nursing stations, from the television and table in the living room to bedrooms, there and back again, in a steady slow flow.
On another day, a gorgeous with summer—76 degrees, breezy, bright– I hurry to park the car in hopes of catching Mom at lunch. I’ve recently decided its easier to be with her when we have a task to give shape to our visit so on most days I come with a plan: today I will paint her fingernails, today I help her eat lunch, today we will travel to the patio and back. Such modest plans help me manage the dreadfulness of time that I have come to feel with her and, worse, that I feel when I imagine being her. Time stretching on and on, nothing to do except to let go into a very uncertain future, with no purpose beyond holding ground, not conceding to the bed, the illness, the ennui of being old and then older. Today I come armed with a crème brulee from Whole Foods. They sell it to me with a ramekin that I don’t need and don’t even notice until the person behind the counter hands me the bill. It is Mom’s favorite dessert. I will not fuss.
Once in the old brick building, I punch the code into the keypad to unlock the door to the stairs. I have slowly cobbled together a set of instructions for navigating this facility. Never use the elevator—it is as slow and as creaky as the residents, its inefficiency a visceral orientation to the experience of time in the world of the nursing home. There will be no rushing about. Time is a state of mind. Be here now. Be there later… much later. I trot up the stairs and through the fourth-floor door, careful to press the doorbell that releases the alarm when the door is opened. I see some of Mom’s companions sitting at the table eating lunch. I don’t see Mom. The nurse tells me that she tried to get Ernestine to sit with them but she kept rolling away. “She’s back there somewhere,” she explains with a shrug. I set off.
I find Mom trying to get in a bed that is not hers in a room I’ve never been in before. I put my face near to hers to catch her eye. “I found you.”
She smiles a full and wonderful smile that fills me with unexpected joy. She tells me she is so tired and must go to bed right now. I agree and I get her to sit back in her wheelchair. I push her out into the hall. As we pass the lunch table, the nurse calls out for us to sit and eat. We do. Mashed potatoes. Squash. Stuffing. Chicken. Pickled beets. Pumpkin pie. Cheap silverware, bib-sized napkins, plastic maroon-colored tray. Looking at it makes me sad. Mom eats a spoonful of squash, a bite of potato and a few small pieces of chicken. She’s had enough.
“I am so tired. I have to go to bed.” I slip her tray into the behemoth cart to spare the aide this small task. I hand Mom the ramekin of crème brulee she will not eat and roll her into her room.
Once there I get Mom out of her chair and into her bed, something I’m shockingly bad at still, and I turn to put an opera CD on. This takes a few minutes. God knows who pushes what buttons to confuse the relatively simple machine but it requires resetting each time I try to use it. By the time I get the music playing, Mom is asleep. I watch her breathing, watch her face relax, then droop. I sit for a minute, to see if the nap will stick or if she will sit up, unsure of what she wants, driven to do something more, something different. But the nap stays. She opens her eyes briefly and apologizes for not being better company. I tell her it’s okay to sleep and she does. I wait a few more minutes. Time slows to a crawl.
I am burdened almost every moment by my aspirations—to get through my to-do list, to get back home, to read, to write, to have purpose or mission, even if it’s only to walk the dogs. With the end of my academic life, I invent a structure for myself every day, a to-do list of the mundane and grandiose (“Mow the lawn. Get an oil change. Write a novel.”). My purpose and plans seem fragile at best so I find it hard to submit to the purposelessness of Mom’s life. I want to find the next thing to do. I need it with a neurotic’s urgency.
I loved my life at the women’s college. I might have found my PhD work at Brown the longest of races with questionable returns for the effort, but teaching I loved whole-heartedly. And as I was learning, you can’t be a teacher without students. I felt stripped of a key part of my circuitry. I couldn’t feel the electricity of my own mind without their faces registering it. I had bounced around New England, teaching at Harvard, MIT, and Wheaton before landing at Mt. Holyoke College. It felt right to me, in my bones. Probably because the place with its gothic brick buildings looked like a cross between a psych hospital and an orphanage. It was lonely, chronically set apart and solitary. I had never been on a campus with such a moody atmosphere. When the sun shone or the trees turned bright orange, you could almost think you were in a happy place. But the minute the sky turned grey or evening started to fall, the ghost of abandoned sorrowful girls began to howl. I loved it.
For most of my seven years teaching there, I rented a lovely in-law apartment from a colleague from the History Department. A single room with a small bathroom and cobbled together kitchen, no tv, just wifi and my own door. I left the children and dogs to David for two nights and three days. I used the time apart to be the scholar-monk I had been once in college, recovering from anorexia through the monastery of higher learning. This time I ate, though. I worked away at the top floor of Skinner, long after the rest of my hallmates had left. I heard the ghosts or maybe just the cleaning staff. Sometimes I took yoga classes in Amherst, sometimes met new friends for drinks and dinner, reconnected with friends who still lived in Northampton as I had done twenty years prior after graduating from college. It was all made sweeter by the fact of my impending return: I would go home, by way of Riona, on Thursday. The year I knew would be my last, the year when most of my work friends couldn’t bear facing me or me them, I drove to work and back in one day, twice a week. It was too hard to spend the night, too hard to face those ghostly girls when my inner orphans cried for losing my place here, in this strange, glorious place.
Mom lets out a snore. Ernestine’s mouth opens as she moves deeper into sleep. I want to leave. I did my duty. I came and tried to find her. I feel defeat and relief, with a touch of guilt, today’s serving of mixed emotions. I do not have the wherewithal to offer her a prayer as I leave. I whisper goodbye and before I know it, I’m out into the bright lively day, pulled on, always pulled forward by my need to see myself in action.