The last time my son Theo saw his Lala he was nine years old. Lala was the name my mother had chosen for Theo, her only grandchild, to call her because she felt that Grandma sounded too old. She was 72 when he was born. Back then she still dyed her hair a brownish red and liked to borrow my clothes. She favored my wild prints, flowered skirts, and long sweaters. My narrow-legged jeans though, were impossible for her to pull over her wide hips. Before Theo was born, we discussed the name. She said she liked the musical sound of Lala; we all did. Even my ex-husband, who was not an ex at the time, but who was still a little surprised that I was so accommodating to anyone who did not want to be called Grandma, liked Lala’s name. To me the name had a nursery room sweetness. A name that called to my mind baby talk itself, or what is referred to as Babyease — like Chinese or Japanese — a language all its own. Lala had been her nickname, the term of endearment that I remember my father calling her, back when they were both young, swirling around in party clothes, part of the glamorous New York City art scene.
Right from the start my mother and my son were close. In retrospect, I realize that the very early stages of her Alzheimer’s dementia allowed her to meet him on some young, sweet, carefree plain. When he was a toddler they ran through the house pretending to be rocket ships. With him, she was unaware that she’d forgotten things. They liked to sit on the couch and watch Rug Rats together. She told him stories and in an imaginary world, it didn’t matter what was right or wrong. Watching the two of them I don’t remember feeling like one of the sandwich generation, squeezed between the old and the young. I felt like the stitching, a thread binding two pieces of cloth together to form something whole.
But, unknown to us, her disease was progressing. It started with small things: when she babysat for Theo she forgot to give him a bath or feed him dinner. Or they’d go for a walk and she’d forget where the hide-a-key was kept. I’d come home to find them sitting on the steps in the dark telling stories. Countless little episodes, that at first I didn’t recognize as adding up to a whole story, so I just ignored what was happening.
Then, a year before her official diagnosis, Theo and I found her by accident at the Port Jefferson Ferry Station. My mother was living up in Hartford, Connecticut at the time, a four and a half hour trip from my home in Southampton, New York. On the day of the ferryboat incident, I was taking Theo, who was eight by this time, up to visit old friends in Massachusetts. We planned on stopping to visit Lala in Connecticut on our way north. I’d even called my mother that morning to remind her that we would be arriving at her house later that afternoon. Before boarding the ferry, Theo and I went into the station to buy a candy bar. We never stopped to buy candy bars, but this time we did. I lost my dollar and fifty cents in the machine, gave it a kick and uttered a loud, “Shit!”
Suddenly from across the room, I heard my mother’s voice call out a sharp reprimand, “Gaby!”
Startled, I turned and spotted her seated at a table.
“Lala.” Theo ran towards her.
“What are you doing here, Mom?” I asked.
“There you are.” My mother wrapped her arms around my son. “I thought I’d lost you.”
She’d come all this way looking for him. She awoke that morning, sure he should be in her house, but then unable to find him, she’d driven down the two hours from Hartford, Connecticut, following the route that led to my door and searching at rest stops and gas stations along routes 91 and 95 for Theo. My phone call to remind her that morning must have slipped right through her mind like thread through open fingers.
The Ferry Master said this was her second trip across the Long Island Sound that afternoon. She’d been sitting in the station for the last hour, asking passengers about Theo and then telling them how much she enjoyed boat rides. We had to leave her car behind; I didn’t want her to drive.
“What’s wrong with my Lala,” Theo had asked. Though flattered that she’d come all this way searching for him, he knew enough to be alarmed. I didn’t know what was wrong with Lala and so I couldn’t answer. Slowly, his discomfort with her grew. Back at her house she tried to serve him coffee and feed him her Detrol–the medicine she took for her overactive bladder. He was patient. He loved her after all. He explained that little boys didn’t drink coffee or need those kinds of pills. She looked at him with a mixture of bafflement and pride.
“How smart you are,” she said. Which was so clever, wasn’t it? It made us almost forget she didn’t really know what she was doing.
“She’s loco,” my son told me. “Lala’s loco,” and we’d laughed because it sounded like a rhyme to say it that way, harmless and silly.
Soon after the ferryboat incident she was diagnosed with mid to late stage Alzheimer’s, and with the diagnosis the disease suddenly reared its ugly head like a beast appearing from a cave, roaring and showing its true colors. Why is it, I wonder. That the beast comes most quickly when it is called?
A year passed, and just as rapidly as Theo grew, my mother’s disease progressed. The midway point between senility and childhood, where they had once met and played, vanished. During that time she lived in an Alzheimer’s assisted living facility until a bout with pneumonia landed her in the hospital and then into a nursing home. Before long, I knew I would have to move her closer to me, into a home better suited to care for her escalating needs. Theo and I drove up to Connecticut, first to collect her belongings at the old facility, then to visit her in the new one.
Two old age homes for a nine year old in one day is too much. Through the first one, Theo walked close to me, his head down, his brown bangs hanging like a curtain over his eyes. When we reached her room, he climbed up onto the bed and played his Gameboy, while I flipped open her suitcase and hurriedly piled into its bowels all those useless clothes I’d packed for her only one year earlier. This was a routine I would never get used to. The constant moving on, as her Alzheimer’s progressed: from home care, to assisted care, to medical care, to rehabilitation, to nursing care. On and on, shuffling slowly towards an end I was beginning to hope would come sooner, rather than later.
“Are you done yet? Are you done yet?” Theo asked, not looking up, but hammering away at his game. He wanted to go the hotel. To sit up on the big king size bed I’d promised him as a reward for his patience. Mostly he wanted online access for his computer and to order movies and bad pizza from room service.
We loaded up my car, cramming in among our own bags, my mother’s suitcase, her Danish desk lamp, and the two paintings I’d hung in her room. One of a fox in a winter snow storm and the other a Persian miniature, and the lovely photograph of my grandmother, smiling, head titled, her hair a sliver cloud–she was so very beautiful, she resembled someone from another world, I don’t mean the dead, but a world where women sat elegant and poised. A world where women kept, as she used to say, “private things private”. We drove the 20 minutes north to my mother’s new nursing home. It was a long, low one-story building, shabby on the outside with large cracks in the yellow concrete, but surprisingly bright and sunny inside. We found my mother in the sitting room watching a musical, Judy Garland in “Meet Me In Saint Louis.”
“She loves musicals.” The aide who was serving juice told us. “Don’t you sweetheart?” As she handed my mother a Dixie cup of apple juice.
Which was funny because my mother always hated musicals. She used to send my sister and me off to see the latest shows on Broadway alone. I suspect we were the only ten and eleven year-olds allowed to see “Hair” by ourselves in 1968. Imagine a time, so close behind us, when two children were admitted into the theater to see naked people on stage. We sat in the balcony, far above the stage, and had to look hard through my Grandmother’s opera glasses to see anything.
From her armchair, my mother beamed up at us. She gazed at Theo, such light coming out of her eyes it looked like a lamp was glowing deep within her, a look I can only call adoration.
“Who am I in love with? Guess who?” She said in a gravelly voice.
For the first time in hours Theo looked up from his Gameboy. He stared intently at her, he did not smile, but that line between his brows softened and I think he was finally relieved. She still knew who he was.
“Hi Lala,” he said, ducking is head towards her and she held his brow between her long hands and said, “Who? Who?” Only this time it sounded like an owl, like a call in the night.
Theo and I sat down beside her on little stools, one on either side of her big chair, and held hands across her lap. With his other hand Theo kept punching at the keys of his Gameboy. My mother’s hair was cut short and she kept pushing the ends behind her ears in the awkward, embarrassed way that schoolgirls do.
We couldn’t talk. Because the bouts of pneumonia and the lack of oxygen to her brain my mother’s disease had progressed. Conversation, even the random sentences she’d been offering up in place of coherent discourse, was no longer possible. Across the room another patient, a plump old woman, sat scolding a pile of laundry in her lap. She was angry at the pieces, the baby shirts and baby diapers that would not fold properly. A man, tall and thin and with a red blotch on his chin like a rash, walked around the sitting room greeting everyone again and again. When he came over to us he stuck out his hand for Theo, the other male in the room, to shake. As I watched this charade I thought, even when we lose our memories we don’t lose our roles. Women still care for and clean, men still meet and greet. From under his dark eyebrows, Theo glared at the old, gnarled hand being offered to him.
He shook his head and said, “Mom, how long do we have to stay here?”
“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley . . . ” Judy Garland sang out in her brassy voice and my mother clapped her hands.
“The movie’s not over yet.”
We walked my mother back to her room when it was over. A woman, surprisingly agile, came trotting over to us cooing, reaching out her hands towards my son as if he were a pet she wanted to stroke. He ducked behind me. Then, my mother, sensing his distress, threw her arms open wide as if to protect him.
Up on her bed though, she only sat swinging her legs and humming in a flat tuneless way. Soon they brought in her dinner tray and I began to cut her food up like I had done for Theo when he was a baby, but my mother swatted my hand away and, head bent low over her tray, she began to shovel food into her mouth with her hands.
Theo tugged at my hand, “I want to go now.”
As we left the locked ward, I had to punch in a code–it is not surprising to me that I never once forgot a code because I too wanted to escape–this facilities code was the month followed by the year like the expiration date on a credit card. Theo looked back over his shoulder. Up and down the corridor, lining the hallway, patients were leaning in their doorframes, slumped against the walls or propped-up in wheel chairs with pillows supporting them, but all staring after us.
“Mom,” my son said quietly, “They all think I belong to them.”
Which isn’t such a bad thing unless you’re nine years old. I wanted to say something meaningful like we all belong to each other, but the fact was, those faces full of longing gazing after us made me feel uneasy too. It’s been two years since Theo saw his grandmother, my mother, his Lala. After that last visit, he told me, “I want to remember Lala the way she was.”
Who can blame him? I realized then that I had been so intent on keeping the fabric of our family from ripping, I had ignored my son’s need, the very real need of a boy, not to look too deeply into the cave of her illness.
Still, whenever I come back from my visits to my mother, Theo never fails to ask the same questions. “Is she still sick? Will she get better? Does she remember me?”
“Yes, No and Yes.” I say.
Last week Theo turned eleven. We had gone to dinner with his father, and were sitting downstairs together on the couch waiting for the latest segment of American Idol to begin. I could tell Theo was a little annoyed. He’d been explaining to me why he wanted green eyes like his father’s and not brown like mine. Earlier that day someone had told him that he looked like me, which he took to mean he looked like a girl. At the time, I took it to mean that too, but it was about that other inheritance.
“Remember when Lala went loco?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes. He said, “Are you going to get it.?”
“I don’t know?”
“Probably not, boys don’t get it as much.” Which is true, though nobody is sure just why.
Then Theo asked quietly. “If you had only five minutes left to live what would you do?”
I was surprised at how easily the answer came to me. “I’d look at you. Your face would be the last thing I would want to see.” Those two freckles, on his otherwise cream white face, marking the sides of his mouth like dimples.