Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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"Ma? Do you know where the old Halloween stuff is?"

I have arrived early at my childhood home in Martinez to take Ma to her Alzheimer's checkup. I've just thought of a way to get out of making Zoë's costume this year.

"In the bedroom closet?" Ma ventures.

I find the box, labeled in her neat calligraphy, deep in the basement. My breath catches as I lift out the clown costume Ma sewed for me when I was five years old. The baggy suit is so familiar, and so perfect: half-red, half-white, with three yarn tassels, a ruffled collar, and peaked cap. I loved it so much, I wore it for three Halloweens. It will just fit my Zoë. I examine Ma's perfect seams. I can picture her, up late, bent over the sewing machine where she made her own dresses, Daddy's vests, our costumes. That machine is at my house now; she has forgotten how to use it.

I drive Ma to the Alzheimer's Center. We follow our usual routine: she grudgingly submits herself to memory tests, and I play health advocate, asking too many questions. Then the nurse tells me privately what I already know:

"Ruth's condition has worsened," she says with warm concern. "You'll need to place her in a professional care facility. Soon." My heart aches. As we leave the building, Ma stumbles.

We lunch at her favorite diner, Peg's, across from the Tosco oil refinery. Ma is silent; she looks exhausted. I'm sad, overwhelmed.

"What do I like here?" she asks.

"BLT," I answer automatically.

I see another question forming. "Bacon lettuce and tomato sandwich," I say. "And you usually like a small orange juice."

Halfway through lunch, she begins to hiccup, and doesn't stop.

The road back to Ma's house gives us a sweeping view of the Carquinez Straits, and a fleeting glimpse of my old junior high. The brown hills rising up behind the school are so deeply familiar, my heart seizes up. I revisit a feeling I had in the fall of eighth grade: In the first days back to school, those hills were still brown. That struck me as somehow dissonant, somehow tragic. There we were in our still-stiff back-to-school clothes, backpacks heavy with new textbooks, intent on our schedule. Yet, those hills, browned by a blazing sun, had not moved. The day, clear and bright, meant business, but the hills just sat there, a living reminder of the slow easy heat of summer. The crickets still sang at night, the fire hazard was higher than the 4th of July. The hills looked down and said, this school is just artifice; the sexy daydream days, comic books, long bike rides, hours lolling in the pool -- they're all still right here, in this brown, dry grass. I was stuck in that harsh house of rules -- bells rang and I rushed to class, I had to do homework, had to wear a bra, had to act right, had to. But the hills didn't care. They just sat, round and golden, peaceful, prickling in the bright sunlight, breathing out the last breath of the season.

I feel a similar dissonance now with Ma. It is a new season. She no longer thinks like Ma; she doesn't initiate, articulate, or enjoy like Ma. She doesn't care. Everything has shifted, and she's not the Ma I knew. I know that she's right there in front of me. I can not deny that this is her voice, her face, even her laugh and smile. "This is ridiculous," her body insists. "Here I am. Nothing has changed!"

I find myself searching for proof of the mom I grew up with -- like that old clown costume, so expertly sewn. I think of the way physicists study sub-atomic particles using a cloud chamber. The particles cannot be directly observed, but whenever one moves through the chamber, water condenses in its path, creating a vapor trail. The physicist eagerly photographs this evidence of the moving particle, before it disappears. The clown costume is like a vapor trail, the beautiful colors and neat seams tracing one path Ma's intelligence took, decades ago. Yet it can no sooner capture the truth and magnificence of her warm, merry, eccentric self than the physicist can catch a neutrino in a wooden box.

I pull up to the curb at Ma's house and wait in the car as she steps cautiously across her dead lawn, stops to check for mail, and bends to unlock her front door -- my old front door. I hear the familiar squeak of the screen door hinge. From the back, in her wrinkled trousers, work shirt and stained old hat, Ma looks just like my Gramps, her dad.

She opens the door, and I see the darkness inside. She never opens the shades any more. Will she look around at this home, one of the last familiar places left to her, and take comfort? I picture her sinking into a chair, sighing with relief at the intimate feel of it.

I picture it, but I don't know. It's a secret. I don't know what she does there when I'm gone, I don't know what she fears, how she feels. She's never talked much about her feelings, and these days she doesn't talk much about anything. It's frustrating, but I remind myself that there's a disease inside her head, gluing her thoughts together. Inside the dark house, with the doors closed and the shades down, her small, private life is utterly opaque to me.

I don't get out to see her in. She doesn't turn to wave goodbye.

That night, back in Berkeley, Zoë is resplendent in her clown costume. She hops around before the mirror, jiggling her tassels. She can't wait the three weeks until Halloween. "This is SO much better than waiting for you to sew me one!" she says. I smirk at her, feigning offense. But then I have to smile, because here is Zoë in a suit tailored by her grandma -- or more accurately, by my mom. And there I am, five years old, beaming up at my Ma, loving her.

Sybil Lockhart is the author of Mother in the Middle: A Biologist’s Story of Caring for Parent and Child, a memoir developed from her archived Literary Mama column. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California with her two daughters.

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