I've just put on broth for chicken soup. The house is unusually quiet for 6 p.m., with Zoë at work on math problems and her little sister Cleo in the living room whispering to her "people." I wonder if I have time to sneak in a phone call to Jenny, the helper I'm trying to hire for Ma.
Today at the Alzheimer's Center, Nurse B. finally looked me in the eye and told me it was time to line up an assisted living facility for Ma. We have discussed this inevitable move, and Ma hates it, fears it. The last time I mentioned assisted care, she snarled, "If I have to move from here, I think I'll just run away . . . to Hell." Her voice was fierce and firm -- the mother of my childhood, strong and defiant -- but tears pooled in her eyes.
I still can't bring myself to move Ma, but she needs more help than I can provide. Last week, I confronted her about the grime that has been accumulating in her house for many months. I pointed at the kitchen floor.
"It's almost black, Ma! I'm going to mop it."
"Don't you do that. I can clean my own floor."
"Ma, it's filthy."
"I don't know why; I clean it."
"HOW do you clean it?"
With a dirty damp rag, she swiped at a patch of floor.
"See? Nothing more comes off."
I found an ancient bottle of cleanser under the sink, poured a little out, and rubbed. A bright beaming circle of Formica emerged and sparkled up at us accusingly.
After that, I decided to bring some assistance to Ma. A friend recommended Jenny, a housekeeper who has worked with Alzheimer's patients. I'm hoping she'll become our attendant in disguise, and not only keep the house clean but also check on Ma several times a week.
But I don't call Jenny. First I need to check on Ma myself. After today's memory testing, she was so bedraggled and inarticulate. It wasn't just her mind either; she kept stumbling and burping. Maybe she's coming down with the flu. I watched her struggle to chew her food at lunch, with her mouth open and her head drooping, and as we left, I wished I could just pick her up in my arms like I do Cleo and carry her out to the car. I want to see if her hiccups stopped, and make sure she got dinner okay.
After five rings, I get the answering machine. It's late for her to be out feeding the ducks. Maybe she's in the yard talking to the neighbors with the puppy. Or could she still be napping? I imagine her in bed, fully clothed and softly snoring, and the thought fills me with melancholy. She lives alone. No one expects her for dinner. In my living room, the girls yell and push each other, hungry and impatient. I could never sleep through dinner. Thinking of Ma there alone, I feel a rush of gratitude for these needy little beings in my life.
By the time Patrick comes home, I have tried Ma's number twice more. The girls parade around the kitchen, playing the tambourine and giggling while I wash dishes. I raise my voice to be heard over them.
"My mom's not answering the phone."
"I dropped Ma off after lunch. She should be eating dinner, but there's no answer."
As I say it, I realize how wrong that feels. Ma goes by the clock; she eats every day at exactly 6 p.m. If she did nap through dinnertime tonight, it would be the first time, ever.
I think of the question Nurse B. always asks: "Has Ruth begun to wander at all?" I picture Ma hurrying along a highway shoulder, wide-eyed and disheveled, as cars whoosh past without slowing.
"I think I have to drive out there," I say. "Can you handle the kids if I go?"
Patrick looks doubtful.
"I'll go," Patrick says.
I pause while something clicks into place inside my head.
"No, I think I have to go," I hear myself say. It has to be me. There's a rising excitement, a strange burning, that tells me this. And then I want a drink.Something strong, to match the urgency mounting inside of me. It's dark outside. She should be awake by now. What if she's not there . . . what if . . . ?
A familiar mixture of compassion and annoyance washes over me. I hate to leave the kids and the comfort of home right at bedtime, but there's no question that I need to check up on Ma. I grit my teeth, and then heave a sigh of resignation.
On some level, I'm aware that this could turn out to be a true crisis -- and that a serious enough crisis could land Ma in a Home. I could be forced to turn her care over to a group of perky and efficient paid attendants. They would greet me with a progress report when I visited every Saturday morning. This is both my fear and my fantasy.
I kiss the kids at the door. At two, Cleo is agreeable, but six-year-old Zoë has already absorbed my distress. I struggle to reassure her without lying. I want her to feel my concern for Gram more than my fear of what I might find. In Zoë's young face I see alarm and love, and then determined, mature acceptance.
"OK," she says, "I understand. You have to make sure Gram is okay. You'll call us, though, right?"
"I will," I say firmly, and I look from Zoë's face to Pat's, and back again.
Ma's house in Martinez is a 40-minute drive from mine in Berkeley. It's warm outside. I drive onto the freeway with the windows wide and the stereo blasting. I surge with a rare but familiar energy: freedom. I'm out at night, by myself, and the possibilities are endless.
With every mile, the desire to drink hard liquor grows. With it comes the fantasy that I will just blow through Martinez and keep going; I will speed all the way to New York, where it is cold and dark, and I have no responsibilities. I will drink myself into oblivion.
But soon I'm thinking of my girls, flushed and drowsy in their bed by now, and soon I'm aware of the electric current in my chest that draws me to Ma. I go to Ma because she makes me whole, as she always has; I hesitate to leave my girls for the same reason. I'm hooked in. Making that trip from my daughters to my mother, I connect us all to each other, complete the circuit between our three generations. This is my path. The illusion that I might find freedom in escape dissolves, and I travel the familiar road to my old family home.