Shirley Temple dances on a sidewalk, white dress and tight curls bouncing, clicking sounds coming from her shiny black tappers. The screen dominates the room, a horse shoe of chairs surrounding its quivering blueish light. White hair against beige upholstery, polyester sweaters slung over shoulders, walkers propped against seat backs. I smell the peculiar odor of old age, feel that smell on my skin.
Outside the window, a midwestern sky spreads over green fields, a steeple rises from a brick building, another one behind it. Presbyterians and Catholics share the space just beyond these walls.
My mom wears her soft blue pullover and grey pants, the same outfit she wears every time I visit. It’s her favorite ensemble, worn out now, the sweater frayed and the pants thin. It must be easy to pull those pants on, I think, elastic waist and wide bottoms that can go over shoes. How long since they’ve been washed, I wonder.
Careful not to startle her, I tiptoe. “Hi, Mom,” I say softly. “It’s Nancy, your daughter.”
She smiles vaguely, the glazed expression her only outward manifestation of dementia. I see that same look in a lady at my church and know she has dementia too, that her memory is slipping away from her, slowly, like how drops of rain wear at a rock, the process slow but constant.
My mom takes my hand not because she knows me but because her nature is sweet, and we sit side by side. Her hand feels cool, her creamy flesh flecked with pale brown spots.
Before I left California, I visited my mom in day dreams, practiced the moment she wouldn’t recognize me. In the solitude of my car after dropping my daughter off at school, I visualized the vacant stare.
It takes all day to get to my mom’s side. I leave my house early in the morning, drive three hours to the airport. A non-stop flight takes four hours, then comes the car rental and another long drive. A two-hour time difference.
“I’m going to visit Grandma,” I said to Lauren, “and I wish you and Dad could come with me.” I hadn’t seen my mom in over a year, since before my cancer diagnosis, although my brothers and sisters told me that her memory was going at a faster pace than before.
“Mommy, what if she doesn’t remember you?”
“We’ll love her anyway,” I said, willing my voice to be steady.
“But what if she doesn’t even know you’re her daughter?”
“We’ll love her anyway,” I said again, gently, talking mostly to myself, “love her anyway.”
Lauren grabbed her backpack and raced out the door, blowing a kiss as we waved goodbye. I counted five pairs of socks, placed them in my suitcase.
In Kansas City, I took my mom’s hand. “Hi, Sweetie,” her elderly voice a whisper, her thumb brushing my skin.
Alzheimer’s is a strand of Christmas lights going out, one flicker at a time. I sit with my mom, watching Shirley Temple, thankful for the faint lights that still flicker, for the thumb still able to caress my palm.