Story by Valerie Stoller
Artwork by Tracy Frein
My mother recently moved into a memory care unit in her assisted living residence. My father died in 2002, but she often forgets this, when she’s lonely or remembers something she wants to tell my dad. When I remind her that he’s gone, I feel like he’s just died again.
My mom has Parkinson’s, a disease that has shrunk her world in countless ways. A relentless river of losses. Her short-term memory is just one of these, drifting, tumbling downstream. Her body has betrayed her, too. Her legs refuse to walk, her arms no longer remember how to pull her through the ocean. All gone.
Mom’s door is open when I arrive. Here loneliness trumps privacy. She looks up at me from the couch. Her hazel eyes, magnified by large reading glasses, lock on my face. I know she is trying to place me, pull open that drawer of memories. Yes. My daughter. I know you.
“Hi, Mom.” I lean down and kiss her cheek. Skin soft as a baby’s.
“Oh, it’s Valerie.” She scrunches her eyes, peering up at me. Mom holds the New York Times Magazine with both hands, a familiar pose, though now she has trouble getting through most of the articles. She used to linger over the double acrostic, no help needed. Now the crossword puzzle squares are empty. Still, this ritual, holding tight to those pages, seems to comfort her.
“I thought you were Elle Bishop.” One of her friends who is dead. “I forgot you’re a platinum blonde now.”
“Yeah, it’s me.” I smile and squeeze her hand. Small as a child’s. Bony, cool flesh. “Not blonde. Just silver-haired.”
Mom has always been a music lover, jazz, classical, show tunes. I push her down the hall in her wheelchair, to hear the live music offered on weekends. Guitar chords echo into the hall. Mom and I find a place in the back. An attractive petite woman in her forties, hair dyed an unnatural reddish brown, perches on a barstool. She cradles an acoustic guitar in her lap, her sparkly fake nails strumming the strings.
She’s mid-way through Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Several residents tap their feet and clap in time to the thudding bass notes. Loving it. Probably the highlight of their day.
Oh god. Country music. Mom’s always hated it. I peek at her, bracing myself for her indignation. Why have you brought me here, subjected me to this pathetic excuse for music? Instead, she smiles and, yes, taps her foot. Even claps. I’m stunned.
Maybe she’s just faking it. I lean down in between songs.
“Mom,” I whisper. “Do you want to go back to your apartment?”
“I like this.” Mom shakes her head. Smiles up at me from her wheelchair. “No, let’s stay.”
I can’t believe it. How did this happen? I want to grab her by the shoulders, tell her that her old self would be appalled by this new one. Who is she? Where is my mother?
She’s slipping away, and I’m helpless. My ninety-three year old frail mother, unable to track conversations or swallow some of her food, is disappearing before my eyes. There is less of her each time I visit.
Meanwhile my new mom is very happy to see me. Even if she’s not sure who I am. And I’m happy to see her, too. She’s much easier to be around now. Still, I miss my mother. She’s already let go of so much, and found joy in simple things. Country music, the kindness of strangers, which at times includes me. I’m hoping I can learn from her.
Author Valerie Stoller, Oakland CA
Valerie Stoller is a retired nurse practitioner turned writer. Her short stories and essays explore the lives of compelling characters that run the gamut from a new teen bride to a divorced desert innkeeper to a Mayan tour guide in the Yucatan. She writes with insight, irony and humor. Valerie lives in Oakland, California.
Artist Tracy Frein, Chicago IL
As a member of The Colored Pencil Society of America, my work is solely created in Colored Pencil. The Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) is a nonprofit organization that was established in 1990 and celebrated 20 years in 2010. It is the first and only arts organization that is devoted exclusively to promoting artists who work in the colored pencil medium. CPSA represents 10 countries with around 1600 members and has 27 District Chapters throughout the United States. I am a board member of the Chicago Chapter, and held the office of President from 2005-2007. I am currently Treasurer.
The subjects included in my work are simple, often everyday people. My work is inspired by both my attraction to the human portrait and it’s fragile venerability close and personal. My recent works are in Black and White. This helps to put things into new perspective or literally puts specific aspects of life into focus. Color can be very life-like but also very distracting. I also do this for dramatic purposes, to capture a mood in a moment. I want the viewer to take a step closer to each drawing to realize that not only do the subjects composition create a pattern, but so do the textures, colors, and lines in the background. I hope to show the viewer that while at first glance my subjects seem serene and normal. They also contain a sense of inner frailty that we all possess.