In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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We finally find her by the side of the road, standing in a clump of chalk-blue chicory, fingering yellow coneflowers, a few feet from a thirty-foot drop into the river. Beside me, my father slumps in the passenger seat, his fingers stained from baiting worms all morning, his head hanging in defeat.
He and I were fishing a few yards below our rental cabin when he looked up and immediately knew my mother was gone. My father called the county sheriff while I walked among the nearby cabins, forcing myself to cry my mother’s name louder and louder, rousing only a dog and my own feelings of embarrassment.
Now I ease my father’s car up to her, careful not to cause alarm, and we get out. Ahead of us on the road a boy jumps from a trestle bridge into the river to the delight of his friends on the bank.
“Mom, what are you—” I was about to say “doing,” but I catch myself. “What are you looking at?”
Her face registers that frightful blankness I’ve come to know too well during her slow descent into dementia. For her, is it winter? Is it yesterday? Is it now? “I was following these flowers,” she says. “Somebody’s planted them all along this road. See?”
Last month the police found her in the parking lot of the supermarket near my parents’ house in Indiana, purseless, claiming she was going to the bank to get her money. Months before that, my father had begged me to take her car: “Take it! Take it! Get it out of here!”
World travelers during their fifty-five years of marriage — boating down the Danube and the Yangtze, sailing through the straits of Tierra del Fuego — they sit now in their car like lost children as I drive them back to our two-room fishing cabin overlooking the Watauga River reservoir in the mountains of Tennessee. This will be their last trip together.
I saw an old photo of them a few years ago at their wedding anniversary, part of a digital slide show for the guests: Frank Sinatra crooning in the background, a slow fade from one image to the next, and then there they were, innocent newlyweds lounging on a beach at Lake Michigan, glowing in the late-afternoon light. My mother’s dark Irish hair fell over her bare shoulders, and her legs were folded seductively underneath her in the sand; my father, shirtless and with beer-softened eyes, leaned on a muscled arm. I stared, a single man more than twice the age they were in the photograph, taken aback by their beauty and happiness.
Back at the cabin I give them drinks, put food on the grill, hit PLAY on a CD, and ask them to help set the table. While Ella Fitzgerald sings, we eat on the porch and watch the waters of the Watauga, where a fish jumps. My father, who has lung trouble, breathes heavily as he eats. My mother looks at her food as if wondering what it’s for. I imagine myself swimming in the water: eyes below the surface, looking into the murky depths; then above, looking back at them on the porch. My mother gets out a cigarette, lights the wrong end, and tries to smoke it. My father impatiently grabs it from her mouth, puts it out, and says, “Here. Light this end.”
Then an idea comes to me. I tell my father about it, and he winces, shakes his head. “You can’t take her out in that canoe.”
It was my mother who taught me how to swim, not my father the athlete, the coach. Kneeling on my grandparents’ pier, she mimicked a baby crawling and then encouraged me to do the same in the shallows. I buried my head and plunged my arms into the warm summer water, saw the sunfish on the sandy bottom, kicked my legs, and was off.
My mother’s decline was incremental and hard to detect during my infrequent visits after the years in which I’d drifted away from my family and the landscape of my youth. I had no house, no spouse, and no children to discuss, so we learned to relate through the weather, their gardens, and the birds and animals they observe from their kitchen window. Over the last few months, as they have planned for my mother’s move to an Alzheimer’s facility, her face has begun to appear in my mind before I go to sleep: a flash of fear in her eyes, as if she needs my help but isn’t sure for what.
What is it about sitting in a boat in still water, the sky mirrored in the surface holding you afloat, that causes your thoughts to sink away the minute you have them? What becomes of time, of desire, of words and the things they name? Do they cease to exist if we can’t remember how to say them? My mother, facing me in the canoe, confuses me with the man I was twenty years ago and asks, in a concerned voice, if I am seeing anyone. I’m not sure whether to answer for myself now or for the younger me, so I laugh and change the subject, pointing out my father not far away on shore. We wave, though she doesn’t act as if she can see him. Then she asks, in the same tone as before, “Are you seeing anyone?”
A blue heron lifts itself from the water near the shore, all wings and neck, and moves like a wave through the air. “See that?” I point.
She turns and looks in the opposite direction, yet she says, “Yes. Isn’t that something?” as if admiring the sight.
What is she seeing, or pretending to see? Her expression is so alive, her face bathed in the twilight of the mountain evening. Can wanting to see something — or wanting someone else to think that you are seeing it — count as seeing it?
I paddle toward the lilies, farther into the canyon of trees, their canopies reflected in the water, second-growth forests leaning in from the hills, trunks growing out of the ground at angles. We drift among their shadows, the lights of the lake cabins coming on around us, the water turning from green to black.
“What’s up there?” She points to the darkening trees on the ridges around the lake. “See those people? There are lights up there. See them?”
“Where, Mom?” I put the paddle down and scan the ridgeline, wanting to see what she sees, but there is nothing.
“There. See them?”
Her voice reaches out, eager to report its findings from a world that works in ways I can’t understand, her arm pointing into the dark mountains.
Back on the shore, I make a fire from driftwood. My father hobbles out with lawn chairs, and we sit and talk of past travels. After they go to bed, I smoke a pinch of weed left in my pack from a hiking trip and stare at the dying flames. Then I sneak out, like old times, and take a walk through the Tennessee night. Above the mountain road, clouds scud across the star-filled sky and hover over the dark ridges where my mother saw her hallucination in the trees. The Appalachian Trail passes somewhere along those ridges, following the old Watauga River valley, and continues into Virginia and all the way to Maine. There are hikers up there right now, I imagine: Tents and tin cups. Socks stuffed into tired boots. Happy bones sleeping in bags of fiberfill.
I first hiked the Appalachian Trail with my parents in 1962. We wandered among the monstrous hardwoods and magical ferns, my sisters wearing yellow ponchos against the mist and rain of the Great Smoky Mountains. In college, high on mushrooms, I bivouacked with pals in the rhododendron-filled ravines of North Carolina while snow fell. Once, I hitchhiked from Boston to a stony cliff atop the White Mountains of New Hampshire, with only Spam and a drafty tent, trying to escape the world below. I had big plans and strong legs, but I lasted just one night, and I spent that in my neighbors’ tent, drinking their whiskey, huddled away from the howling wind. Now I take long walks on the weekends in Wisconsin, in clean pants and two-hundred-dollar boots, and fantasize that I’m hiking the Maine wilderness on my last leg of the trail.
Lying on the fold-out couch in the cabin, I listen to my father’s labored breathing and wonder how many more breaths he’s got in him. I hear one of my parents stir and hope it’s not my mother, who sometimes gets up to go to the bathroom and then, forgetting her purpose and thinking it’s the middle of the day, comes out to sit in the empty living room, not sure where everyone has gone.
My mother often speaks of going home, even when she is already there, turning to me or my father as if we were strangers she’s just met in the street and saying, “This has been nice talking with you, but I’d better go home.”
At my sister’s house a few months ago I awoke to find my mother standing like a child in bare feet, her nightgown — wet with urine — wadded in her hand, underwear clinging to her bellybutton, breasts alabaster in the early-morning light. I watched as if I weren’t related to this wandering woman, her gaze fixed on some distant dream world I couldn’t see. I closed my eyes, hoping she would find her way to the bathroom, hoping my sister would get up and put her back to bed. But of course that wasn’t going to happen, so I opened them again and said, “Mom?”
She turned, not sure who was speaking. “Where’s the bathroom? I can’t find the bathroom.”
I took her hand and, step by slow step, walked her down the hall.
On our long drive from Indiana to Tennessee, to ease my nerves, I made plans: drive them around, see the touristy sights, find an inexpensive cabin, fish with my father, take my mother on a short walk, cook delicious food, make their final trip together a good memory — for my father, at least. On the last day I’d leave them to walk a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, maybe hike up onto the ridges between Tennessee and North Carolina, hamstrings heating to a burn, then come back and drive them home. But my mother’s little ramble to the river has altered my plans.
On our second day, after I’ve driven them through the mountains of North Carolina, around switchbacks inside of switchbacks, stopping here and there to stroll about old-timey tourist towns, my father proposes that we detour to the top of Roan Mountain; there’s a rhododendron festival there and a trail for me to hike while they see the flowers.
Atop the mountain, the famed floral display has lost its flame, and brown blossoms litter the ground. My father notices a sign in the parking lot and reads it out loud, telling us that the festival ended two weeks ago. He sighs and shrugs, and he and I argue about what to do next. From the back seat my mother asks us to stop fighting.
Then I see a sign for the Appalachian Trail: a white silhouette of a hiker, and underneath an arrow that points to a stand of dwarf pines and firs.
“There’s the Appalachian Trail, Mom,” I say. “See? The sign says one mile.”
My mother, the former high-school social-studies teacher who always went to bed each night with a book, stops before the sign and sounds it out: “Ap-uh-latch-uh.” And then, with an air of childlike pride: “Trail.”
Within minutes she is standing by the car in her hat and gloves, ready to hike to the glaciers of the north.
“Mom, it’s June,” I say. “You don’t need gloves.”
My father begs off, reminding me of his ailing hips, his weak lungs. My father, who was always an adventurer, eager to go anywhere on the map to see what was there, now unpacks another kind of map: a homemade spreadsheet of three yellow legal-pad pages taped together, the family finances going back twenty years, carefully etched in heavy ballpoint pen.
I assure him we won’t be long and then turn to find my mother already wandering into the parking lot. I guide her in the right direction.
From the state-park map, I see that the trail crosses from one parking lot to another, wanders along a wooded path, then drops down to a lookout from which one can see, the map promises, the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The Appalachian Trail proper blazes on down the mountain. This portion is for the family, the weekend tourist, the single baby boomer with the overfed dog. Not too far, I think, taking off down the path. We’ll be there and back in an hour. Suddenly I remember that my mother can’t walk as fast as she once could. I turn around, and there she is, yards behind me, laboring to find her footing.
When the reality of her decline became hard to explain away, my mother retreated into herself. Her own mother, my grandmother, had spent her last days in a nursing home, clinging to her mother’s sweater, which she wore every day. So my mother knew where the road would end for her, but fortunately, over time, she has forgotten — at least, I want to believe she has. I often wonder if she is pretending to keep her spirits up to make it easier for us, not mentioning how confused she feels, how lost. She’s told me that she can’t remember things. “Isn’t that awful?” she says, looking at me as if she were somehow to blame.
We enter a tunnel of stunted firs mixed with rhododendrons in the understory, their branches reaching for what light they can find. Below them ferns fan and curl. My mother negotiates rocks and roots overlaid with dappled sunlight and shadow. She’ll walk fine for a while and then stop in trepidation, as if she might be stepping down into a pool of unknown depths, tapping her toe to make sure firm footing is there. Nobody knows exactly why a simple step forward becomes a complex task for someone with Alzheimer’s: see the ground, lift the leg, put it down, feel the pressure of contact, shift your balance, start again.
I sometimes wonder if this might be me in the years ahead; Alzheimer’s is genetically inherited. But then I conceal my anxiety the way my older sister does. We both make dark jokes about how we want to be put out of our misery when our memory goes, jokes that are never really funny to anyone but us, and then only because we’re too afraid not to laugh.
I think of offering my hand to my mother to steady her, but the trail setting feels too public for such a gesture. Besides, I tell myself, she needs to work at it. Exercising the body challenges the brain, creates new brain cells, improves circulation, and provides many other benefits — or so I’ve read on the Internet late at night, thinking I’m trying to help her when, of course, I’m obsessing about my own health.
Along the trail I see the familiar blazes of white paint that mark the twenty-two-hundred-mile pilgrimage north from the ancient lands of the Cherokee, through the Appalachia of my Scots-Irish ancestors, to the top of Thoreau’s cherished Mount Katahdin in Maine. These white brush strokes always seem to appear just when you’ve begun to panic.
In the early stages of her disease, my mother began to walk a great deal on the beaches in north Florida, where my parents have wintered for years. She’d hike for miles every day alone, collecting shells and watching for the jumping dolphins. “It holds me,” she once confided as we strolled along the shore. She stopped and gestured to the wide waters of the Atlantic, then behind her to the dune grasses, and finally overhead to the swooping gulls. But one day she couldn’t find her way back to their rented condo and wandered confused from one identical row of buildings to another. The next year it became too much for my father, despite my sisters’ and my efforts to help, and their winters in Florida were over.
To make it a bit easier for my mother now, I look for a walking stick, but I don’t have much luck. One is too heavy, another is rotten, a third breaks. Finally I find one I think will work. “Here, use this, Mom.”
She laughs as it bends into a bow beneath her weight, but she soldiers on, even though she doesn’t know where we are or how we got here, doesn’t even remember what we did an hour ago. But she can read my emotional state, hear my tone of voice. For all of her cognitive impairment, it’s amazing how emotionally alert she can be. Part of it, of course, is that I’m her son, but part must arise from her ability to compensate, becoming sensitive to the subtleties of gestures, voices, and facial expressions. Mysteriously I am pulled into this sphere of emotional language with her, the way those who live with the deaf begin to pay more attention to the body’s language.
She’s tired and wants a cigarette. I keep telling her she can have one when we get to the overlook. Then I change the subject to the thick moss growing beside the trail. I lead her to a rock underneath a fir tree, next to a few barberry bushes and alpine flowers, and I help her sit down on it. A world appears around us in miniature: emerald filaments, fine strands braided out of moist earth, the delicate debris of death from decades past. Her pale fingers spread through the moss. Then she looks up and asks, “You’ve still got those cigarettes, don’t you?”
My body aches. My hips and knees, my jaw and joints, all feel like rusted metal rubbing against metal. My neck needs to be yanked out of my spine, my feet bathed in ice. Maybe it’s the hundreds of miles behind the wheel yesterday and the thought of all those miles I must drive back, but more likely it’s my impatience. I feel trapped in this slow-motion walk. I kick a rock, bend over a few times, look up at the trees and try to guess which ones I could climb. I imagine running back down the trail a few hundred feet and then turning around to catch up with her. I attempt to call my father on his cellphone to tell him to bring the car closer, but there’s no reception.
As I sigh and struggle to keep my mind from drifting into anxiety, a memory comes to me. It’s one I think of often now when I’m with my mother: I am in the mountains of northern Thailand, at a Buddhist monastery. It’s night. Tall pines, a moon. I’m watching four elderly widows the size of children, draped in silk scarves, practice their walking meditation across the ancient temple grounds. These old women have come to spend their last days at the monastery in devotion and prayer. I’ve come here to meditate, to slow down, to figure out what happened to me a few days ago in Vietnam when I found myself on the floor of my hotel, in full panic mode, repeating, “This is a bed. This is a table. This is my body.” I try to mimic the women’s graceful control and posture, but I am unable to walk at such a snail’s pace.
My mother stops as if she has heard something in the trees. “Are you getting tired of waiting for me?” she asks, noticing my fidgeting.
“Yes!” I blurt out, louder than I intend. “Get your ass moving, or I’m leaving you here.”
“I’m looking at things,” she protests. “I’m sorry. I’m an old woman.”
I tell her I was only joking. She says she knows but insists that if I want to go on, she’ll just go back to the car.
“No, no,” I say. “Come on, let’s get to the lookout.” I grab her hand. “Dad is waiting on us. We’ve got to get back to make dinner.”
I ’ve noticed over the past months, when walking with my mother in her garden or sitting with her on her patio, that she has developed the odd habit of whistling at birds. Like music, bird song seems to brighten her mood and focus her mind. Though she has trouble determining the direction a song is coming from, she seeks to call the bird to her, trying to mimic it by whistling and walking in an animated way, almost as if she were becoming a bird herself.
She stops now and turns on the trail, lips puckered. A cardinal, her favorite due to its sharp notes and brilliant red coat, sits on a pine bough. She whistles to it, moving unconsciously off the trail. I reach for my binoculars, hoping I can help her see the bird, but then I stop. Capturing the cardinal in a lens isn’t the point; it’s necessary only to listen and sing back.
Hand in hand, we walk on. Sometimes, when I catch myself striding too quickly, my mother leans into me and moves faster. Other times, however, she slows me down. As two bodies will do, we eventually find the most efficient pace.
I’ve had to help my mother many times out of the car or up the steps to the house, but those gestures are just a courtesy or safety precaution. This holding hands is different. It’s a show of affection and intimacy, and an awkward one for me. I remember from my time in the Peace Corps how African men held hands and walked with fingers intertwined: boys coming from school, men fresh from work, old men strolling home from the mosque. When one of them walked with me, I would put my hands in my pockets, just in case.
After a few minutes I think perhaps she’s stable enough to walk on her own, but she tightens her grip, as if reading my mind.
A couple walks toward us, coming back from the overlook, a small, shaggy dog circling their feet. “Can’t see anything up there,” says the woman, who is about my mother’s age. “The mist is covering the mountains.”
“Oh, we don’t care,” my mother says, smiling, looking down at the dog instead of the woman.
The trail goes on into the thick forest. I want to tell my mother everything I’ve read about it, all the times I’ve gotten lost walking on it. In 1948 a World War II veteran named Earl Shaffer was the first person to walk the entire Appalachian Trail: 124 days from Georgia to Maine. He was trying, he says in his lyrical travel journal, Walking with Spring, to walk the war out of his mind. The lame and the lonely, the addicted and the world-weary — this famous path draws them all, pulling them up and over and around the next bend.
Finally we make it to the lookout. I steer my mother up the steps to the wooden platform, but there’s little to see. Fog does indeed cover the valley and the mountains beyond, and only a few treetops appear out of the mists below. Tired, we lean on the rail and gaze over the shrouded expanse.
My mother sits down on a bench behind me, pulls her cigarettes out of her pocket — she had them all along — straightens a limp one, and lights it, as she has done for sixty years. I look back to the trail, hoping no one is coming; the park doesn’t allow smoking. She leans back and inhales the world into her lungs as if this were 1962 and I were still young enough to want to climb the guardrail. Any minute I’m sure a Sierra Club type will show up and wince at the smoke. “Mom, maybe you ought to put that out. Somebody might come and—”
But she cuts me off with a flash of her old self. “I will not put it out. I came all this way, and I’m going to sit down and have a cigarette.”
So I sit down next to her. I even reach over and borrow her cigarette, take a few drags, then give it back. And together we gaze into the fog.
As a woman who spent the majority of last year trying desperately to love a man whose mother had recently died of early-onset Alzheimer’s, I’d like to thank Michael McColly for his bravery and eloquence [“Losing the Trail,” August 2013]. I was never able to break through to the man I knew, who so often seemed to hide his wounds, but McColly’s essay has helped me understand what it’s like to have a parent with dementia. May we all be brave enough to share our hurts the way he has.