by Elizabeth Wafler
“Have you seen my reading glasses, Sukie?” Lillian Randall asked.
Ellen stared at her mother for a long swaying moment. Lillian had called her by her sister’s name, but not in the way she had when the children were growing up, when Lillian’s mind had been crowded with the commerce of her brood of three. Back then she’d shaken her head and corrected herself with a hooting laugh.
“Mom. I’m Ellen.”
Lillian’s eyes flew to her daughter’s, and reflected the fear they found there. She reached across the old pine table to clutch a pad of Post-It notes as though it were a lifeline, jostling a mug of tea that had grown cold. Lillian fumbled for a pencil from a blue pottery cup and spoke as though tasting her daughter’s name for the first time,“El-len?”
Ellen blotted at the widening ring of tea around the mug with a paper napkin and willed her heart to slow. “Want me to write it down for you?” she asked gently. She wrote her name on a note, and then below it she scribbled a silly smiley face capped with spiraling curls. She handed the Post-It to her mother with a tremulous smile.
“Here you go.”
No emotion crossed Lillian’s face. She pushed herself from the table and stood regarding her sunny yellow kitchen.
“Want to put it on the fridge, Mom?” Ellen asked.
Lillian’s brow was so furrowed you could have sown it with seed. Her voice quavered. “The fridge?”
Ellen’s stomach lurched. She rose and piloted her mother to the refrigerator door.
“You’ve got it,” she said as Lillian pressed the note against the surface. Ellen’s mind flashed to the game of pin the tail on the donkey the family had played on her eighth birthday. I need to cash a reality check, she thought.
Since the night Ellen’s brother Philip had called her at her home in Richmond to say that he and Sukie suspected Alzheimer’s, Ellen had dismissed the notion.
“Mother’s just getting forgetful, Phil. It happens. We’re not locking her up in some home.”
When Ellen was a child, people had called her “Little Lil.” Ellen was glad she looked like her mother. Proud that she shared Lillian’s intelligence and strength, her dark curling hair. When an inconceivable accident had taken Lillian’s husband’s life, she had hauled up her bootstraps and whisked the plastic cover from her college typewriter. She’d published a successful series of cozy mysteries and kept the wolf from the Randall door. Ellen had followed in her mother’s footsteps and made her living as editor-in-chief of Edible Richmond Magazine. And she was adamant about Lillian’s condition: women like Mom and me don’t get Alzheimer’s. And then Ellen had come home to Lynchburg for a visit. To this. She led Lillian back to the table.
“Here, Mom, let’s make you a fresh cup of tea. I’ll fetch my phone and show you some new pictures of the boys. Louis has a girlfriend.”
Lillian adored Ellen’s college-aged sons, Louis and Grant. “Oh, goodie,” she said, as happy as a songbird with a new beak.
As a stream drummed from the faucet into the bottom of the kettle, Ellen gazed out at the backyard to the crumbling playhouse where she and Sukie had spent a million hours pretending or giggling or squabbling about piddling things. A scarlet flash caught her eye. “Look, there’s a cardinal on the feeder.”
She lit a stove burner, settled the kettle on the flames. She turned to Lillian, who peered through the bay window into the twisty limbs of a sycamore, dark and barren against a colorless February sky.
“Oh, lovely!” she said.
Ellen leaned against the counter and considered her mother— the messy halo of hair, the defeat in her rounded shoulders, the sharp wings of shoulder blades beneath her sweater— and her heart squeezed with pity. “I’ll be right back, Mom.”
Ellen padded upstairs towards the bedroom she’d shared with Sukie. She passed Lillian’s room and did a double take. Casting a furtive glance at the stairs, she crept inside for a closer look. Post-It notes papered the walls. What the hell? she thought. On the closet door a pink note with “Son- Philip” had been penned in Lillian’s careful hand. Other notes of blue and yellow and green read, “Favorite bird- cardinal,” “Grant & Louis- Boston University.” Ellen’s heart tipped and sank. Notes crossed the expanse of Lillian’s dresser like a fairy tale trail of breadcrumbs. Ellen ran a fingertip over the last one, “Husband Thomas Randall- passed away 1973,” and a clot of grief formed in her throat. This was not forgetfulness. No, not at all. At once the acrid odor of smoke assailed Ellen’s nostrils. “Mom!”
In the kitchen, Lillian batted at the leap of blue flame from the back burner with a towel. “Fire!” she cried.
Two days later, Ellen fastened the top button on Lillian’s white wool coat. She smiled and tipped her forehead to touch her mother’s, as Lillian had done when Ellen was a child. Lillian closed her eyes and sighed softly. Philip waited for them in the driveway. It was he who had made the appointment with a neurologist after receiving Ellen’s sobbing phone call.
The diagnosis was grim: advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Sukie quickly found a full-time caregiver, winsome and sturdy Carlotta, who moved into the girls’ old bedroom. Ellen returned to Richmond, carrying an ache inside her like a malignancy. She moved through the spring as though suspended in a bubble of quiescence. By May, Lillian was unable to climb the stairs to her room. She became combative with Carlotta and Philip. “We have to put Mom in a nursing home,” Ellen said to her siblings.
Ellen conducted an online search and discovered a new facility, Sheltering Oaks, close to Philip’s home. Ellen returned to Lynchburg, and helped move Lillian to the nursing home. Ellen and Sukie decorated their mother’s room with Lillian’s special things—an Asian lamp, a pretty mirrored tray on which she’d kept her toiletries, a prized French vanity chair, a trio of botanical prints– while the chirpy administrator took Lillian for a tour. When her children slipped out, Lillian was sitting before a BINGO board, though her hands lay like a pair of oven mitts on her lap.
Lillian adjusted to life at Sheltering Oaks. Philip and Sukie took turns visiting every day. In Richmond, Ellen worked prodigiously, grateful that her mother was safe and content. But by August, Lillian was incontinent. She loathed the papery diapers against her skin. In September, she lost her appetite. Her weight plummeted. Then Ellen’s genteel mother began to curse—with words that would make a mafia boss blush. The doctor prescribed medication for Lillian that calmed her derision but left her withdrawn, silent. Ellen dreaded going to Lynchburg. She spaced her visits farther apart. She told herself she was protecting her heart.
One brilliant-edged October Saturday, Ellen stepped into Lillian’s room with a bouquet of imported white peonies, Lillian’s favorites and as expensive as truffles. A stench hit her with the force of a Tsunami. Lillian had been nattering at a diaper and trying to hide the unspeakable evidence. Unholy brown shit striped her bed sheet, the little French chair. She had streaked it down one wall like a mad decorator trying out paint samples. Transfixed, Ellen saw the stuff lodged beneath her mother’s too long fingernails. Sour acid rose in her throat. She dropped the peonies and fled, hurtling through double doors to take in great breaths of air. The front desk nurse had witnessed Ellen’s exodus, her mouth an astonished o. Ellen knew she would check on Lillian.
Ellen stayed away for two weeks, three. She huddled in cardigan sweaters as though a cold, cold band of scar tissue had crept around her heart. Finally, early one December morning when ice silvered the trees and hung from the gutters like stalactites, Ellen received a call from Philip. Lillian Randall had passed away in her sleep. The three siblings prepared for the funeral. An outpouring of affection from Lillian’s friends smoothed and cosseted them like a Down comforter. The good parish women of Lillian’s church kept them fed. For “Little Lil” her mother’s death was a terrible relief. She took a leave of absence from the magazine, and moved into Lillian’s home to prepare it for sale.
On New Year’s Day Ellen gathered her courage like handfuls of skirts and ventured into Lillian’s room. The Post-It notes lay dusty, flat and accusatory. Ellen took them into her hands one-by-one as if they were scraps of antique embroidery. She discovered in them the sum of what had mattered to her mother. It was that simple. Ellen pressed them into a tooled leather scrapbook. She labeled it “What Mom Could Not Forget.”
With the soft spring thaw, the scar that had seemed to cover Ellen’s heart began to ebb, not to disappear, but to reshape itself into a cradle for her mother’s memories.