I had been waiting for THE EMERGENCY for years. I had predicted that only a crisis would make it possible for me to move her out of her home and into an assisted-living facility.
When I entered her house– with the help of her lawyer (because she refused to give me a key; I might steal something!—and I was afraid that she would sue me)– I was horrified.
The walls were lined with empty half-gallon plastic jugs of cheap Scotch. The handle of each jug was precisely pointed to the right. Even in the throes of alcoholism and dementia, my mother’s obsessive-compulsive nature reigned. Cigarette butts covered the once beautiful parquet floor in the hallway that I had frequently polished on my hands and knees when I was a child, as she glowered above me like the Colossus of Rhodes. Large black garbage bags filled every room; she never took the garbage out. But each bag was meticulously tied at the top with string. Stains in the shape of inchoate embryos covered the wooden floor and bedroom carpets upstairs. She was incontinent and had urinated everywhere. All of the toilets were stopped up and overflowing with shit. She had been using plastic buckets, which were never emptied. The kitchen appliances were almost black with filth; the dishwasher had not been used for more than a decade. The rubber and plastic inside of it had disintegrated like the yellowed pages from an ancient library book.
My relationship with my mother had always been strained; I was terrified of her. There had never been any kind of emotional intimacy between us: no affectionate caresses, no bedtime stories, no nicknames, no birthday parties, no Santa Claus, no tooth fairy, no hugs and kisses, no cuddling, no appearances at the camp horse show or water ballet or school spelling bee, no phone calls, no care packages…nothing–even when I was very young.
Years later, she and my father boycotted my wedding and sent a neatly typed note on engraved eggshell stationery: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert R. Smith, Jr., will not attend.”
I waited for an explanation for their absence. I waited for decades, but it never came.
Joseph has diffuse Lewy dementia—like Alzheimer’s combined with Parkinson’s.
This morning, he cried in the hospital. He was hospitalized for pneumonia. His disease makes it almost impossible for him to swallow.
He cried because he thought I had been kidnapped. My heart is breaking. All the bad memories disappear, and I feel nothing but overwhelming love and compassion. I want to take away his fear, his illness, his discomfort. Make his life all Chateau Margaux and Mozart conducted by Toscanini.
His last words to me in the nursing home were:
“Stop petting me like a fucking dog.”
I had been gently caressing his forehead and forearm. That was the dementia talking, I know. Perhaps, he understood that death was near and raged against the universe.
He obediently followed Dylan Thomas’s dictum: “Do not go gently into that dark night.”
He was cremated. His remains were mailed to me. I received them this morning in a sturdy white box, certified mail, return receipt requested.
Joseph, I will play Mozart’s Don Giovanni all weekend in your memory. It was one of your favorites. I will mute the television, but will occasionally glance at the screen in case of another terrorist attack.
I love you, Joseph. You saved my life. You were The Good Father. You adored me before and after all of The Troubles. You protected me against my mother…the first person ever to do that.
I will love you forever. Your spirit will be with me until the day I die. Farewell, my love.