But there was no ignoring her increasing memory loss, at least for me. She was repeating herself at times, struggling for words at others. Further, the last time she drove me somewhere, her wide sedan drifted from lane to lane like a party barge. She was blithe to the angry beeps from passing motorists, while I flinched and stomped my imaginary brake pedal. I screwed up the courage to ask her to pull over. After we traded places, I faced her and articulated the sentence I’d practiced and dreaded: “Mom, you shouldn’t be driving anymore.” She waved her fingers, as if to say, “To each his own.”
I inhaled. “And you should be tested for Alzheimer’s.”
“I have been tested,” she said. “I don’t have Alzheimer’s.”
“Can I talk to your doctor?”
“He’s busy.” She changed the subject, in the same way she’d done when my husband and I asked her to move to Mississippi. She didn’t want to talk about it. She liked her home, her friends, her church. She had a busy life.
Which was growing less busy daily. As the novel coronavirus began to spread fear around the country, she was the only player who showed up for bridge, and called me to complain.
“But, Mom,” I said, “the others probably didn’t go because it’s not safe. You shouldn’t be cruising for bridge partners, either. You shouldn’t be touching cards and passing them, you shouldn’t be sitting knee-to-knee at a small table.”
She sniffed, unconvinced.
So, no more bridge. Or book club. St. Mary’s closed its doors, which meant no more church circle, no more post-mass coffee with “the girls.” Then the community center shuttered, so no more tai chi or aqua aerobics. No movie theaters.
Of course, the same closures were curtailing our lives in Mississippi, but shelter-in-place feels different when your place hums with four other humans — my husband and three children. And, sad as I was that our oldest had been sent home from her first year at college, I luxuriated in gathering my babies around my dinner table, no one begging to eat out with friends or rushing off to band practice.
For my mother, alone, each canceled activity was a small door shutting to the world beyond herself. To the neurons in her brain that would have fired when she was counting bridge tricks or practicing her one-legged golden rooster stance in tai chi.
And now she was asking to visit for Easter.
“Mom,” I faltered. I was raised in a strict Irish Catholic family, my upbringing almost Victorian, with a focus on being ladylike at all times. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, was a constant refrain. Children should be seen and not heard was another. My life in Mississippi is nothing like that — our three children loud and messy and confident. And I’ve grown into a confident adult. But it still pains me to displease my mother.
“Mom, it’s too risky,” I said. “If the kids gave you the virus. . . . But this can’t go on forever. When we have a vaccine. . . .”
In addition to being terrifying, covid-19 has been tedious, everyone trading the same grievances, always ending with the wish for a vaccine, so life can “return to normal.” But my mom was lonely, and maybe depressed, and she was slipping. A vaccine might stop covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but it can’t replace what covid-19 has stolen. That land called “normal”? Already I knew not all of us would be returning there.
I doubled-down, sent little gifts, cards from my kids. We spoke daily and when we did, Mom repeated herself, called me by her sister’s name. I tried to teach her how to use Zoom so she could join her friends for happy hour, but the system baffled her.
One day, I called in time to stop her from sending money to an Internet insurance scam. (Oh, may the flames be scorching in that circle of hell where those who prey on the elderly will writhe.)
Another day, she locked herself out of her home. She told me the locksmith was her first face-to-face conversation in months.
“Face-to-face?” I asked. “You mean mask-to-mask? You wore masks, right?”
“Oh, probably,” she said, “but don’t worry, he was a very nice young man.” I explained, again, how the virus is passed, face-to-face, even by nice young men. I asked her how much the locksmith charged. She didn’t remember.
This couldn’t continue. My husband wondered if we should just pile the kids in our minivan and drive the 11 hours to spring Nana from her solitary confinement. We might kill her with covid-19. But protecting her from it was also killing her.
We were discussing our options when the phone rang.
“Beth Ann, you need to come home,” said my mother, a woman famous for her stiff upper lip. “I’m falling apart.”
I coated myself in hand sanitizer, flew to O’Hare International Airport and took a car service to my mother’s house. And somehow, somehow, I was unprepared to find her so changed. Her sweater was stained. Her house had an odor. And she wasn’t fumbling for an occasional phrase; she couldn’t finish a sentence, each word a fish slipping out of her hands. My beautiful mother, her green eyes not piercing now, but pierced.
The food she was pulling from the fridge for dinner didn’t look or smell fresh. “Mom, rest. I’ll go pick something up,” I said.
But walking into her garage, I found her car’s front smashed like a tin can. Now she was behind my shoulder, cringing at being discovered, like the teen I’d been, busted for sneaking in past curfew with a fresh dent in the family station wagon. I’d heard about this, your parent becoming your child. The transference was complete.
Things moved quickly after that. She agreed to let me call her doctor. Who said that he’d often asked for permission to speak to me, but she’d assured him I was “too busy.” He agreed Mom shouldn’t live alone. She was truthful at least about not having Alzheimer’s. But her diagnosis, “mild cognitive impairment,” is similar and similarly degenerative.
Two weeks later, in early August, my husband and I helped her pack up her house, no small task, stuffed as it was with antiques she’d inherited and collections she’d amassed over decades.
While winnowing the furnishings of her three-bedroom house to fit a one-bedroom in an assisted living complex near us, I kept finding tiny scraps of paper, notes she’d written to jog her memory. Most of them had to do with me. “Poet laureate” read a tiny curl of paper by her desk phone. “Poet loreit” read another scrap by her kitchen phone. I’m the poet laureate of Mississippi, a fact she’s proud of, and, I suppose, wanted to get right when bragging to friends or frenemies.
Other scraps held the name of the literary festival I’m organizing. “Ask Beth Ann,” read another. I tucked one scrap into my wallet; it said, simply, “Remember.”
Mild cognitive impairment can’t be reversed, but it can be slowed. That’s what we hope is happening now, in her new life, not even one mile from our house. Even here, covid-19 is managing to put the screws on — Mom isn’t allowed to leave the grounds of her assisted living, which means she can’t come to our house, not even for Sunday dinner.
But, after her first 72 hours of in-room quarantine, we’ve been allowed to visit. She has to stay inside the building, and we sit outside, masked. For the first few days, we had to speak with a glass door between us, using intercoms, like a bad prison movie. (“What are you in for?” I wanted to joke, but couldn’t. She doesn’t get jokes anymore).
Finally, the glass door was opened and we were able to visit, masked, at opposite ends of a six-foot table. That day, I’d brought my 9-year-old and a late summer plum cake, which I bake every September when plums are ripe and sweet and plentiful. We’d brought the cake, still cinnamon-warm from the oven, so she could share slices with the other residents hanging out by the hummingbird feeders. I want her to make friends. And cake makes friends.
By that point, she’d been out of quarantine for a week, and already was beginning to seem a bit more herself, especially when directing her grandson to the residents deserving of plum cake.
“Him?” I indicated a long-legged man cruising by on a motorized scooter with a flapping flag. “Not him,” Mom said. “He’s loud.” Then she instructed, “Make sure Richard gets some.” Hmmm, I thought, look at that. Mom has a friend, and she remembers his name.
When the nurse came to tell us our hour was over, I slid the last piece of cake across the long table to Mom and stood, my arms awkward at my sides when they yearned to hug her.
“Do you want me to carry your cake?” the nurse asked my mom.
“Fat chance! I’ll keep it in my protection.” And I swiveled my head to marvel at her teasing tone and easy sentence.
I’ll never know what my mother’s mental state would have been if she hadn’t suffered six months of isolation. I’ll never know what covid-19 took from her. But it didn’t take everything. And it did bring her close, right down the street, while there’s still a lot of sweetness to enjoy.
Late summer plum cake.
Beth Ann Fennelly is poet laureate of Mississippi and the author of six books, most recently “Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs.”