Closed for Birthdays

She didn’t open her eyes.  “Mag-ee. Come on MagPie. Let me see your eyes. Maxine. Open your eyes so you can see your cake.” Cajoling followed by threats: “Mag-ee if you don’t open your eyes I won’t be your friend anymore.” And we circle back, “Mag-ee, open your eyes, and see my sister who is here to see you.”  This particular aide pretends she too has Mag-ee for a mother.  She tells me my mother is “special,” and she loves her.  I smile, not the 1000 watt version, just a small, flat one.  “Happy Birthday, Ma.”  Be nice not bewildered, I tell myself. Hard to imagine someone adopting her on purpose, my mother.

We’re there for almost an hour, and she never opens her eyes, even eating with them closed. Mouth responding to the pressure of a spoon held against it, she opens, holds the food between roof and tongue, is reminded to swallow. She raises her eyebrows, as if opening her closed eyes wide.  The aide tilts her head with the corner of a knuckle.  After a while she gives us words: yes, no, okay.  At one point she calls me, “darling.”  Rote response to the sound of my voice, a long-used habit?  The sunflower bloom we brought sits in the dark of her room, awaiting if/when/how her eyes open.  She never does see it.

There are 14 other women here who have varying states of eyes – roaming, rolling, fluttering closed, pinged open.  In the presence of so much absence, I am not sure where to put my gaze.  I see gummed up hot dog buns.  Slurping mouths.  Dried food stuck everywhere.  A few women, my mom included, don’t remember how to feed themselves or can’t move their arms across the distance of food to mouth.  Their birthday cake has to be soaked in whipped cream and strawberry sauce.  Sponge cake made soup. A pureed diet applies to sweets too. Not something I ever considered: smashed up delight.

It’s a quiet day. Only Tula makes her usual “eeehhhh.” She used to speak two languages – Greek and English.  The English unlearned with dementia, she has her own dialect now.  When I visit my mother, Tula often follows me with her eyes and sometimes trails behind me as I move around the “household.” The aides say maybe Tula thinks I am Greek because of my coloring and nose, so she wants to be close.  I mirror her voice calls. Tula and I have a conversation in sound.  There is an Asian American woman who laughs (no words either) when Tula “eeehhh”s.  They too seem to talk.

At another time, this scene would have been my mother’s dream – women in community. She probably imagined it far more political  – with slogans and an energetic urgency to be heard.  This is not exactly that – this is more like grown, infant bodies.  The dis synchronization of lives lived, memories made, families fed and felt and fought. All this happened to them, at some point and somewhere, but not here.  Here they are united in the tasks of daily living, synchronized non-agency.

These are the women of dementia.  They live separated from cognition, as if on an island.  The aides who tend to them close the gap between the shores of “who I was” and unbecoming that. There’s a developmental order to this, like first you crawl and then you walk.  First you lose location then words, continence, mobility, continence again, reading, writing, chewing, swallowing, family, language, attention, sleeping, waking.  Organs and breath are the last, even if they go unnoticed as the eyes are closed.

© Gabriella Strecker, 2016

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