My mother has no idea that her ninetieth birthday is coming up. She has no notion of the time of day, the day of the week. the season of the year, the year of the century. No notion of the approaching millennium. And no idea any longer, who I am. Her forgetting of me happened just a few months ago, after I had been traveling for more than a month and hadn't been to see her. When I came back, she asked me if I were her niece, l said no, I was her daughter. "Does that mean I had you?" she asked. 1 said yes. "Where was I when l had you?" she asked me. I told her she was in a hospital in Far Rockaway. New York. "So much has happened to me in my life." she said "You can't expect me to remember everything."
My mother was once a beautiful woman, but all her teeth are gone now. Toothless. No woman can be considered beautiful. Whenever I visit her in the nursing home, she is sitting at the table in the common dining room, her head in her hands, rocking. Medication has eased her anxiety, but nothing moves her from her stupor except occasional moments of fear, too deep for medication. This is a room that has no windows, that lets in no light, in which an overlarge TV is constantly blaring, sending images that no one looks at where the floors are beige tiles, the walls cream colored at the bottom, papered halfway up with a pattern of nearly invisible grayish leaves. Many of the residents sit staring, slack-jawed, open mouthed. I find it impossible to imagine what they might be looking at.
When I walk into the dining room on the day of my mother's birthday, I see that she has already been served lunch. The staff has forgotten to hold it back. Though I told them a week ago that I would be providing lunch. She hasn’t touched anything on her tray except a piece of carrot cake, which she holds in her hands. The icing is smeared on her hands and face. I don't want my friends to see her smeared with icing, so I wet a paper towel and wipe her. This fills me with a terrible tenderness, recalling, as it does. a gesture I have performed for my children. As I wipe my mother's face, I see that her skin is still beautiful I hold her chin in my hand and kiss her forehead. I tell her it's her birthday, that she's ninety years old. "How did that happen?" she asks. "I can't understand how that could happen."
l have brought her a bouquet of crimson, yellow, and salmon-pink snapdragons. She likes the flowers very much. She likes the name. "Snapdragons. It seems like an animal that's going to bite inc. But it's not an animal, it's a plant. That's a funny thing,"
I have bought food that I hope will please my mother, and that will be easy for her to eat: orzo salad with little pieces of crayfish cut into it, potato salad, small chunks of marinated tomatoes. I have bought paper plates with a rust-colored background, upon which are painted yellow and gold flowers and blue leaves.
My friends Nola and Gary come for my mother's birthday. When we are about to leave, I tell my mother that I'm going on vacation, mat I won't see her for three weeks, that 1 am going to the sea. "How will I stand that, how will I stand that's she says, but I know that a minute after I’m gone she'll forget I was there.