My mother’s birthday was last Sunday, March 5th. She’s gone now, a little over six years, but I think about her nearly every day, especially when I comb my hair, which is thinning at my left temple for some reason that I can only ascribe to aging. I hope it doesn’t continue to worsen, but we shall see. My husband, father and younger brother are all bald and it’s a fine look on them, but I’m not sure it’d be a good one on me.
I love the liveliness of my mother’s hair in this picture from when she was a young woman. Her hair, reddish-brown throughout her life, thinned as the years passed but never grayed.
When I was a child my hair was blonde, not Nordic white blonde, but more golden, like a lion’s mane. When I was a young adult my hair was still blonde, shot through with streaks from the searing sun that bleached my long locks during the summers I loved a guy who lived in a house by the sea in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. But, now that I’m an older adult (to put it kindly), with thinning hair, describing my hair as even dirty blonde is a stretch. Still I’d place it somewhere on the dark blonde to light brown continuum. However, once Alzheimer’s grabbed onto my mother’s once-nimble mind and refused to let go, she often asked, “When did your hair get so black?”
I am embarrassed to admit that that fairly innocuous question made me furious. I huffed and puffed with enough ire to blow a house down. How stupid! I suspect my anger had little to nothing to do with my hair and everything to do with not feeling fully seen, known, understood or accepted by my mother for decades. And, just when I was letting go of all my mother resentment, Alzheimer’s blew in and slammed the door shut on any kind of mutual relationship that she and I may have been able to forge later in our lives. Now, that’s something to be mad about.
Back to the black. On a Sunday afternoon after the 10:30 service at the First Presbyterian Church in the old mill town of Gloversville, New York, where well-meaning churchy people coo over my mother like she is a baby bird and make me inwardly cringe, we file into the Holiday Inn’s restaurant, sprightly named, “Spirit,” in nearby Johnstown. After listening to Linda, the waitress, expertly reel off the specials, my parents order what they always do. Well, mostly my mother just sits there and my father orders for them both. He orders fish, a healthy choice, not that the omega fatty acids matter much now for my mother’s gummed-up brain. I guess things could be worse, although it’s hard to imagine how.
We don’t wait long for our food. The restaurant is not even half-full and Linda is a conscientious waitress. No entrees grow cold waiting for pick-up while she is on duty.
“What’s the black?” asks my mother, pointing to the grill marks on my father’s salmon. My father and I exchange uneasy glances. She will not eat anything that has “black” on it. In the next moment, Linda diverts my mother’s attention when she sets a plate down in front of her with that special flourish only seasoned waitresses can pull off. “Here’s your meal, Betty.”
The colors on her pale porcelain plate catch my eye: pink, white, and orange, and then I smell the salmon, poached not grilled, potatoes mashed with any chunks of skin removed, and carrots undressed, without any parsley, all traces of anything my mother would label “black,” removed. Will she eat it or fuss about “black,” specs, traces, or marks on her food that often only she can see?
Alzheimer’s reduces her once robust vocabulary to a few catch-all words. I am curious about why the fixation on “black” in moments when I am not wracked by grief over my mother’s progressive diminishment. Alzheimer’s reduces us all in so many ways. I am often an awkward, mute presence in my mother’s company. I do not know how to reach her or if she even wants to connect with me. I picture us on opposite ends of one of those scary, rope bridges swaying high up in the Himalayas unable to take a few steps forward, let alone meet in the middle.
I watch a routine play out between Linda and my parents and dare to exhale. My mother picks up her fork and starts to eat her meal. I didn’t even know I was holding my breath.
After dessert, and coffee for my parents, and after my father pays and slips a generous tip into the guest check holder, we shove our chairs back from the table and haul ourselves up, bellies stuffed and bulging. My pants feel snug. Linda pulls me aside as we file out of the dining hall. “I just want to tell you how much I love waiting on your parents,” she says. For a moment, a blessed moment, her kindness pierces my grief.