It had been so long since I'd been to the nursing home that I didn't remember which room my mom was in. I tried a couple with no luck, and finally had to ask at the nurse's desk.
“Lilly Hall, first door on your left,“ one of them said. All of the halls were named after flowers: Rose, Lilly, Daisy, Chrysanthemum. Each hall housed specific types of patients. Rose Hall was for just plain elderly people, those who were still mobile. Chrysanthemum was for bedridden patients, those who required more attention. Daisy was terminal, and Lilly was Alzheimer’s; a hodge-podge of symptoms and patients. The way it worked was the more in need of care the patient was, the closer they were to the nurse's station, which was in the center of the building so that the halls radiated out from it like the arms of starfish. Which meant that beds nearest the station were vacated fairly quickly. Every time I came, she had inched closer to the center; so that every time I had to ask a nurse which room my mother was in.
Even then, I wasn't sure, at first, that this was her room. It used to have pictures of Elvis hanging on the walls, and one hanging over her bed like a mobile. When she’d first gone into the nursing home, she claimed to be pregnant by Elvis. She’d seen him in college. When the nurses helped her use the bathroom, she’d say in her garbled, drunk-sounding voice, “Careful of the baby.” The ones who’d worked there long enough to have heard this before played along.
“Is it your husband’s baby?”
“Elvis,” she’d mumble. “Elvis is the father. I’m pregnant by Elvis.”
Elvis’s pictures cluttered the walls, like posters in a teenager’s bedroom, little clippings the size of postcards, some with neat straight edges, some ripped out of magazines, their edges still curled and fluffy from having been licked to facilitate tearing. Some of the clippings were in black and white, some were in glaring color. There were pictures the size of whole pages jumbled together all over one wall.
Now someone had taken them all down. Only one picture remained on the wall near her bed, a picture of young Elvis, with slicked back dark hair, thin and healthy.
I tried to remember the last time I’d been to visit her. Not since last Christmas, I realized. This was Thanksgiving. She was behind the first door, the first room on the left.
She lay quiet on the bed, her bare knees thrusting out from under the rumpled sheets awkwardly. Her feet were tucked under her, making the sheet look like a tent that had fallen down in the wind. Her skin was so white it looked gray. Her eyes locked on us when we entered the room. They looked like a chained animal’s. I stared hard at her, trying to find something familiar in this woman’s face.
“Hi Mom,” I said. "This is my girlfriend, Jillian."
Jillian and I had been together for a couple months before I worked up the courage to introduce her to my mother. Not so much because I was afraid of how she'd respond, as that I was afraid, always afraid, to visit my mother.
“You look like her,” Jillian said, talking slowly. “She’s pretty, good bones, very Southern.” I looked at my mother, writhing on the bed. All the sun had been sucked out of her once blonde hair. Now it was gray, chopped short. The skin of her face was loose. Her whole body was bony and thin.
“She‘s so thin,” I said.
“It’s the liquid diet,” Jillian said.
There was an IV attached to my mother's hand. Something was taped to her throat. Her head flopped from side to side. Her mouth was open; she tongued the air as though she was trying to speak. Her body was in revolt.
Huntington’s Chorea: everyone in the family called it that, including me until my freshman year in psych class when the professor, a Mr. Stroman, broached the topic. He was a round, bearded professor who resembled a chain-smoking koala bear. He lectured from a book he’d co-written and wore Hawaiian shirts and ratty blue jeans whenever the weather allowed.
“Huntington‘s Disease,” he said in class, out of nowhere one day, snapping me to attention. “It’s in the Parkinson’s family. A genetic disorder, attacking the nervous system and the brain. Victims lose their identity, their ability to control motor functions, as the cells of their brain and nervous system succumb, over a period which can last as long as fifteen years.”
I raised my hand, feeling like a ludicrous sort of teacher’s pet. But here was something I knew about. I could tell him that Woody Guthrie, the folk singer who wrote “This Land Is Your Land” had it. I could tell him that one line of it had been traced back to inbreeding in a European royal family.
“It used to be called Huntington’s Chorea, but that‘s wrong,” he said, ignoring my hand. “Chorea means dance. It was named this because of the shaky, uncontrollable spasms its victims suffer. But that’s a very insulting name. It’s a disease, not a dance.” I lowered my hand.
He went on to lecture us about nursing homes. “People dump their parents, their grandparents in these places, and never visit them,” he said. My jaw dropped.
"I wish that the same thing would happen to people who abandon their elderly family members,” he said. “I hope that when they are old, someone dumps them in a nursing home and leaves them to die.”
It is hard for me to envision my mother as a young woman, dancing to Elvis. I have almost no memories of her before the sickness. She was already in her forties when I was born, and she had given birth to my brother eighteen years earlier, making me a late surprise. By the time I was in school, she had already begun her decline. The most persistent image I have of her is of a shrunken woman, head bowed under fine blond hair.
She was in college in the fifties when she and my father met. He went along with a friend to Jonesboro, where my mother went to college. The friend was there to see a girl, and Mom was her roommate. My father's friend gave him fifty cents to beat it. My father spent the money on a milkshake for her.
My parents had been married for two decades when I came into the picture. Theirs was a troubled marriage, my father was poorer than my mother was used to and as her discontent grew, he spent more and more of his time at work, drinking.
All I have of her before the sickness are glimpses. The house was brighter then, the windows cleaner, new, curtained, instead of being blocked by the tacky shades my father installed. She had pretty things. A closet full of hatboxes. She wore scarves, jewelry, and smelled of vanilla lotion. She fried donuts on Sundays and my brother would take us on family drives, though my father was always working.
Most of what we have left of hers comes from before I was even born. Her things have mostly disappeared over the years. There have been a lot of bodies through her room, nurses, relatives, housekeepers. My memories of her could be scribbled on a napkin.
My sister has told me about the nicknames our mother used for us.
"She used to call you Little Boy Blue," my sister says, "Little Boy Blue and Sister Sue."
People I don’t recognize have stopped me on the street, more times than I can remember, to introduce themselves as “a friend of your mother,” and then spent several moments reassuring me that she has always been a beautiful person, a good person, though it is the rare soul who, when pressed, can relate a specific memory of her. My grandmother says she was impetuous, married my father straight out of college. A farmer. She could have married a doctor, my grandmother says, never would have had to worry about money the way she did with my father, but she wouldn’t wait on the guy to finish med school. She ended up teaching elementary school in the Arkansas delta; close enough to Memphis, at least, to go shopping, if she'd had any money.
“She always worried about you kids,” Grandmother reassured me. “When she became sick, she would say, over and over, ‘What’s going to happen to my children?’”
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a child who didn’t really know me, and so I have struggled to take up the slack on my end and discover all that I can about her. But her family is tightlipped and uncooperative. I have wondered if this is due to her illness, or her marriage, or if they are just this sort of people. I have her annual from college; it’s a volume full of people I’ve never known. There’s no mention of Elvis, which just goes to show how little documentation there may exist of a person’s true happiness. There is a portrait of her in my father’s living room, which I showed to Jillian. My mother has big, blonde hair, deep eyes, and an easy smile. She can’t be twenty-five. She's pretty in a Grace Kelly sort of way. There's a mystery behind her eyes that can't be reached, and a sadness. It seems to say, "I was meant for better things. But this is where I am and I will make the best of it." But a portrait is two dimensional, and you can’t learn much from one. I wonder if somewhere behind that smile, she knew what the world had to offer her. I wonder if she still would have smiled.