Art by Freda Myran, courtesy of the author.
My mother has become curious about her own mind. “It’s as if thoughts come from somewhere else and appear—they’re not mine.”
We’re in Tucson, sitting on a couch that’s older than me, in the house where my mother will live for another two months.
“There’s this thought, and that thought.” Her fingers mime little puffs. “Pwink, pwink.”
A week or two after her move to “memory care” a few blocks away, my mother’s thoughts begin singing. When I tell her the voices are thoughts, she usually doesn’t believe me. How can they be in her head? They sing so beautifully, and in harmony—she can’t do that.
One day, I show her a page of a book, and the voices sing what she reads. “See?”
She asks how they know what she’s reading.
As a small child, my mother prayed every day with the Protestant kids, and also at home. Sometimes she prayed that her teachers would treat her more kindly, sometimes that her parents would stop their endless fighting.
I ask her whether she prayed to have agency.
She says: Isn’t that why anyone prays?
The mind is incisive, but the focus at any one time is narrow. Right now, it’s on why people pray.
One day, when she was six, her parents argued so violently she thought they would kill one another.
She screamed at her father: Just leave! Soon after, he did. He never came back.
Only recently has she told me this story. It’s slightly different each time, like any memory.
The voices are usually benign. Today, as we sit on the front porch of my little house, they sing that a house across the street from mine is institutional, maybe a hospital. It’s just a house, I tell her, so she revises: the house looks unfriendly. It does.
Sometimes the voices make her unhappy. Sometimes, they won’t let her leave her room because her sister needs help, or my father does. Her sister died thirty years ago; my father, one.
She’s always had to put things in order, even when they already were, or couldn’t possibly be.
One day we take a scenic drive through the desert. The lane winds through hills of saguaros, across denser riverbeds, up rocky crests.
I chatter on about how cacti are the most complex plants, tiny stoma closing each morning and opening every night. The ragged creosotes are colonies that live thousands of years; camels can eat them. Palo verdes, I note, photosynthesize with their bark, like only three or four trees in the world.
I’ve always looked to science for stories that put things in order. But the only story that matters right now is of my mother’s slow vanishing, and of what gets exposed in the process—and science has nothing much to say about that.
We park at the top of a cliff, over the vastness of a valley’s expanse. Beautiful, I say. Yes, she says, and frightening. Frightening? Yes, she says, it’s…big.
Reflexively I pretend to not understand. Maybe I don’t want to encourage her fear. More likely I don’t want to admit how close I can feel it.
Later, as we drive back to town, she praises the orderliness of the desert. “It’s wonderful how neat it’s all kept,” she says.
I tell her nobody keeps it, it’s nature.
“So they all just know where to grow? That’s amazing.”
It is. And as we cross the city limits, I pick up the thread. “People actually do tend things here.”
“But nature’s here too,” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s a collaboration.”
My mother no longer tries to control her own stories, for the most part. She no longer says that her childhood was just fine, for example. She does sometimes say that her long-gone sister or husband needs her, but she usually knows that I’m the only one left who does.
One way I need her: After years of trying to figure out her life story, and therefore in some sense my own, I finally get to hear the unsanitized versions.
Another: I get to learn that unhappiness can arise from believing one’s thoughts, even the nice ones. That sort of thing.
I also get to see how, when the mind can’t make stories anymore, serenity has to arrive by other means, and how it does.
And then there’s the less obvious ways. I’ve been called on to help her live, and I can rarely see how it’s changing me. But that’s nature; things know where to grow.
Jacques Servin wrote two books of mischievous fiction before one bit of mischief morphed into the Yes Men. For 25 years he designed actions, wrote movies and videos, and tried to figure out how change happens. He is now at work on a memoir about coping with his mother’s dementia.