I let a squirt of Purell cover my palms. I punch in the code to open the locked ward door and let myself in. An aide is loudly calling bingo numbers, competing with the din of the Boston Philharmonic on the television. Of the eleven people in the room, only one is even looking at her bingo card.
I find my mother in her room, in her bed, as usual. I take a moment to watch her sleep, practicing my deep breathing to match hers, and prepare myself to be mindful. Being present in the moment, even if I have the power to do this only in small snippets, helps us both. When I wake her up, she is so excited to see me, clapping her hands in front of her face when she spies the jelly doughnut I brought for her.
I answer her questions about who I married, what I do for a living, where I live, how many children I have. I check all her drawers and her walker basket for contraband: dishes, napkins, utensils, other people’s greeting cards. I get her out of bed and we walk to the dining room, where I sneak the stolen items into the sink. We sit at a table and eat our donuts.
I am entering a writing contest, I tell her.
“Oh, are you?”
“What should I write about?”
“Whatever you want to write about. What do you like to write about?”
“I like to write humorous pieces, like Erma Bombeck.”
“I don’t think I know her.”
I brush the crumbs from her chest. “This is a contest sponsored by a group devoted to Ernest Hemingway.”
“I don’t think I know him.”
“You do. When I read him in high school, we talked about his books.”
“I knew him in high school? I don’t remember.”
I put the dirty napkins in the doughnut bag and crumple it up. We sit quietly.
“What do you do for a living?”
I tell her about my paying job, but add, “I’m trying to be a writer.”
“Have I read your work?”
“You must be good.”
“You have to say that; you’re my mother.”
Pain and confusion cross her face. “I must have been a terrible mother.” Her chin trembles. “Why didn’t my mother tell me I had children? I would have taken care of you if I’d known about you.”
“Mom, shhh, it’s OK. You were a wonderful mother. I’m here to take care of you because you were a wonderful mother.”
She’s shaking her head, muttering, “I don’t understand this. Why didn’t my mother tell me? How did this happen?”
I redirect. “Look at your fingernails. What a pretty color!” We spend a few moments admiring each other’s manicure, leaving the issue of motherhood in the immediate forgotten past.
I get up and go into the kitchen to throw away our garbage and get a wet paper towel to wash my mother’s hands. When I sit down, she is so excited to see me. “When did you get here?”
“Just now. I couldn’t wait to see you.”
“What have you been up to?”
I tell her again about my work, about my family. I mention, again, that I’m entering a writing contest.
“What should I write about?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“What would you like to read about?” I think of her old reading habits, filled with mystery and suspense.
“Life. This life.”
I pat her soft cool hands, squeezing the bony fingers gently.
“That’s just what I’ll do.”
* This essay is a Sunday Short Reads original.