Shes not the woman she was. She just turned 92. Her hearing is shot. She cant find a hearing aid that doesnt whistle and ring. She cant remember diddly-squat.
Her mind is a bit like the worn-out typewriter ribbon we used to rail against. No matter how hard you strike the keys -- or raise your voice -- the image on the paper is never going to be anything but faint and hard to read. The voice is not going to be heard or understood.
But she can still make a joke.
Ninety-two? Dont say it out loud, OK? Anyway, I feel 72.
You say I still put lipstick on good? I should. Ive been doing it for over 90 years already.
She can still make a detour when she senses shes heading down the wrong road. So after saying, You werent my real daughter, were you? and seeing my confused reaction, she doesnt hesitate to return with, Only kidding.
Except she wasnt.
After holding up a dog-eared copy of a book of columns I wrote and asking, This is so good; have you read it? -- she can recognize something is seriously wrong with this sentence and follow up with, I get all mixed up; dont pay any attention to me.
But heres the difference. She does not get upset with herself or the situation. And when she insists she had a third brother -- someone named Herman born between sisters Mildred and Joan --and I say, I dont think so, Mom, she can end the discussion by gracefully saying, Ill sleep on it.
No fighting. No vitriol. No getting the last word in. Must be the Lexapro.
Now when I visit in her suburban Detroit facility and she asks how long Im staying and I answer two or three days, she can say, Do I have to accept that?
But the remark is offered with a smile because she knows it is what it is -- and she can accept the facts. She only takes ten milligrams of the antidepressant, but its working.
Why didnt we think of this earlier, my niece and nephew and I think. How different our lives would have been, we joke. Why doesnt everyone over 90 take it? I ask the nurse this question. She wonders the same thing. We all wonder things when we visit the old and the lame.
Except they dont see themselves as the old and the lame, especially if they went to Sunday School together or took dance lessons together in fourth grade or visited the vegetable garden that used to occupy the ground of the current Detroit Institute of Arts.
They are someones daughter, someones son, someones niece that someone used to know on a street they used to play. They see one another after 70 years and see the same big brown eyes they knew back then, the same freckled cheeks, dimpled chin, smart aleck personality.
A few visits ago, when I was flipping through some photos with my mother she stopped at a black-and-white one, pointed and said, She sits at my table.
One thing I always look for in the lobby of my mothers new residence is a vase with a rose and a name. This is their way of letting people know that someones passed on. This time it was Andy, a nice and cheerful man who was on dialysis.
But no one there spends too much time mourning the past or the dead. Theyll gossip. Theyll squabble (especially if a newcomer comes into the dining room and sits in someone elses seat). Theyll complain about the food (oy; will they complain about the food).
But they dont carry on too much. They are in the present.
When someone asked a woman at my mothers dinner table why she was in the hospital, she thought for a minute and answered, For research.
Good answer. Says just enough.
A few weeks ago when my mother confirmed she knew her birthday was coming up, she added I didnt need to visit. I wasnt going to until she said, Theres no hurry.
After hearing that, I made a last-minute reservation, scooted up, surprised her with a chocolate cake with her name Rose scrolled on and in the middle of the week managed to get my nephew, my niece and three of the six great-grandchildren -- no small feat in todays keep-the-children-busy world -- in one room.
She was delighted.
This is the best birthday Ive ever had, she said, adding, uncharacteristically because we have never been a particularly demonstrative or affectionate family, I love you.
Must have been the Lexapro, but Ill take it anyway I can.