Thursday, January 16, 2014

Speaking Yiddish

There are few visitors now. Apart from immediate family, the phone calls to her have virtually stopped. When anyone inquires it is almost by way of apology: "I hate to ask."

It is difficult and uncomfortable to peer into this disintegrating universe. It is not the image of my mother that anyone wants to retain. It is not how she would want to be remembered.

Sitting in her wheelchair, leaning slightly to her right, supported by a pillow in the small of her back, it is hard to tell the depth of the problem. Her hair has been neatly combed, makeup and lipstick applied. But come closer, for  there are many "tells". Her eyes are almost always closed and she has no comprehension that even when they are open she is without sight. The stereo is playing Sinatra, always Sinatra and always too loud. It is only this noise that seems to penetrate the fog.

Her once immaculate apartment is definitely showing its age. The dining room carpet has tape over the areas that have now grown threadbare. The drawers in the kitchen are almost impossibly stuck. The notes that resonate from the piano are decades out of tune. The deeply stained carpet has been removed from the bedroom, the stories it could report of the trials and tribulations within that room thankfully no longer evident.

It is not neglect but the ravages of time that have compromised my mother and her surroundings. All about her has been swallowed up in this vortex. There is the distinct sense of desperation, trying not to disappear into an ever growing hole.

Often she talks in unsolvable riddles to me. Her word retrieval is fading fast and so her thoughts come out in a series of non sequiturs.

Recently she has begun speaking Yiddish.

She lives mostly in an imaginary world occupied principally by her parents and her grandmother. She is very worried about their health. None are well. Her father appears a gentle soul, her mother more the disciplinarian. She often is concerned that she has to leave to tend to them.

When her Aunt Minny is mentioned, it is that "Tilly works too hard." Minny spends her days at the family store, alongside my mom's parents. There is a strong work ethic that permeates this place.

My father has long since been left out of the conversation. A marriage of 34 years, marked only by one happiness after another, is nowhere to be found. On the very rare occasions when my dad surfaces, it is to discuss my mom's credit card habits. I never knew this was an issue.

"Mom, I don't understand Yiddish so well. You'll have to translate for me." On the bad days, nothing seems to penetrate the barrier she has erected between the world she actually inhabits and the one her mind has her residing in.

But on this occasion, she is able to give me a brief English version of one sentence. I tell her that I never learned Yiddish but that 50 years ago, for a moment in time, I studied German in a general language class. I still recall counting from one to ten. As I begin, she joins in on some of the numbers.

The trick is to try to find a way to bring her to this room, to this time, to this person who is sitting next to her. Blind, there is nothing tangible before her that anchors my mom here. Her hearing, while sometimes acute enough to pick up asides spoken to her caretaker, is often almost oblivious to the conversation that is taking place within a few feet. It is always about trying to locate a connection to her.

It is unfathomable that my mom was born while World War I was still raging. Was a body ever intended to last this long? How much information has been processed through that brain, how many images have those eyes witnessed, how many sounds have had to be interpreted?

The downstairs neighbor is on the warpath. She finds my mom's screaming during the daily ritual of bathing and cleaning an attack on her senses. When the caretaker asks my mom to be a little more quiet, that she is getting complaints, the response may well be for my mother to scream a little louder, a little longer. No one, my mom seems to be saying, can tell her how to conduct herself. There is still something, she is advising anyone and everyone within earshot, that has not escaped her control.

In her reaction is she demonstrating that, in some corner of her mind, all is still being properly processed? While it may not translate into cogent conversation, maybe it is still happening.

Where is the line drawn where we know that enough is too much? At what point can we wish for something different? Over the course of watching this journey, I have asked myself that question countless times. But I have not discovered an answer.

Despite all of this, it is not a place without joy. I know that my mom is happy for my visits. When she asks, "where is Rob?" and the answer is, "he is here, he is right next to you", there is an almost audible sigh of relief and pleasure. Often when I get up to leave, she announces, "isn't he wonderful?"

If I have to spend my time counting from one to ten in German to capture her attention, if I have to sing the same Frank Sinatra song over and over to her, if I have to repeat stories day after day, none of that matters as long as, for whatever brief moments there may be, she and I are together.

On a related note, another post about my mother, "The Man in My Mother's Bedroom," is scheduled to appear in a future edition of "Chicken Soup for the Soul" to be published Spring 2014.


Anonymous said...

Wow that's incredible. So many of the things you describe are true of my Mom too. But you have the gift of being able to express it in writing in a beautiful way.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. And so very very sad.


Anonymous said...

Very, very sweet.


Anonymous said...

So sad.. but I can attest to how wonderful she always thought you( and the whole family) were....

Nancy said...

It's true Robert, I too don't ask anymore. I wait for you. And it was worth the wait.

Anonymous said...

Lovely, Rob. So compassionate and moving – you have captured feelings that are like gossamer.


Anonymous said...

How very beautiful.


Anonymous said...

Zeher schain. Zeher schain. A groysse dank.


Anonymous said...

I read your essay of Speaking Yiddish with sadness but also with memories of good times spent with Aunt Dot. It is beautifully written and so touching. My heart goes out to you and to Gail.


Anonymous said...

I am at a loss for words. What can anyone say? No one deserves this fate. I feel so bad for Dot; so bad for you; so bad for Gail. -