Mom is sitting at her table across from Donald, and they’re smiling at each other. When she sees me, she beams.
“Hi Donald,” I say, as I lean over to kiss my mom.
“Is that his name?” she asks. “I’m so glad you told me!” She has an impish grin on her face.
They have their meals together every day, and they spend a lot of time sitting across from each other at their table between meals. I wonder if they ever get up.
“Let’s go for a walk, Mom,” I say. She needs the exercise.
“Okay,” she says, but she seems a little reluctant.
“Come on, honey,” she says, moving in his direction, taking his hand to entice him to join us. But he shakes his head and says, “No,” and so she leans over and kisses him goodbye — on the mouth. He kisses her back enthusiastically.
Their relationship has been going on for a few months, ever since Kenneth was moved to another unit.
One day I sat with her and Donald, wanting to get to know the new man in her life.
“What kind of work did you do, Donald?” I asked.
“MGM,” he said. “I ran the studio.” He nodded while speaking. “Universal Pictures. Warner Brothers.”
“Oh really?” I asked. “Hollywood?”
“I’m President Kennedy’s brother,” he said. “His cousin. His son. Joan Crawford and I have children together.”
I looked at him.
“I know you don’t believe me,” he said, his eyes shifty, a note of bitterness in his voice.
“Sure I do!” I said. Quietly, I sighed, and inwardly, I sort of cringed.
I’m just as happy that he doesn’t want to join us.
As my mom and I walk out of the dining room, the aides smile at us.
“Mariann has a new husband!” says one of the cafeteria workers, and winks at her.
“A husband?!” she says.”Who’s that? I don’t have a husband! I don’t even have a boyfriend!”
She has forgotten Donald before we’re even out of the room.
I was told that the day Kenneth left, my mom was devastated.
Those two were so close, had such chemistry, that everyone called him her husband. From his early days on the unit, he held her attention, taking her hand and walking her up and down the halls charming and confusing her with his talk of business deals and future plans.
“What’s he talking about?” she would ask me, thinking I understood. I didn’t. But none of it mattered, because once he reached over to kiss her, all of her confusion evaporated.
She was out of sorts for days after he was moved. And then gradually, or not so gradually, she forgot him.
“Who’s that?” she asks, whenever his name comes up. “I don’t know anyone by that name.”
The fact of the relationship still shocks me. For almost my whole life, my mom couldn’t stand men, especially my father, whom she divorced more than twenty years ago.
But Alzheimer’s changed her thoughts about even him.
“I wish I had never left Bill,” she said in the early days of her disease. “Then we’d be together now, and I wouldn’t be all alone.”
These days, she doesn’t remember Bill anymore, either.
“Who’s that?” she began to ask months ago.
“My father,” I say. “Your husband, well … your ex-husband.”
She gets a blank look on her face.
“You were married for 38 years,” I say.
“I don’t know him,” she says, a smile on her face.
“He’s the man you had children with.”
She looks at me as if I’ve presented her with an abstract math problem.
Thirty-eight years, motherhood, marriage — all washed away.
Bill died in January, and I wondered for just a brief moment if I should tell her.
“Why upset her?” a couple of friends said to me. With her mother and siblings, I was constantly re-traumatizing her every time she asked about them and I told her that they had died. At some point, it makes no sense to tell a mid- to late-stage Alzheimer’s patient about the death of a loved one.
But this time, the reason I kept the information from her was not to spare her. I kept the death of my father to myself because I thought it would make no difference to her. To her, he’s not gone. He simply never existed.
Thirty-eight years, a marriage, children, a house, love, pain, misery, drudgery, frustration, fear, anger, happiness, disappointment — all washed away.