My mom was such a simple person — on the outside. She never lied. Or cheated. Or stole. Or smoke or drank, for that matter. She believed in God and prayed, and she loved her children. She was nice and polite and kind. She never said a mean word to anyone.
But behind people’s backs, she wasn’t always so nice. Sometimes she would gossip, and she would often complain about people. She distrusted, even disliked, people who spoke or thought well of themselves. In her mind, confidence was the same thing as arrogance, and she hated arrogance.
My mom never believed she was worth anything or that she was capable of much. And yet, she believed she was good. Strangely enough, she seemed to think that seeing herself as worthless was what made her good, as if her low self-esteem was an essential part of her goodness.
My mom was a very complicated woman.
I brought a coloring book to the Hebrew Home last Saturday. Mel had given it to me as a gift for myself. It was an adult coloring book.
“Wow,” my mom said. “What’s this?”
The pages were full of mandalas, intricate kaleidoscopic drawings with hundreds, even thousands, of tiny shapes to color in.
“It’s a coloring book,” I said.
“What do we do with it?” she asked.
“Color,” I said, taking the colored pencils out of my bag.
I handed her a pink pencil.
She looked at it quizzically. With a quick hand motion, I showed her how to color. She picked it up right away and started to color.
Sitting next to her, I took a pencil, reached over, and began coloring in the shapes on the side of the picture that I could reach, being careful not to get in her way.
Within seconds I knew why the coloring hadn’t caught on for me when Mel had first given me the book almost a year before. The hard feel of the pencil and scratching sound were anything but relaxing. And the compulsion to color every little shape a different color made the activity a torturous kind of work.
I watched how my mom moved her pink pencil. The color came out so light you could barely see it.
“Is this how I’m supposed to do it?” she asked.
She’d managed to color within the lines, sort of, but didn’t fill the whole space. As she continued coloring, she moved to the shape next to the one where she had started coloring, and then the space next to that. It wasn’t at all how I thought these mandalas were supposed to be colored — every shape carefully given its own unique color — and yet it was just fine.
“You got it, Mom,” I said.
After a little more pencil scratching, I took out the crayons. There was no need for the precision of pencils. This was meant to be a relaxing activity, and the feel of crayon against paper is far more relaxing than pencils.
I gave her a crayon.
“Ooh,” she said. “This is so nice.” She liked how dark and vivid the color was, especially when compared to the lightness of the colored pencil.
Sitting next to each other, we passed the minutes filling the drawing with color.
She began to color over the spots that were already colored, and then seemed to think she could transfer the color from the page to her crayon, as if she were coloring the crayon.
“Let’s get this color,” she said, holding the crayon over a spot already colored.
I tried to explain that the color went the other way, from crayon to paper, but I soon gave up. She wasn’t getting it.
When we finished the entire drawing, I told her I had to leave.
“No, no, no, no, no,” she said.
We went to her room so that I could use the bathroom.
“You are not leaving,” she said.
“I have to,” I said.
When I got out of the bathroom, she went in. She closed the door and started weeping loudly, continuing for several minutes, til she flushed and washed her hands.
I sighed and lay on her bed.
“Come here, Mom,” I said, when she got out. I asked her to lay down next to me.
“I hate it when you leave,” she said. “It’s terrible.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s hard for me, too.”
“But do you go into a corner and cry your eyes out?”
The part of my body that was touching hers shrank, just for a moment. As if wanting to escape contact with her.
“I want you to stay, and you never, ever will,” she said. “I’ll never see you again.”
“You’ll see me next week,” I said.
She looked at me and frowned, deeply dissatisfied.
I could never give her everything she wanted from me when I was younger, enough love or enough attention or enough obedience. And it would make me so angry when she would lead me again and again into the land of guilt.
I had hoped she’d lost her way, that Alzheimer’s had destroyed her internal compass, and for the most part, it has. But I guess at times she can still find her way there, and point me in that direction.
I know I’m not supposed to want her to forget, but sometimes I just do.