You’re standing at the shitty strip mall by church, the one with the Dollar Store, Vietnamese nail salon, and the Safeway that’s closing at the end of the month because everyone’s buying everything online now, even goddamn groceries, waiting for the Dairy Queen to open, your nose pressed to the glass like when you used to wait for the liquor store to open, back when you could only buy vodka in the state-run package stores that didn’t open until noon. You’ll order for your mother because she forgets what she wants in the nanosecond between deciding and ordering and you’ll have nothing because food makes you want to puke lately, the low hum of anxiety swirling around your belly like the hot fudge in your mother’s peanut buster parfait. You long for the ease and comfort of a drink, a glass of red wine from the good old days, before you gave it up twenty years ago and, at your first meeting, met the man you’d later marry, the man who told you that you’ve never had one of anything in your life.
Your mother’s eating too much sugar these days, the wellness nurse is monitoring her intake and she really shouldn’t have an ice cream sundae, but this is the least of your worries, and at this point you figure what the hell, she doesn’t have much else to live for, and church is a shitstorm with her deranged outbursts and giggles and today, this—wetting her pants in front of the congregation—at least the carpeting is beige, thank-you-Jesus—and the smug glare of those fucking church people, silently spewing the self-righteous vomit of hypocrisy and reinforcing your supreme hatred of religion, of church, of Bibles and fairy tales, even more than you hated it forty years ago when you were forced to go twice a week until you left it—and your mother and everything else—behind at age sixteen to elope with your loser of a first husband, that bad decision over as soon as the desk lamp narrowly missed your head, and you realize you’ve never really been free of it, the lash of religion, because you’ve been caring for your mother for the past five years, and taking her to church every week brings her joy even if all you want to do is scream at the top of your lungs that whole hour, but you smile the plastic smile of the Barbie dolls you played with in Valerie Clark’s pink bedroom, the ones your mother didn’t allow you because Barbie was too mature, too sexual, and you realize it’s the same smile you give your mother when she calls you her mother and you wish God, a higher power, the universe, whatever, would just take her right now because this is no way to live and you’re thinking: so, who’s the hypocrite now?
Your mother needs help with the toilet, she’s wearing Depends and this makes you sad—stealthy, fat tears in the dark as you fall asleep thinking of her in her bed in Trazodone-induced slumber that doesn’t last as long as it did when you first agreed, yes, yes, she absolutely needs to sleep so let’s give her meds because this is the only time she’s free, when she sleeps and her disease lies dormant like a housefly on a windowsill in winter, but lately, she’s up wandering around at two a.m. like the memory care director (who your mother calls the lawyer just like she calls Margie’s husband her father) told you this morning; she’s ghosting around in the dark eating Froot Loops and knocking on other residents’ doors to see where everyone is, they’re not out on the road, and you agree again with the director, lawyer, whatever that yes, yes, your mother is anxious, she’s agitated, she needs to calm down, yes, let’s give her more meds, and you think maybe, just maybe, I’ll steal her pills and swallow them all, but you can’t because they’re in a hermetically sealed pill pack secure in the med tech’s locked cart to be dispensed and recorded one day at a time, so you start smoking again, after quitting when you got sober, because you’re anxious and agitated and need to calm down, and yeah, it’s better than a drink or a drug or a gun, but they’re all the same in the end and so what, you’re not afraid of dying—it’s living that terrifies you.
You’ve set up your mother’s monthly memory care payments on auto pay—astronomical, yet cheaper than round-the-clock care at home, which you tried by yourself for a while when you moved back to your childhood home and gave up your life three thousand miles away (as if a career wasn’t sacrificial enough for the altar of Alzheimer’s) because uprooting her from the island where she’d lived for fifty years would unleash even more misfiring neurons in an already short-circuiting brain, but then the wandering started, she was out in the woods in her housecoat one January night, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” at the top of her lungs, and you finally had to move her out West closer to you—because you’re a planner and because your husband, bless his heart, is a bottom-line kind of guy, not equipped to deal with emotions or aging and has an unspoken fear that dementia is contagious and worries he’ll be next, or, God forbid, that he’ll be responsible for paying her bills because you’re her only child, the only blood relation left, on the off-chance you die before your mother or your husband, which you might, as this death march of dementia relentlessly tramples your relationships and finances, and yeah, might as well say it, erases your soul.
And the memory care home, christened “Illuminations” by some brilliant Pollyanna of a corporate marketing department even though that light went out long ago; the place with no mirrors or phones, reeking of old age and wet diapers and baby powder that no amount of lemon-scented Lysol can camouflage; the place five minutes from your house where she’s lived for the past year, where you watch Alzheimer’s snowball down the hallways, a looming avalanche pummeling its way into the collective brain trust of the Illuminations residents, who she says all have mental problems, these people she “works” with, and you can barely keep a straight face because like Jimmy Buffett says, if we didn’t laugh we’d just all go insane, yet you worry that ship may have already sailed in your life every time you forget someone’s name or whether you’ve paid her New York Times subscription, because, yes, she still clings to the routine of holding the newspaper in her gnarled, age-spotted hands even though reading has become as difficult for her as the concept of time; she tells you she’s having trouble understanding August, and you want to rip the calendar off the wall and hide it like you did with the clocks last month, but you don’t because some shred of her former self is comforted by the repetition of tallying weeks and months and years, even when she screams, “HOW MANY DAYS DO I HAVE LEFT?” in the candy aisle at Target.
And those crazy-ass lists she writes—reminders to herself because as soon as she has an idea or a thought it evaporates, those jumbled scrawls almost impossible to decipher; reminders to you that her handwriting used to be beautiful, as elegant as the floral watercolors she once painted from her studio loft, fingers stained with oil paints and ink—such a talented artist, her old friends say, shame this happened to such a wonderful woman—but now all she writes are notes on scraps of toilet paper and in the front cover of her King James Bible and even with the twelve-pack of yellow junior legal pads you bought that keep getting lost like all the socks and pencils and slippers; she can’t stay in the lines, and her spelling is shit now when she used to be the best speller you know—she won the spelling bee five years in a row and always made you look up words you couldn’t spell in the dictionary, saying, “Sound it out,” which makes about as much sense to you as the fractured conversations she has with Margie, who she thinks is her best pal from grade school, for fuck’s sake everyone from her childhood haunts us now, her dog Spunky, and lately, your long-dead grandfather—but now she writes the same thing over and over—“WHERE IS BIBEL?”—and she’s panic-stricken until you review the list together every day, patiently handing her the leather-bound Bible from the coffee table two feet away and she calms down until the next time you go over each scrap of paper, all with that same question.
And now she’s got a boyfriend, Albie, one of the few men in Illuminations because we all know women outlive men—though women are more likely to have dementia, just one more reason it sucks to be female—and this fat, greasy-haired guy—who she calls Daddy, who may have last showered when Reagan was in office; who she’s watching the Military Channel with and eating dinner with and sitting with on the sofa thinking it’s the squeaky glider on her parent’s porch—this Albie fellow who you should be happy about because you don’t have to feel guilty for skipping a day, shit, she practically pushes you out the door when you visit now, but fucking A, the last thing you need right now is a third stepfather, even though you should be relieved that she’s got someone to hang out with besides that pain-in-the-ass Margie who’s got such a mouth on her you can’t believe your mother, who cringes when you say, “Damn,” puts up with this tiny firecracker of a woman who once told you she may be short but she gets shit done and you worry that your mother and Albie may hook up because you’ve seen how he looks at her, and how the Christ will you deal with that.
* * *
It’s Church Day again, the day you dread the most, and getting ready is sheer agony because your hair’s flatlining, blond streaks as faded as your mothers’ memories, and the skin-brightening makeup for removing under-eye bags—hell, they’re the luggage compartment of an entire airplane—is an epic fail, and it’s your mother’s reflection gazing back at you, you’re no longer just the mirror of her emotions but the old woman of the Sylvia Plath poem, rising toward you like a terrible fish, day after day in all its crow’s feet and sagging-jowled glory, and today, when you find your mother in her walk-in closet thinking she’s in her bathroom and you can’t quite believe this isn’t a dream, you’re appalled at how fast she’s sinking, the quagmire of dementia pulling her under, and you’re not sure if you’re having a panic attack or it’s your charred lungs imploding from the Marlboro Menthol you just choked down, but you smile and dislodge her from the laundry hamper and out of the dark recesses of old-lady sweaters and elastic-banded polyester pants and slippers that quite literally smell like shit, and help her with a shower because the staff is too busy shoving oatmeal and pureed eggs down the residents’ throats, and you hurry her into the only clothes you can find that aren’t food-stained from the bowls of soup she eats with a fork, that just won’t come clean no matter how much you Shout them out, and you race off to church and make it just as the organist, a pasty-skinned undertaker of a man, finishes pounding out the thunderous first hymn, and you squirm in the rigid pew, your skin as prickly as it was when you dropped a hit of orange microdot during the geometry final, marveling at how your resentment toward religion runs only marginally less deep than this disease, the one robbing your mother of herself and her life, and you of yourself and your life and at how many meetings—yes, you still go to meetings two decades later because meeting makers make it—you’ve heard people say resentment is the number-one offender and how anger will move you closer to the first drink than anything, and you know you need to work these resentments out—they tell you to pray about them, and what a crock of shit that is, you can’t even escape prayer in a twelve-step program—and how all of a sudden the brass chandelier above your head is swinging as if it’s possessed and you wonder, is this it, and then, sweet Jesus, the blessed relief of…
Amie McGraham received her BA in English from Arizona State University and is currently writing a trilogy book series. Her work has appeared in Motherwell, Women on Writing, The Caregiver Space, Creative Nonfiction, Wanderlust Journal, Best Friends Animal Society, and elsewhere. Her flash blog, “,” was featured by AlzAuthors and is followed internationally.