Elsewhere by Richard Russo

  “You can’t help her worry.”

  “I also said I hoped we’d be able to keep in touch. Camden’s not so far, but I got the impression she’s not interested.”

  “Maybe after she’s settled,” I said hopefully, though I was pretty sure their friendship was over. My mother hated all maybes, ifs, and whens, preferring to resolve things badly than leave them up in the air with a good outcome a mere possibility. “Thanks for being such a good friend.”

  “I’ll miss her,” Dot said. Then she added, almost apologetically, “I really like your mom, it’s just a shame she’s so …” She struggled to find the right word but finally gave up. Either that or the word impossible suggested itself, and she was too kind to use it. “Maybe that’s why I like her. Being your own worst enemy is something I understand.”

  Later, back on the coast and armed with my diagram of the new apartment, I told the movers where to put the furniture and stack the boxes of books. “Wow,” said the guy who’d mentioned how often my mother moved, taking the place in. “I wouldn’t mind living here myself.”

  I stifled the urge to tell him to check back in a few months when this very apartment would probably be available. Because my mother was clearly going to hate it here. We’d looked everywhere, coming up against the exact same obstacles that had plagued us inland. She preferred not to live among old people, because all they ever talked about was their illnesses and their new meds and which of their daughters was ignoring them this week and which would be visiting next. She wanted someplace lively, like where she’d first lived in Phoenix. She wanted to feel alive, and for that you needed young people. With young people, however, came music and noise and children, and she wanted none of that. She couldn’t have anyone living overhead. Underfoot would be okay, except that she couldn’t manage stairs, which pretty much ruled that out. She preferred apartment complexes but hated subsidized places, because the law didn’t allow them to discriminate, and you might end up living next door to some Section 8 nutjob. Unsubsidized places she couldn’t afford, and she didn’t want us making up the difference, especially if it was considerable. And we knew from experience that whatever she settled on had to be within half an hour from Camden. Nothing we’d seen was suitable and, to complete the Woody Allen joke, they all had long waiting lists.

  The place I thought would be best for her, Megunticook House, was actually in Camden. The rents were subsidized, and she clearly qualified. The residents were all elderly, and the complex provided no services, so by and large they weren’t terribly infirm. The apartments themselves were nice, the grounds clean and neat, but when we pulled in she took one look and said, “Oh, Rick … really, I don’t think so, do you?”

  “Could we look, at least?”

  She grudgingly agreed, but it was clearly a no-go. “Shabby,” she explained later, when we were back in the car. “Did you see how run-down the whole place was? And did you see all the walkers there in the foyer? People who need those should keep them in their rooms. Didn’t you notice how the paint was peeling outside?”

  I explained that we were now on the coast and the complex was a quarter mile from the ocean, with harsh winters and salt air, well, paint peeled.

  “I couldn’t live there,” she said. “The other place was better.”

  By this she meant Woodland Hills, an assisted-living facility in Rockland, twenty minutes away. Its long drive and carefully manicured grounds made it resemble a country club, but this, too, had put her off. “I don’t need anything this posh,” she said. Inside, the corridors were wide enough that two wheelchairs could pass each other going in opposite directions, and handrails were affixed to all the walls. There were endless activities—from wheelchair aerobics to computer classes—and she wasn’t interested in any of them. “I’m used to living independently,” she explained to the lady who showed us around. She naturally didn’t care about the van that took residents to the supermarket and doctors’ offices: “My son does all that.” The meals were served in a large dining room, though the schedule instantly offended her. “Who eats their main meal at noon?” she said once we were back in the car.

  “Well …,” I began.

  “Assisted living, my foot,” she said. “That’s a nursing home. There wasn’t anyone there who walked without a cane.”

  “The apartment itself was nice,” I pointed out for the sake of argument. “Light and airy.” Better yet, she’d run her index finger over the surface of the stove, and I could tell it had come away clean. “Plus there’s no waiting list.”

  “Let’s keep looking,” she said.

  And so we had, until there was nothing left to look at.

  MARK, MY MOTHER’S NEW DOCTOR, was less than half her age. Having recently taken on Barbara and me and the girls, he’d agreed to see her as well. He was new in town but already had a reputation as an excellent diagnostician. His manner was no nonsense to the point of being brusque, so I was surprised when he tenderly took my mother’s hand. “Okay, Jean,” he said, “I’m going to give you four words and ask you to remember them. Then we’re going to chat for a while, and then I’m going to ask you to tell me what the four words were. Do you understand?”

  My mother nodded, before glancing over at me for confirmation, as if her understanding were an issue I could speak to.

  “Here are the four words: bird, window, car, book.”

  Good, I thought. She’ll get book, at least.

  Barbara had somehow managed to get her dressed, and we’d only been half an hour late. I’d quietly informed the admitting nurse of the basics, that this was supposed to be a get-acquainted appointment but that my mother had been disoriented when I arrived to pick her up, that for some reason she was obsessing about clocks and time, and that I’d never seen her like this before. We were now—Barbara and the doctor and my mother and me—in one of his small consulting rooms.

  “How are you feeling today?” the doctor asked her.

  She turned to me. “What time is it?”

  I told her (three minutes later than the last time she asked, just before we left the waiting room).

  “Jean. Can you look at me?”

  Good, I thought again. A strong male voice. She responds well to those. My own the obvious exception.

  “How are you feeling?”

  “I’m a little worried,” she confessed.

  “About what?”

  “The time.”

  “Why are you worried about the time?”

  “I have a very important doctor’s appointment.”

  “You’re at your appointment now. I’m your doctor. You don’t have to worry about that anymore, okay?”

  My mother looked greatly relieved to learn it and smiled over at me.

  “Do you know what time of year it is?”

  She thought about it, then admitted she wasn’t sure.

  “Can you tell me where you live?”

  She again looked over at me. “Woodland Hills,” I told him, immediately flushing, because of course he didn’t care where she lived. He just wanted to know if she knew. “She just moved in,” I explained.

  “And who’s the president?”

  She smiled. Here was an answer she knew. She started to answer, then suddenly couldn’t remember. She turned to me. After all, I’d supplied the last answer, so maybe I knew this, too. “Oh,” she said, nudging me, “you know.”

  I tried to send her a telepathic message. George W. Bush. You hate the little twerp. You’re hoping to live long enough to see him indicted for crimes against humanity. Remember?

  But she didn’t. She remembered neither the man nor how much she loathed him. My heart sank then, because the look on her face suggested in addition to being stumped by the question, she was beginning to grasp that something was terribly wrong. Or maybe she was just mimicking the look on my own face.

  “How about those words?” the doctor asked. “Can you tell me what the four words were?”

  My mother shook her head and then let it hang,
completely out of answers.

  WHEN HE FINISHED his examination, Mark took me aside. “Your mother is suffering from dementia,” he said.

  I nodded, not terribly surprised, given what had transpired in the consulting room. Still, something seemed wrong. “But why?”

  “We don’t know the cause, exactly, but it’s not unusual in people your mother’s age.”

  “Yeah,” I said, “but overnight?”

  “The onset of symptoms can appear rapid.”

  Something about his use of appear made me wonder if we were talking at cross-purposes. “Yesterday, she was fine.”

  At this he knitted his brow, clearly dubious.

  “She’s been very anxious about the move. She’s been having TIAs over the last couple years. Is it possible she had one during the night?”

  “Where was she living before Woodland Hills?”

  “She had an apartment in Winslow.”

  He looked like I’d just given him a stiff left jab. “An apartment.”


  “Are you telling me that your mother’s been living alone?”

  “Yes. The only reason she’s in Woodland is that they had a vacancy.”

  “Yesterday she could have remembered all four words? She’d have known who the president was?”

  “Absolutely. She’d have shared her opinion of him, which is low. And she certainly wouldn’t have forgotten the word book.” When he still appeared doubtful, I added, “She’s been living independently,” realizing as soon as I said it that she would’ve been thrilled by this representation.

  “She isn’t normally confused?”

  This question was more difficult. “She likes to rearrange facts,” I admitted. “She prefers her own version of things. But nothing like what you saw in there.”

  “Tell me about her medications.”

  I did, at least the ones I could remember—for high blood pressure, the thyroid, the anxiety, the acid reflux, the arthritis, a couple other things.

  “Let me do some research,” he told me. “If she’s been upset about the move, it’s possible the veil will lift. Can you bring her home with you for a few days?”

  I thought of Barbara, who’d bear the brunt of this—the dressing and undressing and bathing. And I thought of what it would look like if I said no.

  Noting my reluctance, he said, “She really shouldn’t be left alone in this condition.”

  “Of course not,” I said as we emerged into the outer office, where Barbara and my mother were waiting. My wife had heard the last part, and our eyes met. “I’m just not sure we can handle her.”

  “It doesn’t look like she’ll be much trouble,” he said, and I really couldn’t blame him for not understanding. My mother had been docile as a lamb during the examination, and she weighed all of ninety pounds. What the hell kind of son would hesitate to take his mother, a sick and confused and lost old woman, into his home for a few days? Of course, I wasn’t worried about my mother in her present condition, but of what might occur if, as he put it, the veil lifted.

  “How about you bring her back tomorrow,” he suggested, “and we’ll see how things are progressing?”

  I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said. “Sure.”

  ON THE RIDE BACK to Camden she continued to ask what time it was every few minutes, apparently still worried about missing the doctor’s appointment that was now safely consigned to the past. At home we installed her in the guest room with all the books, but nothing in the real, physical world seemed to interest her but the gold-plated clock, which she refused to set down. She continued to spin the hands round and around, as if she feared time itself would stop if she quit.

  Hoping to distract her, we turned on the TV in the family room and found an old movie we thought might interest her. It was only a matter of, well, time before she broke her clock, so I suggested we put it on top of the television where she could see it from the sofa. She reluctantly agreed, but then sat there staring at it as if the movie weren’t playing. Every time I got up to answer the phone or get something from the kitchen, she’d have the clock in her lap again by the time I returned, still fast-forwarding its hands. Emily, our older daughter, was working the lunch shift and missing all this, but at one point I went into the living room and found her sister, Kate, sobbing in front of the fireplace. “It’s just so terrible” was all she could say. Midafternoon, Emily called to say she’d been asked to stay on for the evening shift as well, and I encouraged her to. After all, there was nothing she could do, and seeing her grandmother in her present state would have torn her up. Kate went to work that evening herself, which left Barbara and me alone with my mother, whose interest continued to be strictly chronographic.

  Instead of lifting, the veil that had lowered over her rationality seemed to descend even further. As the hours passed she became increasingly anxious, though she couldn’t explain why. We tried to get her to eat something, but that would have involved putting down her clock. By early evening it was becoming apparent that bringing her home had been a mistake. I called the doctor’s office, which by then was closed, and left a message with Mark’s service. When he returned the call half an hour later, I described our dilemma. Far from calming down, my mother was becoming more and more agitated. She was still obsessing about time and trying to understand how it worked and how to make it stay put or, better yet, reverse course. What worried us the most was what might happen that night. Barbara and I couldn’t sleep in our apartment over the garage—that was too far away. We’d either have to take turns outside her bedroom door or risk finding my mother out walking the streets of Camden in her nightgown. This last fear seemed to convince him. “Do you think you can get her to come to the emergency room?”

  Normally, getting my mother to do anything she was disinclined to would have been a struggle, but not now. I’d simply ask to see her clock, then tell her I’d give it back to her as soon as we were in the car. She’d follow that clock anywhere.

  “THE FIRST THING I’m going to do,” my mother announced from the backseat, “is get a new doctor.”

  We weren’t even out of the hospital parking lot when she dropped this bombshell. Clearly she’d been saving it for some time and was anxious to see just how large a crater its impact would create. After four days in the hospital things had returned to the old normal, her new obsession and recent lethargy now past. Concerned about the number of medications she was taking and their possible negative interactions, and needing to establish some sort of baseline, Mark took her off everything but her blood pressure pills. When her blood work came back, it revealed a massive sodium imbalance, caused in large part by the heavily salted, overly processed frozen foods that represented her entire diet. It was also possible that her worries about moving yet again had gotten the upper hand, and she’d been overmedicating. At any rate, within hours her rationality began to return—along with a tremendous fury. For the hospital staff it was unnerving to see an almost-eighty-year-old woman “wake up” from her sleepy doldrums so monumentally pissed off.

  For my mother, of course, being rational didn’t guarantee that she’d now arrive at valid conclusions. “Bird, window, car, book,” she continued. “Does he think I’m crazy? That I can’t remember four simple words?”

  Before releasing her from the hospital, Mark had given her the same examination that had been such a disaster earlier, including the memory test, and this time she’d rattled off the four words effortlessly. I was impressed, since on neither occasion had I been able to recall them all myself. She’d also given him her thoughts on Bush, which seemed to please him, though perhaps he was merely heartened by her lucidity.

  Barbara was at the wheel, so I could turn around to look at my mother. “The last time he asked you about those same four words, you couldn’t recall even one,” I told her, not without misgiving. She had little memory of the days leading up to her hospitalization, and I knew this troubled her greatly. As her world had begun shrinking over the last decade,
her need to control whatever remained became paramount, and the idea of losing time, of having to ask for help to fill in the blanks, left her both frightened and unmoored. She’d grilled both her granddaughters about the event she couldn’t remember, as if Emily and Kate could be trusted more than their parents, who for all she knew might be in league with the doctor she now pledged to shitcan.

  “You’ve been very sick.”

  “And who does he think he is, saying I can’t have my Paxil?” she continued, impossible, as always, to corner when she’d built up a head of steam and was determined to let it off.

  “He thinks he’s your doctor.”

  “Then I’ll call my old doctor. He’ll prescribe it.”

  “Actually, no, Mom, he won’t.”

  “Plus,” she noted, “I’ve got a good two-month supply at home.”

  At this Barbara and I exchanged glances. One of our first duties after she was admitted to the hospital had been to gather all her meds from the Woodland Hills apartment and bring them in. The stash she was counting on was gone, and I felt like a parent who’d disposed of the weed he discovered in the back of his kid’s closet.

  My mother’s real beef with Mark was his quiet, calm refusal to be bamboozled. It was as if he wasn’t treating my mother but his own. He was onto all of her tricks in a heartbeat. When she evaded his questions, he simply repeated them. When she pointed this out to him, he assured her that as soon as she gave him a clear, honest answer he’d be happy to move on to a new topic.

  “Telling me what I can and can’t eat,” she continued, “like I’m a child.”

  “I’m sorry you aren’t fond of him, but he’s a good doctor, and he did save your life.”

  “Piffle,” she said, but then she fell silent, examining the ugly blood blister on her right thumb that had resulted from her twisting the stem of that damn clock for hours on end. Was she considering the larger implications of harming herself without meaning to? Her bedrock conviction in life had always been: I know what’s best for me. Had enough evidence to the contrary finally caused her to reconsider? Might she be entering a new phase of trusting the wisdom of others and doubting her own? Was it possible at eighty to shift gears so fundamentally?

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