My mother now thinks that every day is the Sabbath.
A text message comes in early morning on my sister’s phone from my mother’s Indian caregiver, Swapna, who has the patience of a saint. “Mother thinks it’s Shabbat,” the Hindu saint writes, “and is getting dressed to go to synagogue.”
We’re lucky the text didn’t come in at 3 or 4 in the morning, which is more usual. “Here,” my sister says, handing me the phone, “you do it this time.”
I call. “Mom? What are you doing?”
“I’m getting dressed to go out.” Just two days ago her gerontologist verified that she could barely take 10 steps on her own.
“Mom, what day is it?”
“Mom, would I be calling you on Shabbat?” Religious Jews don’t pick up the phone on the Sabbath. “It’s Wednesday.”
“Oh,” she says. Pause. ”How did I get confused?” A question for the ages.
“It’s not Shabbat, you don’t have to get dressed. I’ll see you a little later.”
“Okay,” she says.
An hour later another text from Saint Swapna, this time with a photo, above. “Mother got dressed to go to synagogue and left the house.”
This is a first. She actually unlocked the door and got out into the foyer, walking towards the steps, in synagogue finery with a hat (it’s 90 degrees outside).
I hurry over to her home, mind speeding up: What will happen if she does this again? When will Saint Swapna’s patience run out? What will we do if she says she wants to go back to India where her own family awaits her, plenty of caring to do right there? My mother doesn’t take kindly to other caregivers, and besides, who’d be ready to take this on?
When I get there, my mother has no memory of going out and instead has terrible back pain. We give her painkillers, and after a brief massage on her lower back she dozes off on her bed. The house is quiet. Swapna had a tooth extracted yesterday and she’s in her room, resting, while I sit on the sofa, filling some kind of position I don’t understand. What role do I have here?
I won’t hide the fact that, watching my mother’s encroaching dementia and her physical pains, I think a lot about how I’d like to go, or more often, how I don’t want to go. But that’s a small, private conversation unworthy of this quiet apartment, this particular moment. Outside, hot pink roses blow in a very slight breeze and there’s construction by Palestinian workers across the street. The moments glide by.
I’m aware of the monotonous routine here, the coffee in the morning and a breakfast that’s often not eaten, sitting at the table, sun on her back. When she gets up from her bed she’ll be given lunch, most of which she won’t eat, then the afternoon rest. Sometime this evening I’ll come back to be with her, we’ll watch TV together. Tomorrow she’ll go to a senior center. One thing inevitably follows another.
But there’s timelessness here, too, and that’s what I feel most of all. People aging, houses going up and coming down, hot summers, ancient Jerusalem transformed into modern metropolis, but those things are like nothing in this forever city. Lots of fuss, lots of money, lots of tears, lots of hurrying and running around (Israel is a much younger country than other Western lands), lots of cell phones calling with people’s special songs. And yet, sitting in my mother’s quiet living room, I feel that all this change is no-change, that time has stood still.
“A withered tree blossoms in endless spring” reads a verse on a koan we’re working with back home. That’s my mother, getting dressed and slipping out the door. She, forever disciplined and prudent, is slipping the bounds of logic and order. In response to the chaos in her mind, she creates more chaos.
She’s withered, yes, and at the same time she’s everywhere: in three adult children guarding her last years, in photos of grandchildren’s graduations, bar-mitzvas, and marriages, holding more babies in their arms, smiling at more young children. She’s in the pot of vegetable soup that’s lying on the oven and that she trained Swapna to make. This Hindu caregiver, who never touches meat or fish, will make gefilte fish for our Friday night dinner. She’s in the hot pink roses on the steps outside, in the hat with which she covers her white hair, and even in the letters on the white chalkboard by the table: TODAY IS WEDNESDAY, which she never reads because she knows that today is the Sabbath. Today, and every day, is holy.
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