March 2, 2021

Losing And Finding My Mother After Her Stroke

The air outside a hospital feels especially cool and fresh. The natural light, even if it’s gray January light is a blessed relief after the fluorescent tunnels I’ve been guiding my mother along. We had a funny moment of intimacy in the bathroom, trying to get her urine sample in a cup. It isn’t easy: crouching, aiming, approximating where in the space below you the stream will collect. Add a daughter trying to micromanage her mother’s urine flow and a line of weak-bladdered patients queuing outside, rolling their eyes and tugging at their waistbands and you have all the ingredients of a Mike and Elaine sketch.

Sometimes my mother and I do seem to be a traveling comedy duo: arguing in circles in front of strangers in maddening fluorescent hallways. We are the Mike and Elaine of post-hemorrhagic-stroke-induced-dementia. At last I’ve found a niche in the entertainment industry. I’ve only been a performer for 30 years.

Did Mike and Elaine ever confront the specter of eternal loss in their routines? It’s doubtful; it’s a real comedy killer. Yet somehow, between the bickering fostered by dementia’s time warps and lost threads and a child-turned-caregiver’s impatience, hilarity ensues.

There’s a quiet moment after the overture of a ballet and just before the curtain rises. The audience’s breathing grows shallow as it waits in suspense: what will the opening tableau on stage be? As my mother and I sit in the crisp air of a not-too-cold winter’s day and wait just outside the hospital for the bus — which was just one stop away — I feel that moment of suspension. For just one moment brain injury and years of hospital visits seem not to have left any creases on our history. We’ve gotten on unusually well today. In a prescient moment, I know a curtain is about to rise.

We left the doctor’s office 10 minutes ago and I am wondering if 10 minutes is enough time to erase the memory of the doctor laying out my mother’s choices and our decision — my decision, really — to operate immediately. I stare at a brick wall opposite the bus stop. It is a housing project. A bleak house, I think, and laugh at my own joke.

“What? What is it?” my mother asks. Because she won’t remember our conversation, I’ve grown weary of telling her what I’m thinking. The effort is mercilessly futile.

I look at her. She’s 75. I love telling doctors that fact. I never tire of their surprised expressions, so clearly genuine. My mother was a dancer and an actor. In the last two months she’s had major abdominal surgery, a blood transfusion, and a cranky thyroid that sends her body on roller coasters of chills, sweats and panic attacks. She has soldiered through the ramifications of one November afternoon five years ago when blood soaked two thirds of her brain. The attending physician told me at her bedside in the I.C.U that she’d never wake up. It took her only three days to open her eyes and demonstrate some dance steps for the wide-eyed residents. Aside from her gaunt frame, trauma hasn’t seemed to touch her. All you see are her big brown eyes and her red lips and her bobbed hair and her legs, still so beautiful in her old bell-bottomed jazz pants. All you see is a dancer bouncing down the hallway. You’d never know she couldn’t remember her own birthday, her own address or her grandchildren’s names. You might not even guess she had grandchildren.

I look at the brick wall in the wash of gray light.

“I have a confession, Mom.”

My mother loves winter, partly, I suspect, because she enjoys being an iconoclast. She was a figure skater, so she’s also used to braving the brutal cold. It can be tiresome and predictable, her frequent pretense of shock at people finding the winter difficult and depressing. She loves to be baffled by the norm, to be at odds with routine human feelings that are discordant with her own special take on life.

Winter has always excited my mother. Marriage carried her to Los Angeles for many years, and my sister and I were raised under palm trees, our “winters” dipping to maybe 50 degrees at night. A New York City winter was the stuff of movies, of my mother’s childhood performing at Rockefeller Center, of “normal” life with four seasons. “Normal” and Los Angeles couldn’t be farther apart; even growing up there I knew that. We didn’t rake autumn leaves, we didn’t build snowmen and we didn’t take refuge by fireplaces and radiators. Due to a romantic nature and an unreasonable loyalty to my mother, I’ve taken on the mantle. Having lived in New York City half my life now, I profess an honest thrill as autumn descends into the darkest days of winter.

“I confess I’m really looking forward to spring this year, Mom,” I whisper. “Something’s happened to me this year and I don’t want any more winter. I want the sun and the light and the flowers.” I wait, ashamed, for her reply.

“Me too,” she said. “That’s happened to me, too.”

My heart freezes and splinters. If her obstinate love of the wind and ice has vanished and she now longs for the sissy holiday of spring, what remains of my mother? Is she the same person? How do you define a person, anyway?

We sit next to each other, staring at the brick wall.

And suddenly I change my mind. We are on the same path, looking out in the same direction. Greeting cards tell us that this is the definition of a healthy relationship. In the last five years, our relationship has been many things: fierce, devoted, fractious and corroded by sorrow and loss. It’s nice to be in a healthy relationship, suddenly, with my mother. We agree. Together, we look forward to spring.

If obstacle and discord is the lifeblood of comedy, I will trade every moment of hilarity with my mother from now on for togetherness. You’ll never hear a Mike and Elaine sketch about two people agreeing at a bus stop. It’s boring.

Even before its arrival, this year’s spring has brought rebirth for my relationship with my mother. She won’t remember our communion at the bus stop, but on the upside, I won’t need to swear her to secrecy. More importantly, I’ll never forget the moment when the understanding we shared before her stroke was resurrected, however brief that moment turns out to be.


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