When Mom Gets Old

by Roman C. Justice


Ever since my mom was diagnosed with dementia, I've had to take a good look at the whole mortality thing, and I don't like what I see.

It's one thing to die, that's bad enough, but to grow old, feeble, and forgetful--that's just plain sadistic. Of course, people have been getting old and senile and dying since time began, but this is the first time it has happened to someone I love, the person who read to me ("The Little Engine That Could"), who explained to me that God made me special, and who made the best lasagna in history—cheesy and bubbly and made with cottage cheese instead of ricotta, because its healthier that way.

My sisters and brothers and I take turns going home now, to spend as much time as we can with what is left of my mother's soul. The reasons we do this vary. There's some guilt, without a doubt, certainly some sense of duty, but mostly we go because my folks are wonderful to be around—a fact lost on me for most of my adolescence and young adulthood. My father, in excellent health for someone in his eighties, has become the caregiver. Although he looks a bit more worn these days, he maintains the dignity, gentleness, and strength that command our respect and love. He has become quite a cook, too.

My mom is well but sleeps twenty hours a day and has gained a ton of weight. Anti-depressants have erased the stress resulting from her loss of short-term memory, and a renewed ability to engage in conversation makes it possible for us to recognize flashes of her former spicy self. The fact that she cannot remember what she's just said leads to some memorable conversations over dinner:

When are you gonna to get married?
I don't know, Ma
Do you have a girlfriend?
No, Ma—but I have a cat.
(A few seconds of silence)
When are you gonna get married?
I don't know, Ma.
Do you have a girlfriend?
No, Ma—but I have a cat.

And so it goes. I try to answer as if it's the first time because, in the way that matters, it is. Then, in a flash of recognition, her eyes widen:

You have a boyfriend?
(The synapse fades)
Mom retreats into silence and it starts again:
When are you gonna get married?

Dad sits calmly and eats, knowing full well how pointless it is to remind her that I'm gay and that she has known about it for thirty years. Somehow, though, I don't really mind. It's good to see that little bit of orneriness, that same total interest in my life that I used to find so annoying. The thing is, I am terrified of the time when it will be gone from me forever.

On this particular evening, Mom makes a Herculean effort to stay up, but by 7:00 p.m. she has to go to bed. Her muscles have grown so weak that she stands with only the greatest difficulty; she shuffles rather than walks, hunched over in a way that emphasizes her feebleness. Dad is used to it, but me? I am on pins and needles. Then I see her big toothy beautiful smile—the smile that my father fell in love with, the smile that could fill a room, the same smile that she used to erase my humiliation when Melissa Ellington beat me up at the age of eight. I take a breath. I can relax.

Dad and I talk about the usual subjects, God, funerals, estate planning, and George Bush. I tell Dad I always felt that Mom, in her heart of hearts, loved me in a special way—in a way different from my brother and sisters, maybe even a bit more. When Dad says nothing I realize, for the first time, that if it's true, its only because I needed her more.

Finally, I turn in, sleeping in the same bed I was conceived in (a fact that, at age fifty, I find unnerving). It's 3:30 a.m. and a crash interrupts my dream of hairy men and Jello. Struggling awake I hear what must be my mother's voice, but it's unfamiliar and frightening, a cross between a terrified animal and a pleading little girl. There she is, my mother, sprawled on the floor, immobile. My father bends over her, trying to lift her, but her enormous weight makes it impossible. I stand there, the dutiful son, desperate to help—like any son would be, most certainly like my brother would be—but I am a fucking cripple and my arms are useless. I am useless.

My father, a retired engineer, tries several ingenious ways to lift her, but a lifetime of raising a family, of knee and hip replacements, all of these things have rendered her muscles too worn for her to help herself. My eighty-one-year-old father struggles while I stand helpless. After an hour Mom is finally back in bed and Dad is resting on a chair, drenched in sweat. I'm still standing there. Irrelevant. Impotent.

So I take a dust rag, go to the living room, and start to do the one thing I can do. I dust. I want to cry out, to curse God, to do something grand, but all that, too, seems stupid. It's not about me, anyway—only how I can be of service. So I dust. Starting with the end tables, I move on to the desk, the TV stand. I've finished the dining room table when I look up and see my dad. The quizzical look on his face is replaced with a look I've never seen before. He comes up to me, puts his hand on my shoulder, and with a voice tired and resigned says nothing more than, Turn off the light when you're done. He heaves a small sigh as he turns and goes back to bed.

©2006 Roman C. Justice


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Roman C. Justice has thalidomide-like deformities resulting in malformed hands. He is an organist and choir director with degrees in music and choral conducting, and making music is his passion. Growing up as "the only one," his recent discovery of a cripgay community has been cathartic, an experience that will no doubt be a catalyst for growth. Although celibate for a while, he is open to new experiences and the possibility of life-affirming ways of seeing our God-given gift of sexuality.

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2006