--from South Dakota Review
My mother is in the bathtub staring up at me with a cloudy, bewildered look, her hair tangled and cow-licked, her sagging breasts drooping from the bones of her chest. She is pointing a crooked finger at a bottle of Head and Shoulders. She wants me to wash her hair, but she’s forgotten the word for shampoo. Frustrated, she reaches for the bottle, my name a tired grunt rising in her throat. In the last three months she has forgotten the names of her siblings, the name of her church, the street where she lived for twenty-seven years. At some point, my father’s name slipped from her memory, along with the name of the rat-faced Pomeranian she’d loved more than anyone else on Earth. Yet miraculously, by some act of horrible irony, she somehow still remembers mine.
While I sponge my mother’s back, I tell her about my daughter’s new rabbit, the old church the city is renovating. When I mention David’s recent promotion, a look of confusion crawls across her face.
“David,” I tell her. “My husband.”
“Husband?” she says, rolling her eyes, the word like dirt in her mouth. “You’re far too selfish to have a husband.”
My mother’s doctor says that strokes are hereditary, that what happened to her could happen to me. He says they are silent and deceptive, that they plant themselves like little landmines deep in your DNA. When I brought my mother to her appointment last month, he recommended I monitor my cholesterol and blood pressure, and I smiled. “There’s a lot I’d like to forget,” I told him, thinking what a blessing it would be, a sudden flash of lightning burning gloriously through my brain, all the memories of my sad, empty life washed away in a blinding white light.
As I massage the shampoo through my mother’s hair, I think about what the doctor said, how he’d described my mother’s condition as a short circuit in the wires of her brain, how he’d said that occasionally her thoughts would become mangled and static-filled like a scrambled satellite signal. I pour handfuls of water through her hair, and my thoughts drift to my childhood, to the time she walked in on me and my brother as we gazed in amazement at the television, fascinated by the dirty melody of muddled moans and grunts pouring from the speakers, our eyes pinned to the naked silhouettes on the screen gyrating through thick layers of scrambled static. I remember how she’d called us filthy afterward, how she’d insisted that no one would ever love us, how the words stung far worse than the brass buckle of my father’s belt.
While I dry my mother’s hair, she tells me I never loved her, that I’ll be happy when she’s dead. As the words crackle in her throat, a knot of anger suddenly tightens in her face and she claws at the sponge. I grab her wrinkled hand softly, and then, as if someone has suddenly flipped a switch in her brain, she sighs and a soft look settles in her eyes.
When we're done, I brush her hair while she stares at herself in a hand mirror, confused, as if she doesn't recognize herself anymore.
“Am I alive?” she asks.
“Yes, Mother,” I say, pulling the brush gently through her tangled hair. “You’re alive.”
She doesn’t say anything after that, only watches her breath fogging up the mirror, the room around her slowly disappearing in a white cloud of steam.