We went en famille to visit my mom at her board-and-care on Mother's Day.
When we arrived, she was seated at the kitchen table finishing her dinner. The room is cheerful, a great improvement on the gloom of the assisted living facility. A large picture window framed blooming roses climbing a wooden fence, the brilliance of the May sky peeking from above. A caregiver busied herself washing dishes in the adjacent kitchen, one eye discreetly on my mother.
She didn't seem to recognize me this time, which is new. The greeting I received was similar to what she might have given a neighbor she didn't know very well, back in the days when she understood the concept of neighbor.
"Oh, hello," she said, unsmiling, unsure.
We sat around the table with her.
"Well," I said, tracing the violet on the plastic place mat in front of me. "Happy Mother's Day, Mom."
"Mother's Day?" she asked, poking at a piece of sausage with her fork.
"Yeah," I said, eyeing Mihiretu as he squirmed in Ben's lap. "It's a day to celebrate mothers." And then, in case she forgot that she was in fact a mother, "We're celebrating you and we're celebrating me today."
She eyed me skeptically. "I'm being celebrated? Well, I didn't know that." Her tone implied that the celebration had not been celebratory enough to capture her attention. My guilt suggested that if perhaps we had brought her flowers or arrived somewhere before dinnertime, it might have felt more like a party.
"Did Jean-Paul visit you? And Tracy and the boys?" I asked, knowing that they, loyal son and loyal wife of son, must of.
"Who?" she asked, folding and refolding her cloth napkin. "No, I haven't seen anyone."
We continued to sit, the kids surprisingly placid, probably uncomfortable with this forgetful old lady. It's rare I take them to see her these days. It's hard to hold up both sides of a conversation with a mother who's forgotten she's your mother when you're simultaneously trying to pull a small Ethiopian boy off the chandelier.
My mother broke the silence. She pointed a wobbly finger at Mihiretu and Lana.
I readied myself for the usual "Is he yours?"
Instead she asked, "Is that boy five?"
I gestured to Mihiretu. "Mihiretu's four," I said gently.
She shook her head. "No," she said, pointing more pointedly at Lana. "That one."
I saw that we were past her even noticing that Mihiretu was brown in a family of whiteys and felt a rock sink to the bottom of my belly.
"Well," I said carefully, "that's a girl. Her hair is short, I know that makes it confusing. That's Lana. She's seven. And this," I pulled Mihiretu onto my lap, "is Mihiretu. He's four. And that," I smiled at Mae across the table, "is Mae. She's nine."
My mom squinted at Mae. "He's nine?"
"Again," I said, "short hair-cut. He's a she and she's nine."
At this, Mihiretu made a break for it, running pell-mell into the kitchen. I saw my chance of temporary escape.
"Hey, kids," I said, collaring Mihiretu, "You want to see Grandma Margaret's room?"
The girls, also ready for a reprieve, followed me down the hall. In her room, we looked at family photos, marveled that the brightly smiling ten-year-old girl in roller skates could actually be that snowy-haired lady in the dining-room, and perused the Mother's Day card that my brother had indeed delivered earlier that day.
While we were gone, Ben later reported, he made small talk, really the only kind of talk one can make with my mom these days.
"Well," he said, revisiting the same old material, "Happy Mother's Day."
My mother returned to her dinner and said offhandedly, "Yep, we have that in common."
Ben was fingering a domino that was on the table. My mother eyed it while she chewed.
"This is really smooth," Ben said, noticing her attention. "You want to feel it?"
She cocked her head like a bird, her eyes raptly surveying the domino.
"Yes," she said decisively. "Yes, I would."
Tentatively she reached out a finger, tapped the domino and pulled her hand back quickly as if burned. She brought her eyes almost to table level and examined the domino from a safe distance.
"This red dot," she whispered thoughtfully as she pointed to a green dot on the domino, "really gets on some people!" This last she hissed vehemently, pinning Ben with her gaze.
The kids and I came back into the room and Ben, now ready for his break, rose to take the two younger ones into the backyard.
I sat and Mae, relishing a moment without sibling competition, plopped herself on my lap.
My mother smiled for the first time in the visit. "You're a good guy," she said to Mae.
I took a deep breath and gave Mae what I hoped was a comforting squeeze. "Mae's a girl," I reiterated. "Except she has a short haircut."
We all laughed. This time, apparently, it was funny.
"Oh," my mom said, wiping a tear of mirth. "I'm sorry." And to further the apology, she reached forward and gently touched Mae's hand. "You're a good guy."
"Girl," I said, sotto voce. Again, we all laughed.
My mom sighed with pleasure at the joke, looked at Mae one more time and said solemnly, "You're a good guy."
Soon it was time to go get our own Mother's Day dinner. We said our goodbyes to my mom and she watched us quizzically as we took our leave.
As the door closed behind us, I think we all, even Mihiretu, took a deep breath of the cool outside air.
I swallowed the usual cocktail of fury and grief. So sad that my mom is leaving me, memory by memory, and so mad that my mom is leaving me. The usual two-year-old piping up that if she really loved me, she'd stay. I swallowed it down because on this day, on my Mother's Day, I didn't want to feel that. I wanted to be with my kids, marvel with them over the cards they'd made me, laugh with them over our Puerto Rican dinner. For that one day, I didn't want to be sad for what I'd lost but joyful for what I'd found.