It is hard to recognize her now. She is almost bald, her chin receding, and she seems to be blurring away. Sometimes, confusing her for another patient, I feel ashamed. How can you mistake your own mother for someone else?
Finally, I spot her, asleep in her wheelchair. This is Mom? Can't be. But, yes, it is. I pat her shoulder -- oh so gingerly, don't want to alarm her -- and her eyes flutter open, then she notices me, looks me over, determined and purposeful, with that familiar expression on her face, the warm trace of a smile, the mischievous glint in her eye. I reach down, take her hand and clasp it. The veins are corded, blue and translucent. Her knuckles are more prominent. She grasps my hand as if she does not want to let go.
She was 47 when I left Ohio. Now, almost half a century later, here she sits in a nursing home, 1,000 miles away from Boston, where I live.
I sit across from her, vigilant. Has that cyst on her eyelid grown any larger? What about the gash from when she fell last month? Has it healed? I notice how much thinner she is and her calf, splotched and marbled with blue. Her legs, her legendary legs, seem more stick-like. She has lost four pounds since the last time I visited. There is less of her. She is dwindling away.
We sing songs for an hour, and then she slumps over, asleep. I wheel her back to her unit -- she lives in a unit -- and park her in front of the big-screen TV with a movie from the 1940s playing. Back again for another visit in the morning and then the 12:40 p.m. US Air flight to Boston. While driving to the airport, I allow myself a good cry.
Back in Boston, I call every few days but only speak to her when the social worker is by her side, helping her with the logistics of the phone. I try to call mid-morning, when she is most alert. I identify myself, and then after a few agonizing seconds, she recognizes me, her voice no longer wary and tight, but upbeat and lyrical. She may not know my name, but she knows my voice, and it triggers something within. She giggles girlishly. Then, I start a song, one from the old days, and she joins in. We have our own routine, our Alzheimer's Rag.
Our repertoire is composed of show tunes, jazz and ballads. Lately it has been harder for her to summon up the lyrics, but she will hum the tunes in perfect harmony. I supply the words, patiently trying to coax a phrase out of her. "Say, it's only a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea," then if she's up to it, she'll break in, "But it wouldn't be make-believe if you believed in me."
While we sing, I glance at the bookshelf of my study, glancing at a picture of her, not as she is now, but from 1936 when she was in show business. She was a dancer and chorus girl, like you saw in the black-and-white Busby Berkeley movies dressed in glittering sequence, the skimpiest of costumes and feathers. Glamorous. Beautiful. Surrounded by other dancers, all blond, all glamorous, all with the widest come-hither smiles.
Dad was in the audience one night and married her. No more dancing, except in the kitchen as she swept up crumbs, or in amateur theatricals at our synagogue. But always on stage, always upbeat, always hilarious.
She could not imagine an existence for herself like the one she has now. Well, maybe. "Promise you'll never send me away," she'd implore me, "to one of those places when I get old. Do something." Put me out of it, the implication, like we did to our dog, Shmow. Put me out of my misery.
It is not so easy. Sure, I have fantasies. Detailed ones. But Mom still can talk and sing and relate. She seems happy. If she were in a coma or a degenerative state, then that would be one thing; but this is another. She saw the writing on the wall, just after dad died, when she was 72. "I don't remember as well," she told us, and even asked to be tested, thoroughly engaging the psychologist, who reassured us what she worried about was normal and urged us to let her stay in Ohio where she had so many connections and felt most rooted.
Over the next 20 years she moved from her condominium to an apartment in assisted living and finally to what, despite the euphuism, remains a locked unit in a nursing home.
Sure, it's a beautiful place. And clean -- everyone talks about how clean it is -- and it doesn't smell of urine, and many of her caregivers seem genuinely loving and devoted. But it's not the same as her living down the street, where I could look in on her.
Then again, would it matter? I have shed most of my illusions regarding my visits. Sure, she enjoys having me while I'm there, but once I leave, I do not think she remembers me at all.
And then I discover just how little I know. I have just called up and she seems especially bewildered. I start singing, "There's No Business Like Show Business," one of our favorites.
"What's that?" she asks.
"A song, Mom, a song."
"What? What's that?"
How do you explain what a song is to the woman who sang you your first lullaby?
So I whistle, I hum, I sing, I do my best, which only confuses her even more, and then I wonder, should I simply say goodbye, hang up and let go? Does my voice no longer provide her pleasure? Is the last frayed thread between us, the one we both hang so tenuously onto, finally gone?
It is my birthday, and I want to celebrate it with her, any way we can. But now, without a song, there is nothing left to say, so I decide to bail out. "See you in a few weeks," I tell her, as if she might understand.
"Oh," she replies. "Now tell me, where do you live?"
"Boston, Mom. I live in Boston."
Now, now is the time to leave her. But how can you hang up on your mother? Then, just as I am steeling myself to do so, she murmurs a word I have not heard from her in months, maybe years: "Darling."
I am stunned and begin to cry, but don't want her to notice. I whisper, "You're my darling, too." How I long for her to repeat the word, but she doesn't and I hang up. I write the date with "Mom: darling" on a Post-it, then put it in a file marked personal. Before I shut it away, however, intoxicated by my mother's declaration, I ponder the word. It seems so old-fashioned, from black-and-white movies, women of a certain age with pearls and perfume.
Darling: my sweetheart, my dear. Darling: adoring and tender. Seductive, too. Smoky and theatrical -- that sudden release of breath after "dar" followed by "ling." The ultimate sign of recognition and familiarity, a salutation you'd never use with a stranger.
Now, however, I have all but become a stranger to my own mother. Will I ever hear her call me darling again? Seems unlikely. But after putting down the phone, rather than lament what has been lost, I am left with a more surprising, unexpected sensation: joy. So what if Mom can't identify my name. As her final curtain falls, with a single word, she reminds me who I have always been and will always be.
(See the slideshow below for images of Ted Sutton's mother during her career in the 1930s.)
Ted Sutton's mother, Gerry Willow, in her early 20s. In 1932, during the Depression, Gerry attended a dance school. One day a recruiter for a traveling troupe showed up at the studio and told the owner that one of his chorus girls had taken off, and he needed a replacement. He asked for the best dancer, and the owner recommended Gerry, who was just 14 and immediately joined the troupe. This photo was thought to be taken in Mexico; Gerry's troupe also traveled to Cuba and South America.
Gerry Willow Sutton (left) performing with a partner.
Gerry performing with the "Colosimo Cuties" in Chicago; at the time of this newspaper clipping, the nightclub, Colosimo's, was owned by gangster Al Capone. The newspaper caption reads: "This is 'A Fantasy In Jewels' at Colosimo's, gay South Side theater-restaurant. A novelty act by the Littlejohns is augmented by Colosimo Cuties -- Charlotte Thon, Frances Briles, Mickey Bradley, Jo Palmer, Gerry Willow and Rusty Banks."
A performance by Colosimo Cuties; Gerry Willow Sutton is second from the right.
Gerry Willon Sutton (center, in front of the woman with the large hat) visits an oil rig in Texas with her troupe at the time, the Dorothy Dayton dancers. The caption reads in part: "Escorted by Mrs. Howard W. Gardner, wife of the fair association president, the famous Dorothy Dayton dancers, star attraction at the Harvest club, yesterday visited Spindle Top and inspected a drilling rig operation. Walter F. Myers, Beaumont oil operator, served as guide for the troupe." (Spindle Top was a famous gusher discovered in 1901.)