The drive from Austin to Houston isn’t a particularly long one. Jackie had driven it monthly for years, sometimes for work but more often for pleasure. She used to drive the 180 miles in record speed to visit her parents on Friday nights when she was single, but she learned to take her time and stop at the antique cottages along the highway when the company was paying her mileage. Then, the trip became a chore after the baby was born because stopping to nurse him turned the three hour drive into five. Today would be no different.The trees hadn’t put on leaves yet and it was too early for wild flowers so Jackie counted on the fields of live oaks and dairy cows to keep her awake. Talk radio would be too much of a distraction so she popped in Ruth’s favorite Anne Murray CD as she pulled into the parking lot.Her mother stood at the glass door waiting, instinctively leaning into the door’s push bar when she saw Jackie’s van, but the resistance confused her, as usual. It had been less than a year since Ruth moved to Austin to be closer to Jackie, and they had established a comfortable routine of morning coffee together. Jackie waved at her mother and hurried to push the red button near the entrance that signaled the nursing station to let her in. Ruth grew increasingly angry as she shoved at the stubborn door but soon forgot her frustration once Jackie was inside.“G’mornin’ Mizz Jackie,” the aide called from the front desk.“Mornin’, Doris.” Jackie usually loved to engage the friendly staff at her mother’s place, but there was no time for small talk this morning. Ruth was dressed from head to toe in various shades of pink, an interesting fashion statement made more stunning by the combination of slacks under her skirt. Jackie knew her mother had lost the ability to dress herself months prior so this ensemble had been the handiwork of one of the employees. For this service Jackie was paying $4,000 a month – a fuchsia skirt paired with mauve slacks: charming. Taking the time to change clothes would only prolong the journey so Jackie just went with it, as she’d learned to handle so many situations of late.“It’s still a little chilly outside, Mom, so let’s go grab your sweater,” Jackie said, coaxing her mother toward her room. “I’m taking you on a little trip.”“Where are we going?” Ruth asked.“To visit Carol. You haven’t seen her since Christmas.”“Oh, good . . . Carol?”Jackie sometimes wondered why she bothered. Ruth didn’t even remember she had a childhood friend Carol, but Jackie convinced herself it would all come back to her the same way her kids remember how to snow ski, even though they rarely go anymore. At least Ruth still remembered Jackie. A day would come when that would change, but there were no signs of that onslaught yet.“Carol James. The two of you were in the drum and bugle corps together in high school. When you and dad retired to Houston, they sold their house inside the loop and moved a block away from you.”“Oh, good,” Ruth said. “Will Dad be there?”Jackie realized that mentioning her father would bring it all up again. “No, Dad won’t be there this time,” Jackie said. “He has appointments.” It was just one of a thousand lies Jackie used to get her mother off the topic of her father. She didn’t remember that he had died eight months ago, and reminding her served no purpose. All those teenage years of lying to her parents were finally paying off as the fabrications became more frequent and fluid.“When will I see him again?”“Soon,” Jackie said. Not all her answers were lies.As Jackie packed the weekend’s clothing into a bag, she recalled the day her parents’ neighbors called to say they’d found Ruth standing, half-dressed, in the driveway with the television control in her hand, frantically trying to dial 911 on it. Jackie made the drive to Houston in a little over two hours that day, but the heart attack had been massive and the paramedics said it was doubtful they could have revived him even if Ruth had been able to dial a phone. The guilt still haunted her for not seeing the signs sooner, for not stepping in and insisting her parents move into assisted living together. Part of the blame rested with her father, though; he had done a good job of hiding their situation, cooking all of Ruth’s recipes before the family arrived for a visit, dressing her impeccably and carrying the bulk of the conversation. Jackie and her brother noticed their parents weren’t traveling as much, but they just thought they were slowing down. Their dad had kept the doctor’s diagnosis to himself, never thinking Ruth’s deteriorating memory could put his own health in jeopardy. Dwelling on it too long only made Jackie angry at her father so she filed those thoughts in a place she chose not to visit at this time, and faced the hand she’d been dealt. There was no sense going over the past – her father was gone and Ruth’s life was in Austin now; Jackie tried to take her to Houston to visit her best friend as often as her family’s schedule would allow.With the suitcase in one hand and Ruth’s in her other, Jackie made her way slowly to the van.“Will you buzz the door for us, Doris? We’re going on a road trip.”“You girls have fun,” Doris called. “Don’t get into any trouble.”Ruth laughed. She could still follow conversational cues and masquerade in public. Maybe, that is, if she hadn’t been dressed like a clown.Jackie buckled her mother into the passenger seat and tossed her bag in the back before walking around the van to the driver’s side. By the time Jackie opened the door, Ruth was involved in a lengthy conversation with the other “passengers” in the back seat. Ruth’s psychiatrist had explained to Jackie that the graphic hallucinations were just part of the package and anti-psychotic medicine wouldn’t get rid of them – the drugs could only change the hallucinations from nightmares to daydreams. So, instead of fearing the CIA tapping her phone calls, she could be caring for puppies and small children. Jackie voted for the latter. After several harrowing weeks of drug trials, the doctor finally settled on one he felt would illicit the “good psychosis,” an oxymoron if Jackie had ever heard one. It seemed to be working – at least now when an FBI plane crashed into her nursing home, Ruth had the good sense to save all the puppies and children from the wreckage before becoming distraught over the invasion of her privacy.“. . . and when I moved here, that’s the building they had me working in,” Ruth was saying to the “others.”Jackie started the car and the Anne Murray CD kicked on.Ruth didn’t miss a beat, jumping in to regale her passengers with, “. . . . and I want to sing you a love song; I want to rock you in my arms, all night long.”It never failed to amaze Jackie that her mother could no longer dress herself, couldn’t remember that her husband had died, but she could sing every lyric to every Anne Murray song she’d ever heard.“Here we go,” Jackie said. Ruth waved to her “staff” inside the building, crooning a love song as they drove off.They hadn’t even reached the Austin City Limits sign – the one the city council replaces several times a year when vandals decide it would look better in their dorm rooms – when Ruth started petitioning for a rest stop.“Mother, we haven’t even been gone 20 minutes.”“I have to go,” Ruth complained. Jackie was tempted to strap her into Depends for the duration of the trip, but as long as Ruth maintained some control in her life, Jackie wasn’t going to be the one to take it away; the disease was doing its best to rob her of everything else.“OK, I’ll watch for a clean gas station.”Taking her mother to the bathroom took twice as long as Jackie remembered it taking with her kids – she could pull them out of their car seats, throw them on her hip and be back on the road in minutes. Ruth just wasn’t that portable. Half the time, Jackie thought Ruth wanted to stop because it was the socially expected routine – on road trips, you make rest stops. This would be the first of a half dozen that day.As they were heading back to the van, Jackie said, “Hey, Mom, I have an idea. Why don’t you pick out some candy to take to Carol for Valentine’s Day.” Jackie pointed to the display of heart-shaped boxes near the counter and Ruth glanced at them dismissively on her way to a rack of candy bars and chewing gum. She picked up a bag of Twizzlers and headed toward the counter. “Don’t you think she’d rather have chocolate?” Jackie asked.“No. She likes these.”They hadn’t even pulled out of the parking lot before Jackie noticed Ruth ripping at the Twizzlers package with her teeth. They would be gone in the next 20 miles, about the time the barrage of questions would ensue.“How much longer?” Ruth asked. Forever, Jackie thought.Near Giddings, after the third stop to adjust Ruth’s seat belt, Jackie got an unexpected respite; Ruth dozed off. Jackie’s mind wandered to events back home, to her son’s basketball game she would miss that evening and the birthday gift she’d remembered to buy but had forgotten to wrap for the party. The kids would be out of school soon and her husband would leave work early to find the pile of “to-do” notes she’d left him. She thought of several other things she needed to remind him but didn’t dare call or she would awaken Ruth and start the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First” routine all over again. Instead, Jackie made mental notes of everything she’d tell Tom when they could talk later, a habit she’d started recently in a conscious effort to stave off the first signs of the disease for the next generation.Jackie couldn’t be alone with her thoughts for long before her emotions began vacillating toward sadness and worse, injustice. These weren’t the road trips she’d envisioned with her mother. Instead of stopping at every bathroom along the way, they should have been stopping at antique shops. When Jackie was young, Ruth had been the neighborhood mom, the one troubled kids talked to when they hated their own, the one who kept everybody’s split times in the stands at track meets, the one who still remembered birthdays and holidays. Jackie smiled as she recalled the time she had called home from college and mentioned that she’d like to have a ragg-wool sweater, the latest craze; within a week, one was in her mailbox – handmade, no less.Ruth was sleeping so well that Jackie was tempted to drive right through Brenham without stopping at the ice cream factory, but she knew she’d never get her mother to bed that night if she let her nap too long. Jackie had just outgrown this stage with her kindergartner.“Are we there yet?” Ruth asked as they pulled into the parking lot.“Not yet. We’re an hour away. I thought you might like some ice cream,” Jackie said.“No, I don’t like ice cream,” Ruth said. Jackie ignored her mother’s protestations, knowing that by the time they made it upstairs to the tasting room, Ruth would like ice cream again.“I’ll have butter pecan,” Ruth told the attendant, recalling the only flavor Jackie ever heard her order.“I’ll have the same,” Jackie said. Sharing a favorite flavor somehow made her feel closer to her mother at a time when similarities were getting harder to notice.As they sat in the soda shop, Jackie wiping Ruth’s mouth after each bite, Ruth became suddenly chatty. “Thanks for flying down here to take me on this vacation, Jeff.”Jeff? How typical, Jackie thought, that her brother Jeff should get the credit for taking Ruth on this journey while she sat – in the flesh – before her. And speaking of “in the flesh,” Jackie glanced down at the bulges beneath her blouse – a 38-year-old woman who had nursed three babies – did she really look like a Jeff? Challenging Ruth was futile. For the remainder of the trip, Jackie resigned herself to being Jeff and hoped Ruth didn’t have anything she wanted to confide to Jeff about Jackie.This fear of being maligned had roots; a family precedent had been set – Ruth’s mother, sane to the grave, lived her life stirring up strife, taking wicked pleasure in calling one family member to fabricate stories about another. Ruth always blamed it on the soap operas her mother watched, as if everyone picked up bad behavior from watching too much of Port Charles, but the truth is Nana was just mean. And for all Jackie knew, it could have been congenital, appearing in old age. So as they pulled out of Brenham, Jackie fastened her seat belt for a ride that could become proverbially bumpy.“You know that Tom is a gem,” Ruth said.“I know,” Jackie acknowledged, forgetting for a moment that Ruth was talking about Jeff’s brother-in-law Tom, and not Jackie’s husband Tom, though he was one and the same. It was getting complicated.“He’s so patient with the children. And, I just don’t know what I’d do without Jackie. They’re a great team.”OK, this is crazy, Jackie thought. This is eavesdropping. Is it moral? Should it be stopped?“Have you seen what they did to their living room?” Ruth continued. Here it comes, Jackie thought – her honest opinion will follow. “It’s beautiful! They replaced the carpet and bought all new furniture. I really like it. She has so much energy. I don’t know where she gets it. If she’s not taking me to the doctor, she’s doing something with the kids, and still, she finds time to redecorate the house.”For the remainder of the drive, Jackie thought Ruth made perfect sense.Except for the part about thinking Jackie was Jeff.And except for interrupting herself occasionally to point to a farm along the way and say, “Oh, your father and I almost bought that house years ago.”Other than that, Jackie was having a hard time finding fault with the conversation. Maybe this Alzheimer’s diagnosis was overblown. Maybe people go in and out of lucidity like some people change outfits. Maybe – and then Jackie took her eyes off the road long enough to glance at the vision in pink sitting beside her, the very one wearing pants AND a skirt, still going on and on about her wonderful daughter.Maybe this had been a gift.Maybe Alzheimer’s let her glimpse her mother’s character from a perspective she never could have seen if it hadn’t been for the illness. Jackie refused to be thankful for the disease, but if she had to take this slow walk through hell with her mother, at least she was seeing tiny vignettes of the woman she was leaving behind, the mother she used to know.
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