Scrubland in the Desert at Noon
by Donna Hemans
We’re in West Virginia on a mountain road, miles away from the Interstate, when I suspect Mom has Alzheimer’s or something very close to it. I’d seen glimmers of it—her disorientation in long familiar settings, like getting turned around after leaving the Trader Joe’s on Colesville Road, where she has shopped every week without fail for as long as I can remember. For two weeks straight, she left voicemail messages at a job I hadn’t held in more than a year. On a Saturday, when I didn’t answer, she came to my apartment, opened the door with her spare key only to find me tangled up on the couch with Jay.
“You didn’t answer,” she said and walked into the kitchen, unfazed at our nakedness. “I thought…”
“You didn’t call,” I said in return.
She pointed to her phone, the number of calls she made and which I hadn’t bothered to return. In turn, I pointed out the differences between the area codes. Work was 202; home was 301.
I let it go, and perhaps I shouldn’t have.
West Virginia isn’t familiar to either of us, and there’s a brief moment when I think she accidentally took an exit she shouldn’t have and failed to backtrack. That belief fades quickly. She can’t remember how she got there, why she turned off the highway or why she pulled off to the side of the road next to a pasture full of cattle. I look at my watch to see how long I’d been asleep, and then the needle on the gas gauge. I hadn’t been asleep for more than fifteen minutes and the tank is still three-quarters full.
“What happened to the GPS?”
“Her voice,” Mom says.
Mom has always hated voices from machines.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll drive.”
We switch places, she walking around the front of the car, and I walking around the back, slapping my hand against the trunk, stopping, breathing deeply.
For a moment, I consider carrying on, pretending it’s just a momentary lapse, or returning home. I have three days to get to Las Vegas for an international fellowship, and Mom is along for the ride to see parts of this vast country she has never seen.
When we’re back on the highway, she says, “I see now. That’s where I made my mistake.” And I breathe more easily, thinking that her temporary lack of awareness was just a fluke. She offers to drive and I find excuse after excuse, until finally she gives in and settles back into the seat.
She is the first to notice when the landscape changes from lush green and expansive trees to desert rock and stunted shrubs. She points out little things, rock formations and shrubs, the color of the dirt, names that are unique to us—the entire landscape so different from anything we’ve known. We’ve been up and down the east coast, from Brooklyn to Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and to the Caribbean to visit relatives in Jamaica and Barbados. But we haven’t seen anything quite like the desert landscape. It’s endlessly fascinating, and my mother, the passenger, snaps photo after photo from the moving car.
“Maybe when I’m ninety I won’t remember any of this at all,” she jokes. But she says nothing more about her lapse in memory and for the rest of the trip I forget it too, put it down to a momentary lapse that signals nothing.
The first thing we do in Las Vegas is drive out to the Valley of Fire. Mom has read about the red sand and petroglyphs and she wants to see both. We take a short trail, and she takes photo after photo of the historical rock art, and the flowering plants that grow defiantly among the rocks. She bends low and snaps a photo of a succulent wedged between two rocks on the ground. “Defying expectations,” she says.
She scoops sand into two empty medicine bottles. “For the terrarium.” She doesn’t have a terrarium and, as far as I know, has never made one.
Mom doesn’t care about the casinos or the Hoover Dam. “Nothing man-made,” she says. So we visit canyons and petroglyphs, and my mother who has never done more than walk laps around a lake park or high school track, scopes out moderate trails for our daily hikes. She’s more active than she has ever been, like a more youthful version of the mother I have always known.
I leave my earlier worries behind, and when she returns to Maryland, I am fully convinced that her momentary lapse on the road was just a fluke.
Mom sends me a little package, with a handwritten note on thick handmade paper alongside a photo she took while she was here in the desert. The note, a single paragraph, reads like poetry: “There was no wind, just a stillness that was unusual for that time of day, for that time of year and for that place on the hill. They were accustomed to the breeze bending branches and fluttering leaves, the palm fronds dipping and waving like a woman dancing. At night, when the full moon shone, they watched the flailing leaves make gyrating shadows on the ground. The movement reminded them they were still alive, still part of a greater community, still part of the world. Yet each felt so alone, like a single orchid in bloom, its vines twined around a clump of dead wood, green leaves stark against the mottled brown trunk of a tree.”
When I call home, Mom doesn’t answer, and I leave a long message telling her that she is the true writer in the family, the one who should be here instead of me. She doesn’t return the call.
A week later, Mom sends another package. The photo is one she took at the Grand Canyon of a man on a ledge staring out across the canyon. The handwritten paragraph is again poetic, the kind of thing I strain to write: “He’s pictured it, the earth falling away, his body tumbling through the gaping hole, spinning uncontrollably. He’s also pictured himself one of two left on earth, facing the widening chasm, the two of them trying to find a way to reach each other, looking down at the seemingly unending chasm. He itches to speak, to say anything, even something as inconsequential as “Just us two, huh?” or “Hot, isn’t it?” That age-old, human instinct to reach for another, to connect, if only briefly. He wishes then for even a gentle touch, a fingertip on the back of his hand, or a breath near his ear. He would settle too for an echo from across the chasm, the wind swirling his voice and the stranger’s, connecting him to the life that fell away from him.”
Still she doesn’t answer when I call. I ask the neighbor to look in on Mom, to tell me if she sees Mom doing anything out of the ordinary. “I’m a little worried,” I tell her, “that she’s getting forgetful.”
“Oh, yes, I understand,” she says, and goes on to tell me about her own mother leaving the stove on, and stubbornly refusing to move into the new basement apartment the neighbor constructed just for her. “We’re at that age,” she says. And I nod knowingly even though I know she cannot see.
I hear about my mother’s life through her neighbor, the fall mums she’s put out on the steps, the yard sale, her picking up and babysitting the neighbor’s daughter when work keeps her late, a very British Sunday afternoon tea with old girls from my mother’s high school in Jamaica and the leftover ginger cake my mother brought by. Each time I call, Mom doesn’t answer and I picture her standing near the phone in the kitchen, waiting for the rings to stop, and listening to my message instead of answering.
The third package Mom sends is a simple red handmade notebook, held together with orange string threaded through the spine. At first glance, it looks like a scrapbook with photos and ripped magazine pages. But it’s more of the same, vignettes and half-started stories that my mother never finished. Three more packages come, and again my mother doesn’t answer when I call.
Six weeks in, I leave a threatening message. “Mom, I know you’re there. I know you hear my messages and if you don’t answer, I’m going to come home.”
Somehow she knows when I’m on campus, in the office created for the fellows. I’ve told her in one of my earlier messages that the reception is bad in the office, and asked that she call in the evening. Instead, she calls in the middle of the day when she knows I likely won’t get the call.
“I don’t want to disturb you,” she says. She clears her throat. “You need time to write. Don’t use it to worry about me. Besides, Elisse is looking in on me and between watching her daughter some evenings, the old girl’s association and knitting club, it’s hard for you to keep up with me.”
That’s the mother I have known, the independent one who does things her own way.
It’s hard to write. I keep going back to my mother’s vignettes, pure poetry, and hate everything I write.
One Saturday morning, I drive out to Red Rock Canyon, seeking the inspiration my mother found in the canyons. I take new photos, try placing imaginary and historical characters among the rock outcroppings and desert landscape. But nothing seems genuine. And every day when I hear the click-click of the other fellows’ keyboards I begin to hate them just a little bit.
Eight weeks in when I’ve had enough of Mom dodging my calls, I make a weekend trip home. Five hours in a plane seem excessively long, and when I look down from above at the snow-capped mountains I miss the changing landscape we saw on the long drive out.
When I pull up in the rental, Mom is outside standing with a rake. She looks lost as if she has forgotten what to do with it. I stay in the car for a long while watching her, waiting to see how much time passes before she returns to raking. She looks around, drops the rake and goes back inside, leaving three mounds of leaves in the front and side yard. And I’m convinced again that something is not right with Mom.
Our once-neat house is a mess. In the living room, there’s a pile of notebooks—black and white marbled notebooks, wire ring notebooks and handmade journals like the ones Mom had mailed to me. There are stacks of photos from old calendars and magazines, teaching aides my mother once used in her sixth grade classes, articles from print version of a Caribbean newspaper, articles from the online version of a Jamaican newspaper. It seems every bit of paper my mother owns is in the living room. It’s hard to tell if she was looking for something and got lost in the midst of it, or if she’s sorting what she wants to throw out or keep.
She looks at me for a moment, and then she says my name as if she has reached deep to pull it to the tip of her tongue. She isn’t surprised to see me.
Late in the afternoon, we sit down to clear up the pile of papers. I stack the notebooks together, and drop the newspaper clippings and old calendars in a garbage bag.
She empties the garbage bag and sorts through what I have deemed worthless.
“This can go to the kindergarten or day care,” she says of a picture of a mother and baby elephant. “This too.” She pulls another picture of a giraffe, and one of a sunset on an unknown beach.
Long ago—before her current life, before she migrated to America and settled in Maryland, before I was born—my mother taught early childhood education at a teacher’s college in Jamaica. She supervised the teachers in training, helped with lesson plans, helped schools with meager supplies figure out creative ways to teach the youngest, most vulnerable students. All these years later, her mind is still thinking creatively about how to teach.
“Which school?” I ask.
“How do you see them using it?”
“Teaching the children about animals. Making collages.”
Mom looks at me as if I know nothing at all, and I have an idea that will make us both happy. “Well, let’s make something a teacher can use. And we’ll drop them off at the daycare near the church.”
It’s nice to be back in a familiar city, and I drive around as if it is new to me, picking up escoveitched fish from a Jamaican restaurant and injerra and a goat stew from an Ethiopian place. Again there are glimmers of her forgetfulness—the empty pot on the stove, blackened now, smoke rising toward the window, cracked to let in the fall air.
I drop by to see Elisse, thank her for looking after Mom. I try but get no acknowledgement that she suspects something is wrong with my mother.
Late in the night when I should be sleeping but can’t, I pull out the batch of notebooks I saved. They are dated, the first of the batch starting the year before I was born. For thirty-six years, she has been writing these snippets of prose, never more than 150 or 200 words. They are not diary entries, but tiny fictional pieces, some of which read like complete stories and others like the beginning of something my mother didn’t return to complete.
Saturday morning, my mother gets up early and makes her Saturday morning breakfast staple: a batch of cornmeal porridge and fried dumplings.
My body is still on west coast time, but I roll out of bed when she calls.
“The notebooks,” I say. “The ones you sent…”
“That was something I did after work, after I graded papers and made dinner. Could never get more than a few lines done. A paragraph at most.”
“They’re really good,” I say. “You should turn them into something.”
“Too late for me now,” she says. “My brain is too old for that.”
“Mom, you’re not even eighty.”
“Sometimes it’s not age. Sometimes it’s the body itself.”
That’s when I know for sure she’s hiding something. “What did the doctor say?”
“Who says he said anything?”
“Early stage Alzheimer’s,” she says at last.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were going off for your fellowship and the last thing I wanted was you worrying or putting it off because of me. Everywhere there’s a woman putting off something for her family, her children, her parents, a brother, a sister, somebody. I don’t want you to do that too.”
She is rational and lucid, so clear in her thinking that I simply nod.
Mom makes the suggestion and I agree. We don’t drive this time. She would have liked to go by train, but we fly back to Las Vegas, to the rented two-bedroom apartment that will be our home the remainder of the academic year.
In the office, I spend the morning poring over Mom’s notebooks, trying to glean bits of her life from the pieces of fiction. I link up the dates to my father’s life. He died much too young. A heart attack at thirty-nine. A widow, pregnant, eight months along. But there’s nothing in the year after his death. But on my first birthday, she wrote of a little girl playing hopscotch. Perhaps it was how she envisioned my childhood. Perhaps it’s how she remembered hers
“Imagine a girl playing barefoot in the dirt, drawing boxes for hopscotch, crushing a hibiscus flower into a sticky blob, throwing it in one square and hopping and jumping forward and then back. The bruised flower is much too dirty. So she settles instead for a pebble, smooth on one side, mossy on the other, and jumps again, forward and back. She’s alone, except for the legless doll that watches from its one open eye, and her grandmother asleep on the verandah with her chin against her chest and jaw dropping open. The wind picks up, a soft breeze rustling the guava tree’s leaves, blowing a ripe mango to the ground. And then the rain comes, a single drop and then another and another. She remembers her mother lamenting the drought, the crops wilting away and she knows her mother and grandmother will be happy. In that moment, alone, unsupervised, she does what she has always wanted to do—she jumps, lifting her body to meet each coming drop, lifting her arms and her face, welcoming the water like a long lost friend.”
I want to think she contemplated returning to Jamaica, raising me with her mother’s help. Somewhere in each story there lies something true.
The first Saturday we’re here together, we drive out to Red Rock Canyon and take an easy trail. We’re halfway there when Mom says something profound: “Like scrubland in the desert at noon. Nothing moves except for insects slithering close to the ground and in rock crevices.”
It’s like poetry. I stop and tell her to write it down.
“Write what?” she asks.
I jot it down for her. I get ready to say something else and she hushes me. “Listen,” she says.
There is no sound, not even of the wind whistling or an insect slithering across the sand. I remember the fist note she sent to me along with the photo of the single flower blooming in the desert sand. It must have come to her in a moment like this. I see now that Mom’s snippets of stories are her gifts to me, what she is leaving for me to tell.
Donna Hemans is the author of River Woman. In 2015, she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature for her manuscript Tea by the Sea. Her stories have appeared in Wasafiri Online, Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, the anthology Stories from Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers at Home and Abroad and others. She’s online at donnahemans.com.
Image source: Wikimedia via Creative Commons