It started out like any other Sunday - New York Times, earl grey with skim and one sugar cube, and liverwurst on buttered rye. She used to tell me how she hated the smell of it - the cured meat paste slathered over a thickly buttered slice of warm bread. I'd remind her that she was the one who got me started on it in the first place.
The warm fall sun shone through our huge kitchen window and I remember noticing a cobweb in the corner. It glistened in the light and for a split second, its beauty almost stopped me from swiping it down with my table napkin.
"You missed a cobweb, Mother" I said, crumpling the napkin and cobweb in my hand and tossing it past her into the trash. "Did you clean the windows in the dark this time?" I chuckled. I could just see her standing on the window box in her nightgown and reading glasses while attempting to wipe off her evenly sprayed Windex with exactly 2.5 squares of paper towels.
I never gave a shit about cleaning anything, let alone a cobweb on a window that was usually covered with some dreadful excuse for a curtain. Mother was the one who used to follow me around with a spray bottle and paper towel roll, wiping up any semblance of dirty anything, even air, that my presence created. It rarely bothered me - maybe a trade-off for all the crap I gave her growing up. Or perhaps I knew it kept her sane.
"You want to read this?" I asked, waving the cartoon section in front of her. That's all she ever read anymore. Damn cartoons. She just sat in her old rocking chair that I swore smelled worse than four tubs of liverwurst, head entrenched in the newspaper and coffee always close by.
Mother had taken to sitting in that chair almost all day long. I'd come home from work with her still attached to her seat, remote control in hand, and some old black and white movie blasting... At first I thought nothing of it but then she would just go to the chair and not even get dressed; I'd find her still in her robe staring at the screen, not even willing to look up to greet me.
I'd always worried that it would come to this. Dr. Fineman had warned me that she was "rapidly deteriorating and will not be able to care for herself." I stared at him with a mix of disbelief and anger - curious as to why he had waited so long to order a CAT scan.
"She came to see you about this a long time ago, Doc" I reminded him. It had been a few birthdays ago when she couldn't remember peoples' names. After the party she had lashed out at my sister for forgeting to turn off the oven. We took her into the doctor the next day and he prescribed an anti-depressant.
"A touch of depression" he called it in his typical matter-of-fact tone. Apparently she was having a hard time adjusting to us leaving the house and just needed a little "mood boost." He failed to realize that mother never forgot anyone's name - and even in her deepest and darkest days would rarely yell at either of us, and never about the oven.
It wasn't until mother stopped talking that I decided to take her in to the doctor again. Silence was always my mother's revenge but this was different. Even her eyes didn't say anything to me anymore. And that's when we got the news.
I knew mother heard him. She leaned back in the chair when he said it and turned to look out the window. And she sighed. It was the most sound I'd heard out of her in weeks and it oddly comforted me. Since then we'd been living in a state of imbalance; I'd still talk to her like nothing had ever happened and she'd stare back at me blankly, as if she had left her own body and someone else was housesitting for her while she was gone.
But late that one Sunday I heard sounds coming from the back of the house. Since the silent treatment started, I could identify any noise - the washer spin cycle, the old bed spring squawking, or even the trickle of the leaky bathtub faucet. But this one was unfamiliar to me.
The soft, tuneful hum grew louder as I reached my old bedroom. For a moment, I stood with my back against the wall outside the door. I could hear it well now - the voice I hadn't heard in over 4 months. I gingerly peeked over my shoulder and into the room. She was sitting on my old bed, tightly grasping an old doll. And as she hummed, she caressed its faded hair.
God that song. She'd sing it to me every night up through junior high. I made her swear never to tell anyone, and she promised, so long as I'd let her still do it. During high school she'd sneak in some nights after she thought I was asleep and run her fingers through my hair, humming that same old tune. She thought I didn't hear her. But I did. And I never stopped her.
My knees buckled beneath me and I slid down the wall into a pile of silent sobs, tears racing down my face faster than I could wipe them away. I hung my head for a moment and then reached up to grab the loose hair that had fallen in front of my face. My head tilted back onto the wall as I ran my fingers through my hair again. And again. And again.
"I hear you, mother" I said quietly.
I hear you.
It was in that moment I realized that even with what was just a shell of the woman I once knew, she was still a mother. And perhaps the bond between us - the bond between a mother and a child - is one that supersedes memory as we know it.
I never heard her voice again. Maybe she knew I needed to hear her voice to keep believing. When she couldn't speak, laugh, or later, move, knowing mother was still alive gave me the strength to make her one more damn bowl of oatmeal, tell her another joke, and watch countless black and white movies.
And even with every last ounce of humanity stripped away, there's always a piece of us left for someone to love.
At least that's what I have to believe.
*This is a work of fiction, inspired by mothers everywhere.