She is in there somewhere.
I can see her, behind her own eyes, which, after the strokes, always seem to be squinting. She grips the table and bites her lower lip. Often she looks away, as if observing an invisible fly.
"Back here," I say. "Back here, Mom."
She turns her head back, her body slumped in the wheelchair. At times she doesn't appear to hear me at all.
But now and then she makes eye contact and smiles, and when that happens, she comes alive in a cascade of memories.
She is in there somewhere. I know it. My father knows it. My brother and sister know it. We just want her to tell us. To confirm the fact.
To blurt out in that wonderfully strong voice that used to holler down the street when it was time for dinner, "Yes, I hear you. I hear all of you. I hear everything -- including the jokes. I am who I always was. I just don't speak much anymore."
We hunger for those sentences. We wait.
If you have elderly parents, or a loved one with any form of brain damage -- a stroke, a closed head injury -- if you have relatives who suffer from dementia, Alzheimer's or any number of afflictions that rob you of who you used to be yet leave your body intact, then you know what I am talking about. The maddening tug between living and being "alive."
What kind of world is this for her, I ask? To be on the outside of all conversations? To be wheeled away from dinner tables she used to dominate? To be spoon-fed her meals at age 81? To have a bib as standard clothing?
"This is not who she is!" you want to scream to the heavens. "Restore her dignity! For mercy's sake, at least let her speak!"
After all, ours was always such a noisy relationship, filled with laughs and lectures and late-night bull sessions, united always by her greatest gift: communication.
We were talkers, our family. We didn't sit in silence. Who sat in silence? There was always food to be passed, opinions to be expressed, love and pride and gentle criticism to be lavished, and stories, so many stories, of our childhoods, of their marriage, of the old days in Brooklyn, this crazy uncle, this nutty aunt. Silence? Who sat in silence?
But now we sit in silence. We visit by holding hands, or squeezing a knee, or locking fingers, or kissing her white hair and saying we love her and melting when we see her try to form the words "I love you, too" -- voiceless, just a mouthing. We cling to it like gospel.
We visit and we talk in repeating, child-like ways -- "You hungry, Mom? You hungry? Hmm?" -- the way she once talked to us as infants, and we find the scariest part is not that our mother's voice is missing, but that the memory of it is beginning to fade.
I have not heard her speak in several years, not the way she used to. That timbre and optimism, it's gone. It's hard to conjure. It's been replaced by slow, coughing rasps, or a barely whispered "yes" or "no."
You want a probe, a scope, some magical device that can weave through her brain and find her in some hidden cavern, smartly dressed, setting the table and blowing you a kiss.
"Hi, Mom," you want to say.
"Hi, sweetie," you want to hear.
She is in there somewhere, behind these squinting eyes and biting teeth. What was that game we used to play as kids? "Come out, come out, wherever you are?" But we are no longer kids, even if she is always our mother, and we miss her terribly, even as she sits right in front of us.