A train went through a burial gate,
A bird broke forth and sang
My mother thinks we are on a train.
“Tell me again where it is we’re going,” she says. She sits up straight, face forward. Although she is in bed, she wears the polite expression of travel, of waiting in motion.
“Mommy, this is not a train. You’re in rehab, remember? You fell? You had surgery?” I hear my voice rise into a question at the end of declarative sentences, seeking her permission out of long habit. I’m well into middle age, but she has always been the one in charge.
I’ve never called her “Mommy” before. When I was little, I called her “Mama,” just as she had called her mother. Then I decided that was old-fashioned. “I’m going to call you 'Mother,'” I announced one day when I was twelve. “Mommy” was out of the question. If she were “Mommy,” I could never grow up, and “Mom,” with its breezy suburban modernity, never suited her. But the formal tone of “Mother” helped me detach. Now, instinctively, she is “Mommy.”
“Oh, phooey, this is too the train,” she says. “Would you go to the dining car and get me a cup of coffee?”
My mother is eighty-nine years old. For a year she was in “assisted living.” Between creeping dementia and osteoporosis, she could no longer live alone, and living with me was impossible. She seemed happier than she had been at home. She had good food and contact with people. But she would not use a walker (“You think I’m going to take that big old thing with me everywhere?”) or a medic-alert button (“You think I can’t use the telephone?”).
On the morning she fell, she was working the newspaper crossword puzzle. I found it later, the page from the Oklahoman folded neatly in quarters and pressed flat, the way she had done it for decades. The pencil lay beside it on the ottoman by her chair. She had apparently fallen on the way to the bathroom, the bone at last giving way. Now she has a new hip, but the dementia is worse, and I am in Oklahoma City, clearing the artifacts of forty years of living from my childhood home and trying to figure out how I will care for her when her three months of insurance-paid rehab are up. The house has been in a kind of stasis—last decorated in the 1970s, it has stood empty since she moved out. In another state, I have my own house and a university tenure case creeping forward—a life, more or less.
One of the nurses tells me that dementia patients near death often think they are on a train. She says it’s something she’s noticed, though she doesn’t know why. I don’t know why, either. My mother rarely rode the train. The only train trip she ever talked about was to the Kentucky Derby in 1941. She bet on Whirlaway, who won the Triple Crown that year. She was twenty-three years old.
Curious, I consult books about dreaming. Perhaps dementia is like a dream, in some way we don’t understand. Or perhaps death pulls us toward it in a way that is dreamlike. A book by Jungian psychologists tells me that dreaming about a train often symbolizes a preset destination—something beyond the dreamer’s control. Unlike a car or a bicycle, which are all about independence, a train is literally tracked. Also, one rides with other people on a train, everyone headed for the same place. In an old letter I find my mother’s description: “lots of other passengers all bound for the Derby!” She sounds happy. Unlike me, she has always hated being alone.
I have a routine. In the mornings, I do one house project—clean out a closet, take another load to Goodwill, paint something. After lunch, I go see her. Usually she is in a wheelchair after another futile rehab session. She makes little progress, so I suspect the specialist checks off a box on some form that will buy us more time. I am grateful. Although I come every day, my mother throws up her hands in surprise when she sees me. “Chickie, you came!”
“Shall we wheel around the building, Mommy?” This is our ritual. I push her past the therapy rooms and a flowery mural and head to the lounge. It is pleasant, in an institutional way. We talk, if she is up to it, or just sit.
“Of everything you’ve done, what made you happiest?” I ask her one day. It is a good day, by which I mean she is lucid, more or less.
Her face brightens. “I had a baby!” Then she looks at me quizzically. Although she knows me, I realize she has not thought for a long time about that baby being me.
Her face goes blank again.
“Shouldn’t we hurry?” she says. “We’ll miss the train.”
Her Brother's Things
My grandparents’ house wasn’t old, but it was old enough to have shadows and secrets and places that you knew, if you were intuitive, were best not disturbed. I was terrified of a place in the stairwell where the plaster was missing. I don’t know what happened there. It was a hole about the right size for somebody’s fist to have gone through, though we were not generally a family of fist-fighters. Through the hole you could see what was inside the wall—boards going crosswise and a thick rope of some kind. I would not go past it without someone to go with me. Once, when I had to go downstairs alone, I held my breath, hugged the opposite wall, and ran.
The upstairs had four bedrooms, two on either side of a wide hall, which had a big window at one end and a funny little bathroom that nobody used at the other. On one side of the hall was my grandparents’ room, with its big iron bed and tall dresser, and the room that had been my mother’s. On the opposite side were “the boys’ rooms,” though it had been a long time since my uncles were children. One was painted yellow and had dormer windows that looked out over the road. But the other one, in the corner, was kept shut. It had been my uncle Abner’s—the one my mother called “my brother.” She said it with such formality that you knew she meant Abner, though she had three others. Abner had been a doctor. He had put himself through medical school during the Depression by doing farm work and playing bridge. He made it through the war, working in Germany and Belgium as an Army medic, only to be killed when his car rolled on a Texas highway in 1950.
One day when I was about five, I followed my mother up to his room. She hoped, I suppose, to slip up the stairs unnoticed, but I saw her.
“Okay, you can come, but be quiet,” she said.
She went into the corner room and closed the door. She flipped on a light but the room was still dim. There wasn’t much sun on that side of the house, and the blinds were drawn so you could just make out sunlight around the edges. There were two beds. One was a regular iron bed like those in the rest in the house. The other one was high and narrow—a hospital bed that Abner had brought home once. She knelt beside the tall bed and pulled out a trunk from underneath.
I didn’t know what she was doing, so I stood by the wall and watched. She was quiet. Usually in that house she liked to show me old things—books she had read growing up, her old sewing basket, pictures of people and dogs they once had. She liked dogs.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“My brother’s things.”
Inside the trunk were clothes—a uniform with big buttons and shiny things that must have been medals. She ran her hand gently over the lapel and collar, the way you might touch a baby, the way she might touch me.
I don’t know how to explain what happened then except just to say it: The black came out. I didn’t see it with my physical eyes, but I knew it was there, an inky blackness that rushed out of the trunk itself, vaporous as a genie, permeating everything. I pressed myself back against the wall so it wouldn’t get me, although I knew—somehow—that it stopped a few inches short of my body. I could barely breathe.
“Mama, let’s go,” I said. She was still touching the uniform and looking at whatever was underneath it. I was afraid the blackness would get her. She seemed, inexplicably, not to see it.
“Mama! Let’s go.”
“Oh, all right.”
She closed the trunk and we went downstairs and for the rest of her life we never spoke of it. But when I was a teenager and my grandmother had dementia, she thought there was a baby in that room. We must be, she said, very quiet.
About the Author: Jane Marcellus’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Washington Post, Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, and Hippocampus. She is the author of Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Employed Women (Hampton Press, 2011) and a co-author of Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2016). She is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.