For several years, my 90-year-old mother has dreaded the approach of winter. She lives in wool sweaters, pockets stuffed with tissues. She wraps in a puffy down coat to go outside, and sleeps under a cozy down comforter. But wool sweaters can’t banish the cold that she feels in her bones. She just can’t keep her 95-pound frame warm.
She lives with my father in a small apartment in an assisted living facility north of Pittsburgh. She no longer drives, and in winter, she walks on covered sidewalks throughout the complex. She goes out into the bone-chilling cold only to go to the doctor. She fears catching the flu.
Although it’s only September now, she gazes out the window at increasingly clouded skies and sighs, “I hope it doesn’t snow.”
My mother has dementia, not so bad that she has forgotten me, her only child, but bad enough that she doesn’t know if she’s eaten lunch today. Her world is tiny: the two rooms she shares with my dad, and whatever her memory can dredge up from the past. She occasionally speaks of winters a lifetime ago, when one year snow piled so high that the National Guard was called in when the milk ran out. She remembers sledding down College Hill and the taste of snowflakes on her tongue. She remembers some years when the river froze thick enough to skate. She tells me how city lights twinkled on the ice floes as she watched from the train window when traveling home with her gram after a holiday trip downtown.
She remembers, too, (on days when her memory is strong), ten years in Phoenix with my father early in their marriage, and then again in retirement. The endless blue of the cloudless desert sky and vastness of the landscape still calls to her, a siren she cannot follow, anchored as she is to two small rooms. Long ago she taught me the names of flowers and trees as we walked the streets of the New Jersey suburb where I grew up: gum and sycamore, copper beech and saucer magnolia. Yet today, the memory of the desert in all its emptiness is a stronger pull than the green farmlands of New Jersey or the rocky hills of Western Pennsylvania where she now lives, captive in her aging skin.
When I visited in early summer, her nails had grown so long I wondered how she held a fork to eat. Her wavy salt and pepper hair was untamed like a lion’s mane and her chin sprouted wild hairs. My dad shrugged and seemed to say, “I can’t do any more. This is the end for us.”
On a more recent visit, at the onset of fall, she was better groomed, though health problems have multiplied, and she now has trouble eating, standing, walking, breathing.
Outside the sky is already starting to take on the solid gray hue of a Pittsburgh winter, but she closes the drapes to the view and turns instead to the television news, all of it bad. She doesn’t seem to hear.
Winter is on the doorstep, but she no longer embraces the beauty of fresh snow. Most days, she has even forgotten the view of winter snow on the distant White Tank Mountains north of Phoenix, and the beauty and abundance of the desert in bloom when spring finally arrives.
Another season approaches now.
I am unprepared for winter.