We drive down the ridge in the late afternoon, rounding the bend of the Shoreline Highway and there, below us stretches the white sandbar of Stinson Beach, like a crescent moon, a comma, the last breath before the great Pacific. Michael has gauged the trip carefully, so we’d arrive at the motel in time for him to get in a few shots as the light changes over the water. I wait in our room, lounging on the bed, which nearly engulfs the entire space. Lying in its center I can reach out my hands and feet and touch all four walls. The ceiling is painted the blue green of the Mediterranean and a cluster of Bougainvillea blossoms spill in the open window, the magenta so vibrant against the bare white walls of the room, it feels like applause. I am giddy from the bottle of Chardonnay we shared over lunch. After just one glass, I had slipped my sunglasses over my eyes and leaned in to kiss my old sweetheart.
I am naked. I’ve taken off all my clothes in anticipation of making love and now dive under the sheet and swim about like a slippery little fish. The blue ceiling floats above me like an endless sky. I am also tired, having flown out the night before from New York then driven down to Stinson Beach this afternoon with Michael. Arriving at the motel he’d said, “Why don’t you nap while I take some pictures?” At the same moment I’d suggested, “Why don’t you take some pictures while I take a nap?” We’d laughed, finally in perfect harmony after so many years: photos need to be taken, I need rest and we will make love soon.
Outside, I hear a cat meow. Rolling across the bed, I lift my head and peak out the window, over Bougainvillea blossoms to the courtyard below. A calico sits in a bank of purple sage, swishing her tail. Light streams down the mountain and puddles on the stone pavement. I love the odd compressed feeling of the landscape here, the ridges that surround Mount Tamalpais looming in the distance, the ocean thundering just across the road, and the off-balance feeling I get every time I come to this cove at the edge of the world. It’s like riding an unsteady boat at sea. The light, when it broke through the fog earlier this afternoon, was clear and bright and invincible.
Just then my cell phone rings. “Hello,” an unfamiliar voice says. “I’m the nurse on duty at The Windsor Nursing Home. We wanted to let you know that we’ve sent your mother back to the hospital.” I put the phone down and watch the cat outside sniff the air then stretch out lazily, on the warm stone.
This will be my mother’s fifth hospitalization in the last month. I knew when I flew out here that there was a distinct possibility that she might be hospitalized again while I was gone, perhaps even die. Still I left, telling myself that I have to get on with my life. There is only so much grieving I can do. Over the phone, the nurse explains that even after trying ten different antibiotics, her pneumonia still isn’t under control. Because my mother has Alzheimer’s dementia, she’s forgotten how to swallow and keeps aspirating her own salvia back into her lungs and re-infecting herself.
Ever since my mother’s diagnoses a few years ago, I have craved sex like I was the one who was dying. Her slow deterioration has corresponded with my greedy desire for carnal pleasure, for the feel of a hand between my thighs, hot breath in my ear, mostly for the moment of penetration, which deafens all other thoughts. Then I listen to his steady rhythm and our cries, and that is all I need to think about. I know I’m afraid, and it’s both this fear of death and my desire to feel intensely alive that compels me.
In the last year, I’ve flown across country six times to see Michael, to meet in Las Vegas, Utah, Colorado and New York and twice in California. What I want is to be lost in a world of flesh, a world of bodies, of touch, scent and taste, a world where I can drift under a canopy of a sheet like a boat in the sea. And Michael, because he is familiar, because he is a piece of my past, linked to my history but not to the recent part of my life with my mother and her disease, is perfect for these encounters. He’s a confirmed bachelor, an artist who has shunned commitment. In the past this drove me crazy, but now, divorced and in my 40s, I relish it. In Big Sur we had sex at Phiffer Beach kneeling in the dunes, our jeans down around our ankles. Michael lost his camera and sweatshirt, but not, thank God, his shoes which were still on his feet, when a wave suddenly swept up the sand and enveloped us, the cold shock swirling inside and around us, the thrill still a memory that excites me. In Utah, we made love after climbing up a sheer cliff, my legs so swollen and tired from the hike they were as immovable as tree trunks. Still, we managed. In Colorado, we’d snuggled under a pink ruffled sheet in a friend’s daughter’s bed, American Girl Dolls pushed to the side. Remembering my own childhood bedroom with its row of Little Women Dolls, I’d suddenly burst into tears. Michael had been there to lick my damp cheeks and kiss my breast. In these moments, hot and slippery with this man between my legs, moaning, weeping and even laughing, I am able to grieve for my mother.
But today feels different. The phone has rung. I am alone and the ceiling above me is painted her favorite shade of blue.
When I was a child my mother painted the ceilings of all her bedrooms Mediterranean blue. She built a bed as high as the one for the Princess and the Pea, with not just a box spring and mattress, but a fluffy feather bed, as well. It had its own stepping stool. Climbing up into my mother’s bed felt like climbing aboard a ship. Across the top she spread her Spanish Shawl. “It’s called a Manton,” she told me. “A piano shawl.” Embroidered across the surface was a wild bouquet of roses, the fringe hanging so low it reached the floor. I was an anxious sleeper and crept into my mother’s bed until nearly high school, at which point she decided that I was too old to climb into bed with her and locked her door, barring me from her room. Still, I curled up in my sleeping bag and fell asleep across her threshold like a faithful dog.
Then, when I was fifteen, a stranger gave me a hit of windowpane at my first rock concert. I came home only to discover that I couldn’t find the nail polish remover to take off my bloody red nail polish, which was beginning to scare me. So, I told my mother. I walked into her bedroom and announced that I was on an acid trip and had to get the blood off my nails or I would claw off my own fingers. My mother rose to the occasion. Getting out of bed, she asked me if I would “like a piece of chocolate cake?” After we’d had our cake, she let me climb up onto her big bed, under the Spanish Manton with the wild roses twining over the surface, and we lay side by side, through the night while I described to her what I saw trailing across her ceiling—vast tunnels, a dust storm, a sunset.
We’ve never been inhibited in my family. My grandmother wore black negligees to bed well into her nineties and had dreams about my grandfather descending down from Mount Olympus, a Greek god on his chariot, into her bed. My sister practices nude yoga, and my mother once told me she, too, had made love on Phiffer Beach. It was there in the sand, under the natural bridges, where she conceived me. But my mother was still a lady until Alzheimer’s eroded her frontal cortex, impairing the executive functioning of her brain, and she became disinhibited. She began to talk about sex explicitly, in a dirty, nasty way. “I want it,” she told me, “from a young one.” We were at the local car wash, and she licked her lips and made a vulgar gesture, a thrust upward with her hand, to the boys toweling off our car. I had never seen her doing anything like this before, and I quickly handed over a big tip and peeled out of the car wash.
“Mom,” I said aghast. But by then she’d already forgotten the incident.
As time passed and the simple tasks of balancing her checkbook and adding spare change confounded her, she began to call me names, as well. Then, she propositioned the man who came to fix her front steps, and he refused to return and finish the job.
I’ve since read about hypersexuality in Alzheimer’s patients. Most authorities contend that it is a myth, meaning that the afflicted pull off their clothes not because they want sex, but because they no longer know any better. The same is true about public masturbation; they have lost the ability to remember social customs. It isn’t uncommon for an early onset Alzheimer’s patient to have an extramarital affair, forgetting for the moment that she has a spouse, perhaps has had one for years, waiting at home. As a child will try out bad words because they have not yet internalized the appropriate behavior signals, my mother could no longer read or understand the cues in the world around her.
Yet, even with dementia lying unspoken between us, my mother and I remained close. She was the person I always wanted to talk to. After her diagnoses and confinement to a nursing home, I came to visit, took her out to lunch and confided that my husband and I had decided to divorce. She listened intently as if she were hearing my troubles for the first time. I told her my plans, that I wanted to move back to San Francisco and would bring her with me. She became excited remembering all that fog. “I’d like that,” she said. A few minutes later when I came back from the bathroom, she folded her napkin, setting it beside her plate, smiled at me and said gently, “I’ve so enjoyed our conversation. I rarely meet anyone I have so much in common with.”
“Mom,” I said. “Of course you have so much in common with me. I’m your daughter.”
“Oh,” my mother sighed. “That explains it.”
More than the angry outbursts or vulgar gestures, this sudden lapse in knowing me as the daughter who had slept vigil outside her bedroom door, the daughter who had been conceived on Phiffer Beach, hurt and confused me.
Now, staring out at the calico rolling about tummy up on the stone courtyard and yawning with her whole body, I think of my mother and her bed. She must have understood something about wanting to get lost, to be rocked by a man like the sea rocks a ship, and to float away under a blue sky. Some twenty years ago, she’d flown out to visit me in San Francisco, curious about Michael, this man I was so enamored with. She’d camped out on my living room couch like a fellow student, draping her shimmering scarves over the lamps and stacking up novels on the floor around her. One night, Michael sneaked into my apartment–right past the living room where my mother snored with a pair of pink ear plugs poking out of her ears like pig snouts—and into my bed. In the morning he slipped out again before she awoke. Or so we’d thought. Later, in the kitchen, my mother greeted me with a mug of fresh brewed coffee and the comment, “It makes me happy to hear you making love.”
Not to be outdone, I asked calmly, “Why?”
“I like it when you’re happy. I want that for you.” Then she added, smiling slyly over the rim of her mug. “But don’t waste your youth and beauty on that man. There are other possibilities.”
There have been and will be other possibilities, but I don’t think she’d disapprove or begrudge me my choice at the moment. An hour has elapsed since the nurse called, and I dial the hospital to see if she’s been admitted yet, but because of the mountains, I can’t get a signal. I’m not very worried. Somewhere in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s, my mother began to love hospital emergency rooms, the busy, buzzing energy going on behind each curtain. Last month I’d stood beside her at the Hartford Hospital all day, waiting for a room. We watched in fascination as a man picked glass out of his own face, until the nurse finally arrived with disinfectant, gauze and a long pair of tweezers. It’s all entertainment to my mother and each time they rush her in pale and fading, she immediately perks up, gazes around from her gurney, smiling at the world passing by above her. She opens her mouth obediently for sips of water and sticks out her arm for the intravenous line. As a child, she’d contracted diphtheria, then TB and pneumonia, and had learned how to be a good patient. As for the world passing by above her head, every one of my friends remembers my mother’s small narrow face and the big owl sized eyeglasses that sat across the rim of her nose. How she used to stand off to the side of the room when I threw a party and watch “all the action,” as she called it. Even the trolley, going up and down my hill, could pull her to the window and transfix her.
And then of course there’s the story she told me the morning after my first acid trip. When I’d come down and was sane again, I asked her why she’d stayed so calm and hadn’t freaked out like most parents would have. In the early sixties, she told me, when my parents’ circle of artist and psychoanalyst friends began experimenting with hallucinogens, she’d stayed sober through all their trips. “I was the self-designated baby-sitter,” she told me. “I’ve always been a watcher.”
Michael is in the doorway, the last of the light shining down on his white, blond hair like a spot light. He’s got his camera out and he snaps my picture—Girl under White Sheet, Stretching. I remember that once, a long time ago, he said that he thought I was a sexually positive person.
“What does that mean?” I’d wanted to know.
“You make it okay for people to be open about sex.”
For years I’d attributed this character trait to something I inherited from my father, the parent who married five times and was sexually promiscuous—the true hypersexual in the family. But today I think that perhaps my mother, the parent who raised me, has more to do with my accepting attitudes towards sex than I realize.
I tell Michael about my mother’s hospitalization and he waits a beat. “I’m not unhappy,” I add. I tell him I’ve had my fill of unhappiness with this disease and today I’m not unhappy. He nods because he’s known me for so long, and he knows my mother, too. She heard us make love, after all. Sometimes he says he even sees my mother in me. But he doesn’t say that now, which is a good thing because I’m naked. I like the fact that he’s here with me, when she’s in the hospital so far away. I haven’t wasted my youth and beauty on him, but it’s nice to have a touchstone, an old friend, a familiar scent, someone to stroke in the dark when the person I’ve known my whole life is disappearing.
Tonight, as the sun sets over the Pacific, I gaze at Michael. He has granted me my wish, to come and lie beside me along this slim stretch of coast, embraced by the mountains on one side, eclipsed by the sea on the other. I reach out a foot and a long hand to beckon him under my tent. He pulls off his clothes and stands naked on the side of the bed. His skin is as smooth as marble, as an Olympian. Then he lifts up the sheet so that it flutters above me like a sail. I luxuriate in the moment of recognition. I feel like that cat, lying out on the stone courtyard, belly exposed. As our sheet settles, a blue ceiling floats overhead. I think my mother would be happy.