Let the sun shine
I have a new favorite thing.
When energy and schedule allow, I head to Mercer Island for lunch with the ladies.
We don’t drink or indulge in recently-legalized treats, but we do abandon reason, step through the Looking Glass, and hop on our own little fantasy train. We ignore twerking and the Kardashians and Kim ll-sung and current world affairs of any sort – except the weather. The weather is our touchstone of reality – proof that we are among the living. The rain, the sun, the snow, they indicate that we are sharing a collective experience. We are not alone.
Over split-pea soup, egg-salad sandwiches, vanilla ice cream and decaf coffee, we leave one foot wobbily planted on Earth, freely floating the other foot in a past of bent memories and a future where we won’t exist.
And lucky me, I get to be the conductor of this surreal ride!
I’m having lunch with Maude and Priscilla and Lucinda and Kathy and a few strays we pull into our cabin. We’re in “the bistro” at my mother’s home for dementia. The table is surrounded by a curved bank of windows overlooking Mercer Island, Lake Washington, Bellevue and the Cascade Mountains.
Maude has forgotten where she’s from today. So I switch tracks to reanimate her history as a ballerina and a model in Paris.
“Depuis quand habitez vous aux Etats-Unis?” How long have you lived in the U.S.? I ask her. I’ve noticed speaking Maude’s native tongue wakes up her past.
“Pendant plusiers annees.” For many years, she answers. “Je suis venus pour danser.” I came here to dance.
My mother interrupts.
“D-D, what did they do about all this?” she asks, circling her index finger toward my head. She is asking about the missing hair under my hat.
“I have brain cancer, but they’ve cured it,” I tell her. There’s no use in discussing cure rates and remission and relapse and all that. It would make her sad and the last thing I wanna do is bring down the party. “The medication made my hair fall out, but it’s growing back.”
“That man came onto the unit today and asked how you were,” she remembers. OK, so Kathy was at work today. “I didn’t know what to tell him.”
“Oh, was that John?” I ask, making up a man and rolling with the fact that Mom’s been at work as a nurse today.
“Yeah, I think so. He likes you,” she answers.
“Definitely John then,” I answer, conjuring up a ‘John’ in my head. I think I’ll make him a swarthy billionaire hopelessly in love with me. “How was work today?”
“Busy. Lots of heart attacks,” Kathy remembers. “Hey, your sister came by today,” she continues, turning to Mary on her right. “She hates your sweater.”
“My sister hates my sweater?” asks Mary, clearly hurt.
“Yeah, she hates it. She wants you to take it off. She hates that color.”
Mary looks down at her sweater, running her right hand over her left breast.
“Okaaaaaay,” steps in the conductor to reset the track. “Beautiful day today, isn’t it ladies? Look everybody, you can see the Cascades. And the sun came out!”
As memories float in and out, so do unseen guests – former lovers, fathers, mothers, friends, children – circumnavigating the table – touching a shoulder here, kissing a cheek there.
The funhouse feel of our almost reality makes my lunch companions fragile. Frustration can mount when they can’t remember where they’re from or if they have children or a spouse or a career, or even a name. The art of conversation on this trackless train doesn’t involve follow-up questions – you just let a monologue run its course, often ending in a corner of confusion.
“Beautiful weather today! Look, you can see the Cascades! And it’s sunny!” the conductor bubbles, resetting the tracks again.
As the hour’s conductor, I can’t indulge my Tourette’s-like teasing – it confuses my passengers and hurts their feelings. And I certainly can’t correct them or tell them they’re repeating themselves. Instead, I straighten my cap and liberally toot the horn of flattery: “Your hair is beautiful today.” “I love your slippers. They look comfy!” “It always makes me happy to see you!!” Just seeing their eyes light up with the simplest of compliments makes me feel like Mother Theresa (in the guise of Annie Lennox).
I evade certain personal topics, mostly if they’re married or if they have children. Many of them have been married, but they’ve lost their spouses and reminding them of that can open a tragic book where nobody can remember the endings. Or they have children who may or may not visit them, but either way they won’t remember when they last saw family and that will sadden them.
If things go seriously awry and one of my conversational buddies starts looping in confusion and sadness, I’ve discovered a 100% foolproof remedy to a spiraling party.
“Hey, does anyone know the Andrews Sisters?” I ask. And then, I just start to sing Rum & Coca Cola. Each lady friend joins in. Aster brings our ice cream. I comment on the Cascade Mountains outside. And we have one more smile at the shining sun before naptime.
Pictured above: Moiselle and Mamasan (Kathy) at “the bistro.”