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Six Words

by Meredith Gordon

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I drive east on El Toro Road from Leisure World. My mother has recently been administered a psychological evaluation, the report of which was fourteen pages long. We are going to see her psychiatrist. It is November 1996. She is 79 and has recently moved to Orange County from the desert to be closer to me and my older sister. We both try to attend her appointments, but today it’s just the two of us.

“That’s Saddleback Mountain,” I say, and point to Modjeska Peak on the left, Santiago Peak on the right, the valley between them slung like a hammock, rich and rugged brown under the searing sky. “It looks like a saddle.”

She touches my arm. “I don’t ride horses.”

The light turns red. I press the brakes. Reach over, squeeze mom’s hand.

Dementia makes her grasps for words like she’s trying to catch fireflies. It also makes her squeeze back.


The medical building is an enormous cube of mirrored panes held together by steel beams. Mom stands in front of the plate glass door and stares at herself, white hair, black pants, tan sweater.

During the test she’d been asked to explain what, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” meant. She answered that “you shouldn’t live in a house with a glass coffee table.” When asked how a poem and statue were alike, Mom began singing, “I think I’ll never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” And she said, “I can think of a dirty word,” when asked to give the words she could think of that began with an F. These answers indicated that her brain was shrinking, judgment disintegrating. And yet, her non sequiturs were nothing new. Moreover, she had long found it difficult to reconcile the severity of a situation and her response to it.

Five years ago, as my father lay dying in a rented hospital bed in their bedroom, his body a brittle pile of twigs bound by a cellophane shell of skin, with cancer that carved his joints into ragged blades, my mother avoided him. He’d cried and begged for her. Ultimately, she had to be taken by the hand and lead to the room to say goodbye. Decades earlier, when I was a child and then an adolescent, she’d recoil from me, refuse to hug me in public lest a stranger think I was her girlfriend and ours was an inappropriate relationship. I’m relieved to no longer hope her words or behavior make sense, and to have a tangible, less personal reason to point to when they don’t.

Mom stares at her reflection in the mirrored door, lifts a hand to wave, then shyly draws it back, startled by the stranger she sees.

“That’s you, Mom,” I tell her.

She cocks her head. Flutters her fingers. Waves to the ghost. “Hello.” Her voice reminds me of fairy dust.

I push open the glass door. Her reflection flows away like water.


We sit in two guest chairs in the paneled medical office across from Saddleback Hospital. The psychiatrist flips through progress notes inked on yellow paper. She uses the words atrophied and deteriorated to describe mom’s brain. Calls it a muscle gone bad from disuse. Says that her brain has, in fact, shrunk. “Everyone loses brain cells as they age,” the psychiatrist explains. “Unfortunately, Jeannette, you have lost more than most.”

Mom doesn’t seem alarmed or concerned; she’s just happy she doesn’t have cancer like my father did and has arrived at the conclusion that nothing is wrong with her. I cross my arms and lean forward. I’m taken aback by my ambivalence. Is it wrong to relish the ironically unexpected effects that her failing brain has bestowed on me lately—her tenderness, maternal warmth, real affection, a kind of closeness rather than the distance I’m accustomed to?

“I want to say something,” Mom says, so the doctor pauses and we look at her. Mom turns to me. Her voice is taunting. “Stop holding yourself,” she says, out of character from the confused old woman who walked in here. “You look insecure.”

These six words ping my heart, my longing for her to love me. I’m not humiliated, not like when I was young. The doctor jots down a note, perhaps something about Mom’s mental state, not understanding that dementia has changed her, but it has not changed all of her.

I unclasp my arms and lean back.

Mom grabs my hand. I let her.

In the cocoon of the car, I hold the seatbelt buckle for her to attach. She gazes from the mirrored cube to me. “I was a stone mother,” she says. “I was cold as a stone.”

I start the car. The locks click. Then she starts talking about corned beef sandwiches.


On this spring day the sky is filled with puffy clouds. I push my mother in her black nylon wheelchair to the patio of Villa Valencia. It is 2002 and she lives in a nursing home now. I sit on the low stone wall and wheel her chair next to me.

“Daddy came to me last night.” She touches a yellow rose. Her tremor causes petals to flutter to the ground. “He wants to know when I’m coming. He said to hurry up.”

She gazes up at a thicket of sunlit branches and drops her hand in my lap.

“You were our change-of-life baby. A great big surprise.”

I can see Saddleback Mountain from here, its peaks and empty saddle beneath a bonnet of clouds. It appears even closer, and in those few seconds I take in, not the twin peaks, but the approximately three-mile stretch of terrain that both separates and connects them. Most people would not see connection between them, but profound distance. When I was a baby, she did not carry me. She often told me this, either out of the blue or prompted by the sight of an infant cradled in someone’s arms. She was afraid she’d drop me, she’d say. How she put me in an infant seat, propped a bottle against a blanket, and watched me drink it from across the room. How she put me on the table like a bowl of plastic fruit. How she had me and not the abortion.

Out of necessity, I have taught myself to see bridges, at least the potential for them, and construct them to lessen the distance they suspend. “I love you,” I tell her.

Back in her room I get her into bed. Her body sinks heavily into the mattress beneath the cotton blanket.

“Don’t leave me,” she murmurs, and turns her hand into a fist she tucks beneath her chin. She sleeps, and I wonder if she dreams about me but know she does not. Still, the deteriorated mother she has become has provided, at times, a strangely unfamiliar replacement—one with tenderness, warmth, and reflection—I’ve longed for.

Slowly, I cradle her head in my hands and feel her warmth.

Then I let her go.


Title Photo: Nandaro, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


Meredith Gordon is the creator of The Shame Recovery Project, work devoted to healing the unwarranted shame of sexual and other traumas, and founder of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey, an award-winning site about the intersection of writing, creativity and depth. She is co-author of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss. Her writing delves into universal themes through very personal storytelling.

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