Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | June 2018 | 11 minutes 2,944 words)

At the top of Riverdale, at the top of the Bronx, there is a city on a hill. The city exists within a single building; there are single rooms with no locks, each with a bed, a dresser, and — if the resident’s family provides one — a television set with which to while away the hours. Time is measured by the same clock as it is in other cities, but here it curves and collapses, compresses yet languorously stretches. Once a week there is a hairdresser and a manicurist, too. It is lovely — and dreadful. You can visit the citizens here, and you are free to leave when you are ready, if freedom is measured by the movement of one’s feet. My mother lives in this building, which is a nursing home. We signed the contract for her just last month, in what might have been human blood.

The city-building overlooks the Hudson River, which today glimmers silver under a portentous sky. It’s spring by the calendar, but winter has persisted in the Northeast. I trudge west from Riverdale Avenue bundled into my down coat, the wind biting at my neck. I like to pretend that my mother is expecting me.

She has lived there only a few days. I am acquainting myself with the place every time I visit. She lives on one of the dementia floors, the medium security floor, with other people who are social and display a level of intellectual competence that affords them the illusion of freedom — they do not require help from aides with dressing and bathing, for example, and they may choose where to sit at dinner.

She lives on one of the dementia floors, the medium security floor, with other people who are social and display a level of intellectual competence that affords them the illusion of freedom…

There is a code to gain entry to the elevator, and another to make the elevator move. We are asked not to let the residents know these numbers, although this seems to miss the point; no one who lives here could retain the numbers long enough to use them. Still, I take the piece of paper on which the nurse has written the codes and stash it deep in my coat pocket, checking it discreetly before punching in the numbers.

The unit has a hospital floor plan, which casts a gloom over the space, a reminder that this is a ward, not a home. Still, the idea of a central nurses’ station affords some comfort — someone is just down the hall in case of emergency. My mother has one endless emergency here — her own urgent need to leave.

She looks up eagerly when I cross the threshold bearing my weekly gifts — this time, a CD player, some photos to hang, cookies, fresh underwear and socks. Everything she owns must be labeled; dementia-floor residents can be found in each other’s clothing routinely. “You have to have a sense of humor about it,” my mother’s social worker tells me.

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Her room has a river view. I wonder what it’s like not to know which body of water it is that one sees through the glass; not to know that the sun will set over this water because one is facing west; not to know which way the bathroom is or what time it is or how to find the phone; not to remember the combination of numbers that will allow you to reach your children; to know you have children, but not to remember their names.

“It’s so large,” my mother says, as we stroll down the hall, gazing at the paintings on the walls. We take the elevator to the mezzanine, where we can get some food. We walk down another long hall, passing a small pool, a gym, a spa. “Isn’t this nice, Mom?” I ask, and she nods agreeably.

I hear music, an accordion bleating out a melody in a minor key.

Those were the days, my friend
We’d thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d thought we’d never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.

I smile; it is comically, tragically apropos for a nursing home. Still, I guide my mother toward the music, which is both lively and disturbing, as though accompanying the final sequence in a horror film.

We arrive at a small ballroom in which a crowd of mostly wheelchair-bound seniors sit, nodding to the music, enlivened and demonstrating as much to the height of their ability. It reminds me of bar mitzvahs I attended long ago — the wall-to-wall carpeting, the tinny music reverberating in the stale, enclosed space. I turn my head toward the door and notice a bird cage. It’s actually a glass enclosure, in which parakeets and cockatoos chirp and flit from one end to the other.

“Let’s find the café, Mom,” I say, and she replies that she will follow me anywhere.

I direct her out of the ballroom. We walk until at last I see sunlight. They call it the River Cafe; it looks like a bodega. Here we can buy cookies and toiletries and coffee. Booths line a glass wall affording a dazzling view of the water.

“Look at the view!” I have been saying this a lot today, as if the sight of the river were recompense for her confinement.

“Yes, it’s lovely,” she replies, “It’s very nice.”

She is uneasy, asking me constantly if after this tour I will be taking her “out of here.”

“Look at the view!” I have been saying this a lot today, as if the sight of the river were recompense for her confinement.

Yes, I tell her, we are going to my sister’s house, it’s not far at all, we are walking there.

“Thank god,” she says. “ I can’t tell you how happy I was to see you walk in.”

* * *

Almost no new memories imprint; I am struck by the specific details she retains: my entrance into her room, what she felt like at that instant, how desperate she felt just before. Will this crystallized moment be sent down the pipe to long-term memory? Or will she have it only for today?

We buy a cookie then leave the café. On the way to the elevator, a small room set up like a museum alcove catches my eye. Pickles and Egg Cream reads a sign overhead. It’s an exhibit of dioramas in which a woman named Ruby G. Strauss has recreated scenes from her parents’ years on the Lower East Side. I peer into a scene of passengers exiting the subway stop at Broadway and 14th Street, another of Strauss’s grandmother’s garden in summer, wedged between two tenements, a line of clothes drying above children skipping rope and a man in a straw hat reading the paper. There are dozens of little figures holding tiny props: a man drinking wine by a cathedral radio in his parlor, a bride and groom on their wedding day, a grandmother wearing wiry glasses, knitting.

Like the parakeets, the dioramas are too easy a metaphor. Life under glass. Life observed through glass. Life imprisoned within glass walls. I pull my mother out of the alcove. Her eyesight has been failing, so for her the exhibit is a blur.

I punch the code in and the elevator arrives. We emerge on the first floor and exit through the lobby, passing a collection of dolls made in the images of American First Ladies. I can see my mother’s reflection — her long coat and dark hair — in the glass that encases the dolls, moving swiftly and enthusiastically toward the lobby door.

A shock of cold wind hits as it slides open.

“It’s really a nice place,” I say. “In spring all these trees will bloom and they have barbecues in the garden.”

“Yes, I’m so lucky,” my mother says. “Are we leaving now?”

As we walk down the hill toward the guard booth, I think of an Isaac Asimov book I read in my youth. In Caves of Steel, he envisions a futuristic city complex where New York City once stood. It is entirely enclosed, without a drop of fresh air seeping into its midst, contained under metal domes.

The air is so qualitatively different outside the walls of the pavilion in which my mother now lives, which hums with the electrical energy of a well-run hotel. Its seamless wall-to-wall carpet obliterates any hint of nature, the scent of cateria food permeates the first floor corridors, the ring of elevator cars creates a perpetual dinging soundtrack in the lobby.

A siren goes off, as though a dog had jumped a security perimeter. It’s my mother’s electronic bracelet, which they’ve attached to prevent her from wandering off the property. I negotiate our departure without alerting my mother to this indignity.

We proceed eastward on a paved path. Alongside the path runs a tall metal fence that separates us from some tan, patchy grass — the sort that works as visual shorthand for the ravages of winter. I’m breathing better now, as is my mother, who has all morning complained of agitation.

“I was so glad when I saw you in the doorway,” she says again, as we walk into the wind toward Riverdale Avenue. We cross it and as we do, seem to travel through a time portal. The red-brick houses are narrow and built right next to one another; they have small porches, and I see a window sign declaring that We are all made in God’s image. There is a cozy, nostalgic compression to the neighborhood, some sense of Americana that is absent from the busy streets of Manhattan, where I live. I see errant crocuses defying the angry winter wind and a daffodil or two, flags, rusty porch swings, and broken children’s wagons on tiny front yards.

“Where are we going?” my mother asks.

“To your daughter’s house,” I reply. “We’re almost there.”

“That’s right,” my mother says. “I know I have to go back tonight, to the place, but I don’t want to think about it now.” She smiles and plays with the electronic bracelet on her arm, unaware of what it does.

I bring up the river, again, out of habit.

“There’s a beautiful view from your room, Mom,” I say, finding my own smile sinister.

“Yes — ” she starts. “I’m so lucky.”

Another universe unfolds inside my sister’s house. It is organized along the principle of family: children’s bedrooms, toys organized by age appropriateness and size, a kitchen stocked with packaged soups and treats young children like. Still, the wreckage of six children and two dogs is everywhere in evidence: chewed pillows, fights underway, dirty dishes on the table, crayons on the floor. My mother settles on the couch after asking if she can be of any help. She smiles at me, looks around for my sister, asks where the house is. I am not sure how to answer. I tell her it is down the street from where she lives, but this means almost nothing to her. We are supposed to give her something to do, something to occupy her hands and provide her with a sense of her necessity; I have read that all humans need this. Sometimes we do find tasks, but sometimes we lack creativity and tell her she should just relax. She cannot relax; there is nothing relaxing about perpetual confusion. She asks again if she can help. I ask her to pick up the crayons. I find later that she’s put them in the dishwasher.

Noam, who is 7, kisses his grandmother when it’s time for me to walk her back. He looks at her as though in love, and I wish this were all she needed, all anyone needed. I assure her that she will return to this house soon. Right now, it’s time to go. She sighs; I hear a whistle in her breath that betrays more than passing reluctance.

The clouds have drowned in the ink of a night sky; I sing a familiar tune and hold my mother’s hand as we walk back to the nursing home. I assure her I’ll be back soon. It jangles my heart, this wrongness, this dropping off, this dislocation of a family member, the exile imposed by decline. The lobby murmurs with electricity, the First Lady dolls stare expectantly from behind their glass.

It jangles my heart, this wrongness, this dropping off, this dislocation of a family member, the exile imposed by decline.

I punch in the code and we ascend in silence to the second floor. My mother suddenly squeezes my hand and tells me she loves me.

The air in here is stale as ever. Both of us feel the panic return.

I have an impulse to seize my mother’s arm and run. I want to bring her home and put her in bed and sing to her until she falls asleep. Instead, I pick out a nightgown and pat her head. She tries not to cry.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mom,” I offer.

“Will you?” she asks.

And I retreat — from her, from her pain, from mine, from the city on the hill.

I punch in the code and the humming box takes me down. First floor. Past the First Ladies. Out into the night air. Onto the BXM2 bus, which will carry me home to Manhattan.

* * *

Reality is a a series of universes with membranes loose and undulating. Where does one end and the other begin? Is there a wall between the perceptions of the “demented” and the rest of us, who retain enough memory to support a more continuous vision of our histories, our days, to support a logic dependent on past and future? Or is it more a window, or more alarming yet, a swinging door?

All realities exist near porous borders — for example, my mind has flown into fantasy as I mentally retrace in words the cavernous, tiny universe of my mother’s nursing home complex. I’ve fashioned it into a cave of steel, in the image of another reality, stolen from within the pages of fiction. The path between it and my sister’s house is now a time machine of my own construction, my sister’s street is a world built of images I see in the past of a country in a time before I was born. My mother merely wants to know whose house we are visiting; her “sane” daughter, her guardian, is dreaming of the way in which streets, houses, concrete walkways, and riverside high-rise complexes splinter and spiderweb outward into separate communities from the moment humans began interacting with time. Which of the two of us, my mother or I, is more connected to reality as we define it as an everyday convenience? Surely my mother’s questions are more practical, more connected to pragmatic concerns, than mine, which are based on hallucinatory impressions of time and space. I have fallen somewhere on this visit, stumbled and slipped into fantasy, allowed the home that keeps my mother safe to drive me close to madness. I am not sure where anything begins or ends anymore, not sure that anything does.

The bus is turning off the Major Deegan Expressway now, it rolls steadily down Fifth Avenue. The trees on either side, illuminated by a flush of light from a streetlamp, are bare and white and wild-limbed against the black sky. They incline toward the street, forming an archway under which we sail. There’s the time portal again, coming into view: the buildings lining the avenue, stately and majestic, are alive with the ghosts of the 19th century, one can see the horses and carriages clopping underneath the arboreal canopy, one can smell the pipe smoke and the dirt, see the women in full skirts hurrying across this boulevard two centuries ago.

How easy it is to slip into reverie, to slip across the boundary from one reality to the other, one fancy to the next, especially in this city. New York is known for its boundaries between rich and poor, but also for the suddenness with which the neighborhoods change. Swank lobbies with doormen line one block, graffiti-worn bodegas and chain link fences line the next. This is how fast Madison Avenue shifts between 94th and 96th Street.

My mother is confined in her cave of steel, trapped within the boundaries of her forgetfulness. I am trapped in my own universe of half dreams and meditations. Her worries are immediate and connected to the hardness of her reality, mine are existential, free to float philosophically above her everyday concerns.

We walk the halls of her city on the hill together, unavailable to each other, trapped under different kinds of glass.

My bus drops me at my West Side stop; I exit to the sight of hot dog carts and the scent of park-bench smokers, to the music of barking dogs and basketballs bouncing. Though now walking a familiar route home, the sensation of wandering does not abate. Maybe it is merely the tableaux of street life shifting and sliding past that evokes my dizzy sense of dislocation. I think it is something more, though — I walk as if chased by the wind, or worse. I slow down, speed up, ascend the stairs to my apartment; still I am pursued. I go to bed and dream of the city on the hill. It is now a castle in which old people turn young, wrinkles are smoothed into satin flesh, the people dance and flick their skirts and sing.

We walk the halls of her city on the hill together, unavailable to each other, trapped under different kinds of glass.

A river runs past this castle, and boats too, in which the people make their escape. I do not see which boat my mother takes, or who ferries it, but when I return for our next visit she is not waiting on her bed for me, gazing at an unknown vista. I am so very glad — when I arrive at her threshold — that this time I do not see her there. She has crossed the perimeter between her world and my reverie, traversed the undulating boundary between reality and fancy, between mother and daughter, between dementia and freedom.

But this — this is only in my dream.

* * *

Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress and freelance writer based in New York City.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Illustrator: Katie Kosma