Letter From Katie: Lost Highway

When you talk to your 90-year-old mother on the phone, much can be revealed.
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"Imagining how frightened she must have been, how alone she must have felt, is like a dagger to my heart."
“Imagining how frightened she must have been, how alone she must have felt, is like a dagger to my heart.”

Illustration By Vidhya Nagarajan

In the last snapshot I got from my mother, she was wearing a striped serape-style blouse and a huge sombrero set at a rakish angle on her head. She is still pretty at 90, with a wide smile and even, white teeth. Her eyes, behind her glasses, are warm and brown, her skin a light olive color. I haven’t seen her in a year, but I will telephone her tonight, or she will call me, and we will connect again just as we always have. Her dementia doesn’t disrupt our communications; if it does, we change the subject. I know if she can’t recall a name or can’t remember what she did that day that it will distress her, so I try not to ask her direct questions.

She still remembers my name but forgets the names of the rest of the family. “Oh, honey,” she’ll say, “I don’t understand what’s wrong with my mind,” and she will wring her hands and we will lose the moment. “Let’s just skip it, Mother,” I say. “It’s not important.”

Her illness is both entertaining and heartbreaking. “Some of the people in here are, well, they’re really out of it,” she tells me. “Take care of your health so you don’t end up in some place like this.”

Mostly, though, she is cheerful. She does not want to be a burden; she does not want pity calls. In the next breath she’ll say, “I got lucky getting to take a trip like this,” and I can hear the smile in her voice.

I am increasingly fascinated with these conversations. She has few defenses, and she is more direct than I have ever known her to be. She admits to feeling depressed some days and other days she is “nervous.” I can’t ever remember her saying such a thing in my childhood. Then, her good cheer was maddening. Now, it’s more interesting to deal with her fugue states because she seems more authentic.

I suspect she is “nervous” because of the death of my sister in 2013. Mother was on the brink of full-blown dementia then, so she never really processed this tragedy. My sister had asked to be cremated, and my mother had a hard time with that. “But when are we going to the graveyard,” she said all during the funeral. “Who will take her all the pretty flowers?”

Now she is “nervous” when the residents follow behind her in the corridor. “What do you think might happen,” I say, with a feeling of dread. “Are you afraid someone will hit you or yell at you?”

“No,” she says. She is afraid someone will grab her by the arm, and she will lose her balance and fall.


What am I doing a thousand miles away from her at this critical time; when did it get so out of control? My sister had lived a few blocks from my mother for years before she died, and it was this tragedy—my sister’s death—that was the beginning of the end. After that loss, Mother’s life began to unravel like a piece of needlework. Mother left burners turned on on the stove. She lost her purse regularly and had house keys hidden all around the front porch. Of course she lost the car at least once a week in the Walmart parking lot. “Some people stopped and helped me find the car,” she told us happily. “They were really nice and said ‘Don’t worry. We’ve had the same thing happen to us.’ ”

We didn’t have the nerve to take her car keys away from her, but one day she was out driving and didn’t see the signs, and she had a wreck. She bumped her head badly on the front windshield, and she lost her confidence, not to mention her insurance, and she never drove again. She had been given a necklace with a button to push in case she fell, but she forgot she had it, and finally, my niece had to intervene in her care.

Unfortunately, my niece’s husband’s work moved him to Dallas, and Mother wound up in a lock-down facility in Texas far away from the church friends who had watched over her so closely. When my niece got the house ready to sell, she found drawers of notes, names of close relatives, short paragraphs that Mother had written about places she’d just been and people she’d just met. Years of these informal diaries had kept us in the dark about her worsening condition. Imagining how frightened she must have been, how alone she must have felt, is like a dagger to my heart.

Now that she is in Texas, her phone calls are different. “I just called to tell you I’m all right,” she’ll say to open the conversation. “I had a wild day, but I can’t remember what happened.” She is considered high functioning, but my niece, who sees her a few times a week, says she thinks she is moderate to severe. My niece has put pictures of the immediate family on the wall with a button by each one. If my mother wants to call someone, she has only to press the button that matches the picture.

I ask my mother if she wants me to come, but she doesn’t. Where would I stay, she wants to know, and I tell her I would stay with Rebecca, my niece.

“Well,” she says slowly, speaking in her new direct voice. “Rebecca has a big house and is a very good housekeeper. And Rebecca has pretty clothes and keeps them washed and ironed. So do I think that would work out? I don’t think so.”

She doesn’t trust me to keep up a good front for the length of time I’d spend in Dallas. She is being protective of me. She is dazzled by my niece, her granddaughter. “She just does everything for me,” Mother says. “We don’t want to lose her.” I agree, and we end the conversation with sweet “I love you”s and a few tears on my part.

The next night I can tell she is anxious again. “The war news isn’t good,” she says as soon as I pick up the phone.

“The war news?” I say, unsure for a minute if she’s talking about the terrorist attacks or has reverted to World War II. It sounds like she’s been listening to a Fireside Chat.

“Well,” I reply, “at least we might be able to hear good music again.”

Mother has become the vocalist for the facility. From what I gather, a pianist comes in and plays piano, and Mother sits on the stage with him and leads the singing. She has not forgotten one word of any World War II song, and her years with the Sunshine Singers in Alabama have sharpened her memories of songs like “Stardust.” She sang with that group at places like the one she is in now. My sister, my mother, and I used to do Andrew Sisters arrangements of songs like “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” We sounded just like the records we heard on the radio.


Sometimes now I sing her a song, or I start one of the old ones, like “(Up a) Lazy River,” and she chimes in, her voice strong, her harmony true.

My mother married my father at the age of 16, just before he left to join the Army, and I was born a year later. With no husband to help her, she moved in with my father’s family. Lots of couples were marrying young in those days; the war had accelerated love affairs. Still, when I think of her being married at 16 and a mother at 17 I can only marvel at her courage. She didn’t finish high school until I was gone from home. She returned to get her GED, and even started a year or two of university, studying family psychology. For a while we were under her microscope. When we matched the course material she pounced on us; when we didn’t, she tried, like all newcomers to psychology, to make us conform.

During this period she took a job driving developmentally disabled adults to school in northern Mississippi. Everyday she would start on her route with several Elvis Presley tapes. She believed the music gave her riders something to focus on.

“Oh, it was awful bad,” she said one time about her work. Country people kept the disabled adults in closets or attics, and no one believed that going to the special school the state had set up in Tupelo could possibly be any help. Their lives, before Mother’s taxi service and the school, were isolated and pitiful. Many could not support themselves; they had no autonomy, no independent lives, no lives at all, really. Country people were scared of any “mental” condition. I heard of one man who had been housed with the dogs. This was probably not the worst.

It was a learning experience for Mother. She had to overcome her own fear, but the driving drew on her strong point—she had been driving since she was 13, and knew she was good at it. She let her riders pick out the tapes they wanted to hear. She did it for years until my father’s job moved them to an even smaller rural community. But no songs will bring back her car now.

My phone rings. “I’m just reporting in,” she says. “Just wanted everybody to know I’m all right, and I’m still going for a hundred.”

“That’s good,” I say and give the phone a big smile. “What’s the plan?”

“Well,” she says, “I guess I’ll stay here in Dallas, Texas, for awhile. Texas is a big place. I don’t think I’ll get another car.” This is one of the lies we participate in: that she is still in charge, still calls the shots.

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. You were always a good driver.”

“I was a good driver,” she says. “They say that wreck was my fault, but I don’t believe it. I was with Jean Bates, and I bet she’d stand up for me.”

“Well, that was a year ago. Maybe it’s time you give up on driving. Dallas would be an awful place to drive, I think.”

She says maybe I’m right, but I can hear in her voice that she is not resigned. She would get back behind the wheel in a minute if she could.

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