My mother has lived for 91 years, named and renamed by her mother and father and husband, logging into her address book new neighbors and nieces and nephews, penciling in their husbands and wives and children. When she remembers, she crosses out and erases the names that bad feelings and death have smudged from her lists. She asks me on a weekend visit to help her with what she can no longer manage on her own: to distill what’s here into a whole; to write out clearly what remains close to her heart.
“Is Batya still alive?” I push on, looking up to read my mother’s face. My mother shrugs, no longer sure; they had a falling out a while ago.
My mother can no longer remember the names of the neighbors and the family members filling her address book, can no longer walk to breakfast without becoming winded. I ask her if she is frightened. No, she tells me, she accepts what is ahead, but to feel her life steadily shrink is, she says, “disheartening.”
I toss the pages of my mother’s old address book into the trash, letter by letter. “She’s gone,” my mother tells me. Or: “Don’t bother. I’ll never call her again.”
At first, my mother, the poet Anne Atik, had seemed just ordinarily confused. Then, very gradually, the confusion took on a pathological aspect. She...