It’s Not Much of a World Without Unicorns by Jillian McKelvey

*Featured Artwork: “The Lady No Longer Sings The Blues” by Elizabeth Cassidy

In the drive-through at Tim Horton’s, I shout into the roadside speaker and order two toasted bagels with cream cheese, two blueberry filled donuts, and two small mango smoothies for my mother and me.

My mother presses her forehead against the passenger window. “Where is your father?” she says. “Did he go off to get something for the house?”

“I’m not sure, Mum. Is that where he said he was going?”

“Yes, something like that. I imagine he’ll be home for dinner.”

“Yes. I imagine he will.”

My mother talks about my father more often now. He breathes in and out of the conversation like he is part of the fabric, the ambiance, the air. I would like to order him a toasted ham and cheese on rye and a chocolate dipped donut. He would like that. A year or so ago my mother only mentioned my father once in awhile, and it was usually about her need to get home and cook dinner. Who would be home for dinner? Would Jack be home for dinner? Would the girls be home for dinner? Once, she tapped her head with her forefinger and said, “Is there anyone at home I should be looking after? Because I can’t remember.”

I would tell her that her girls were grown up. Susan and Judy and I were married and Judy and I had children of our own. And she would say, “I know that, dear.” And I would say, “You can relax now, Mum.”

But my mother doesn’t know how to relax. She still feels responsible. She felt responsible for her children for over thirty years, and responsible for her husband until the day he died. She cooked, cleaned, shopped, sewed, knitted, and nurtured. She listened to my father pontificate from the dinner table, she put up with his mother telling her what to do, and she waited up when he came home late and dried her tears when he forgot to call. Sometimes she even got screaming mad, but she was quick to remind me that my father was the love of her life. Had always been the love of her life.

The late summer sun heats up my Volkswagen Beetle, and I press the button that lowers the convertible top. I pull a blue silk scarf from my purse and wrap it around my mother’s head and tie it under her chin.

My mother shrinks into her seat and squints at me. “I don’t know if I’ll like this,” she says.

“Let’s give it a try,” I say. “If it’s too windy, I can put the top back up.”

“I can tell already that it’s too windy.”

“Let’s just try it,” I say.

It’s early for the leaves to turn, but a few of them are striped orange and yellow and I point them out as we drive. “Isn’t it a pretty drive, Mum?”

“It’s the most beautiful day we’ve had in a long time,” my mother says. “Do you know where we are going?”

“Nope,” I say. “I’m flying by the seat of my pants.”

“I hope it’s fun,” my mother says. “I used to drive down this road with Jack. We would go down where you can swim, and Jack would watch me out on the lake. I would stay out there for hours and Jack would sit on the beach and wait.”

My mother lives more and more in the early years of her marriage. She likes to talk about her life during the war. She tells me about my father in the air force and being posted in Calgary. She tells me about the dances they went to and about getting pregnant and running after the streetcar with a baby in her arms. The stories were always the same, and essentially true, until one day she added, “And then your father and I went overseas.”

“I didn’t know Dad went overseas, Mum. I thought the war ended just as he was all set to go. I remember hearing he was very disappointed.”

“Oh, we went to France, Italy and Germany,” my mother said. “Germany was really great. You could go up the mountain and there was this flashlight at the top of the mountain and you could see all of Asia.”

The humidity is high and I am grateful to have the top down.

“What are we doing now?” my mother asks.

“We are going for lunch. I’m looking for a park.”

“Well, I hope we find it soon.”

Lake Ontario opens up between the trees and I swerve across two lanes of traffic. My mother leans left with me and shouts, “Away she goes!” I laugh, remembering all the times my mother has said those words, or shouted, “Wheeee!” when I stepped on the gas or took a corner too fast. The happy, carefree, adventurous mother who piled her three daughters into the car on Sunday afternoons and drove around the city of Winnipeg, just to be going somewhere, anywhere. “We’re off,” she’d say, grinning. “Away she goes!” as she pressed her foot on the pedal.

I pull into a parking spot beside a grassy field. “Look Mum, there’s a perfect bench for our picnic.”

The green paint is almost worn off the bench, and cigarette butts wedge into the dirt around our feet. I break my mother’s bagel into quarters and hand her one section. I place a napkin in her lap, and her drink, with a straw, by her side. Her fingers smear the cream cheese, and butter leaks across the palm of her hand.

“This is very good, dear,” she says. “And look at that beautiful sky.”

“Much nicer than the thunderstorms we had yesterday,” I say.

“Yesterday!” my mother says. “I can hardly remember yesterday. I was off with Jack somewhere and he was having trouble with something. He was having trouble with his driving.”

“Really, Mum? He was having trouble driving?”

“No. He wasn’t having trouble driving; people were cutting him off.”

My mother blows her nose on the paper napkin, folds the napkin over and over, and pinches it between her sticky fingers. “What do I do with these?” she says. “What do I do with these balls?”

“Give them to me, Mum.”

“Your father made these small round things, and they were very good and he stopped making them and that was too bad because they were so good.”

I should have brought some wet wipes to un-sticky my mother’s fingers and face. I tear my napkin down the middle and hand half to my mother. “Here Mum, this is the best I’ve got.”

“Oh I don’t want that darling.”

“It’s for your fingers,” I say.

“I doubt it will do the trick,” she says.

After the bagel and the smoothies and the cleanup and two trips to the trash can, my mother and I walk along a dirt pathway toward a small cove. Ducks and geese gather on the rocks and a mother swan and four cygnets float in the gentle shift of water.

The mother swan leads her family further out of the cove and wraps her long neck

around her babies.

My mother and I sit on a bench near the cove and share a blueberry-filled donut.

The mother swan watches us. Her head bobbing.

“Do you see the swans, Mum?”

My mother licks icing sugar from her top lip and stares out at the water. “What, dear?”

“Look at the swan. She’s protecting her babies.”

“Well, that’s what they do,” my mother says.

I take my mother’s arm and we cut across the grass towards the car. In front of us, a young mother chases her little girl. They wear matching purple T-shirts. “Remember the day we tried on red cowgirl hats, Mum. And the man at the Mercantile Inn took our picture. And we put the picture on our Christmas cards that year?

“Oh, I sure do.”

I sing “The Unicorn” song as we walk. “Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born, the loveliest of ’em all was the unicorn.”

My mother hums along. “It’s not much of a world without unicorns,” she says.

I stop walking and my mother stops too. “You are very perceptive,” I say.

I help my mother into the car. “Where have the children gone, now?” she says.

The children must be Judy and Susan, but it’s possible she means me too. Not long ago she asked me if Jill would be home for dinner. “Because if she doesn’t call and let me know she’ll just get eggs.” I told her that I was Jill and I liked eggs. And she said, “Yes, but I was thinking of the smaller Jill.”

I tighten my mother’s seatbelt. “I made this great casserole last night Mum. It had scallops and pasta and crispy cheese on the top.”

“Can you come over and help me make that casserole for Jack? Jack would really love it don’t you think?”

“Scallops and cheese? Definitely.”

“Where are the girls?” she asks again.

“They aren’t with us today, Mum. It’s just you and me.”

“Yes, they are! I drove them. And we need to drop them off.”

We drive along Lake Shore Blvd, soaking up the sun. My mother talks about the kids, the bairns, the children, the rest of the gang, the girls, over and over again. She calls into the back seat, “You are very quiet back there.”

We sip tea in the dining room at Sunrise Assisted Living. My mother says, “Where are they? Where did they go? When will they be back? Are they upstairs?”

Finally, I tell her they went shopping.

My mother seems a little miffed. “Well, they better come back soon. I didn’t tell them they could do that.”

I try to live in the moment, and when the moment is gone I try to live in the next one. I used to worry about muddying the truth, but my mother is confused and needy and the truth frightens her. And what is the truth when brain cells die and messages get tangled and synapses seek different pathways? I imagine the truth gets tangled and seeks different pathways too. Most of the time my mother thinks my father is alive, just out of reach. She tells me “he’s out for lunch,” “around the corner,” “getting his mustache trimmed.” Only once in the past two years did she say to me, “Your father died, didn’t he?” And I said, “Yes, he did Mum,” and she said, “I thought so,” and I said, “But it was a long time ago, and we have beautiful memories.” And my mother said, “We sure do.”

A few moments later, she asked me to give him a call. And so I did.

I leave my mother drinking her tea and run off to her bedroom to use her washroom. “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” I say.

“You’re coming back!” My mother shouts after me.

“Yes, Mum, I’m coming right back.”

“Okay, don’t be long.”

I sit on the toilet, taking my time, calming my breath. I stare at the monogrammed towels on the shelf in front of me. I gave them to my mother last year. They are periwinkle blue, her favorite color, with FHM stitched in the corners. I have labeled all my mother’s other possessions in permanent marker. It is a quick fix—not like the beautiful hand stitched labels my mother sewed into my clothes the one year I went to camp—but it works. I write FRANCES on the inside label of her clothes, on the bottom of her shoes, boots and slippers, and every time I buy something new, I write FRANCES again. Green permanent marker. Black permanent marker. Red. I carry them in my purse. Even her photographs of my father have FRANCES written on the back. Things get lost here, and my mother doesn’t remember they are hers.

Friends, even family, have opinions about my mother’s memory. They have suggested, not maliciously, but definitely in a context that makes me cringe, that my mother is no longer my mother. “Don’t feel badly,” one woman said, “it’s not your mother talking.” I think these people mean to say, that my mother with Alzheimer’s, behaves differently from the mother I knew without Alzheimer’s.

My mother’s personality, once happy and gay, is now feistier, more argumentative, pouty, and angry. The once diplomatic and deferential mother has few filters and few social boundaries. Some months ago, while having lunch in a restaurant, she jumped up from the table and shouted, “Garcon!” I could only shrink into my seat and pull her down beside me. She is different, yes. Her stories are confused, her memories jumbled, her short-term memory almost annihilated. But not my mother?

She may be cruder and say things to me she would never have said before, but she always asks for forgiveness. She still has a conscience, a strong moral compass and a sense of responsibility that permeates her pores with or without any messages from her brain. It’s a different kind of learning –ingrained through years of experience as the child of loving parents, a child of the church, a culture of caring—and it is part of her essential character.

Yes, my mother’s memories are diminished, but if I hold her memories for her like a kind of memory bank, I can offer them back to her and help her remember in the moment. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s usually means long-term memory will stick around much longer than short-term memory. And my mother still remembers Susan and Judy and me and our father and not one other person has ever stood in for her husband or her children. She still says, “I love you, big, big bunches,” so how could she not be my mother?

Alzheimer’s may have purloined some of my mother’s sparkle, magnified her insecurities, and left a temper where patience used to reign. But I can still tickle her funny bone and she still tickles mine. The balance may have tipped, but this is my mother today. And tomorrow, she will be my mother in a different way. As Alzheimer’s progresses, and the disease attacks higher regions of her brain, it will continue to kill autobiographical information, language, perception, reasoning, judgment and eventually, if she lives long enough, the ability to walk, talk, recognize or swallow.

The 17th Century philosopher, René Descartes, theorized that a human being would not be a human being, in fact would not exist, without the ability to reason. “I doubt. Therefore I think. Therefore I am,” he said. It’s likely he would suggest that my mother’s decline and her increasing inability to remember and reason would eventually make her un-human. Descartes was a seeker of truth. And philosophically there may be truth to his assertion that thinking and being are indivisible. But my mother exists in the minds of others by how they remember her. And no matter how feisty and difficult she becomes, I will always think of her as kind and quirky, funny and loving, ready for adventure. And I believe that no matter how shrunken, tangled, messed up, and unreasonable my mother’s brain might get, she will continue to exist. Some days I might get frustrated and overwhelmed. Some days I might not want to see her. One day she might not know me. But she will always be my mother.

I dash back to the dining room. My mother sits tall and widens her eyes. “Jilly, I’m so glad to see you,” she says. “Your father just went to the store looking for you.”

“Oh,” I say. “I am sorry I missed him.”

*A slightly different version of this story was previously published in Ravensperch.

Jillian McKelvey, an MFA 2013 graduate, lives in Mississauga, Ontario. She currently works on “I’m Losing My Mountains,” a memoir about overcoming fear and finding joy in Alzheimer’s. She published He Doesn’t Look a Bit Like You, seven stories about adoption, Life Rattle Press, Toronto, and The Black Penis, Life Rattle Radio. Jillian's father instilled in her a love of reading, writing and Johnnie Walker scotch. Her mother instilled tenacity and told her, "You are never too old to shoot for the moon." ​Jillian walks and runs with Hugo the Happy Dog. She reads all her work to him.

Artist, Illustrator and Peace Lover Elizabeth Cassidy is the founder of Little Love Letters: A Peaceful Revolution. You can join her to cover the world with messages of hope, love, empathy and peace at: Littlelovelettersapeacefulrevolution.com

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