This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
A Clear Midnight
I’ve pulled away from the world, been absent. It’s been a terrible time to do so: my third novel, Luckmonkey, was recently released, and I know I should be putting my voice everywhere in an attempt to draw a bit of attention to it. But there have been other considerations, ones much more important to me than my success or failure as a writer.
I’ve written before about my mother-in-law, who has been suffering from dementia that brings her by turns to sweetness and anger, to paranoia and forgetfulness, to incontinence, to fear, to confusion. It’s been a decline both slow and rapid, always awful, always frightening. Recently, she’s slipped down another rung and can no longer function very well on her own. She soils herself at night. She never quite knows to whom she’s speaking on the phone or in person, mixing up people and events and time, building her own very different universe out of the crumbs of fact she’s been able to retain. She’s very confused—mistaking toothpaste for face cream or permanent marker for her eyebrow pencil (both comical mistakes, until you realize they were real mistakes). Often, my phone rings with a call from her, but when I pick up, it’s dead air—she’s been playing with the phone, randomly pushing buttons without the intention to call, without, most likely, even understanding what the buttons do.
The other day, she told her homecare worker that I and my partner are both her biological daughters, and her second, older biological daughter—a troubled person with whom she has a troubled relationship–is actually not her biological child, but someone she adopted away from a terrible family. And while it’s so endearing that she thinks of me as her own daughter—most queer spouses my age could never hope for something so wonderful—it is also a little weird that she thinks I and my partner are siblings. I’m going to think twice every time we kiss or hug in front of her now.
We have moved, in the words of her homecare worker, into a new phase of the dementia, and though it is not about me, nor is it any portent of my own biology (as it feels like it could be for my partner), nor even my own parent (again, as it is for my partner), the news has been worming its way into the pit of my stomach, the back of my throat. I’m waterlogged by grief. All my limbs feel too heavy.
As the queer child of an immigrant whose family has remained overseas, a child whose parents divorced each other and remarried new families, I’ve become used to a close-but-distant kind of relationship. One loves one’s family of origin but remains ever estranged, even as one has to seek new family (queers call it “found family”) for intimacy. I’m very lucky that both my family of origin and my mother-in-law love and accept me, and that I have collected a fiercely loving and supportive found family to boot.
Dementia is cruel: it takes you away piece by tiny piece, it ebbs and flows into better and worse times, its alchemy stirs the mind into a swamp of fragmented and unmoored memories. For years, my mother-in-law said I was like a daughter to her, then actually began to call me her “other daughter,” which was her loving way of recognizing my relationship with her biological kid, my wife. Now this is what I have become to her, a literal other daughter, no longer in scare quotes, the metaphor eaten away to its kernel of truth.
One of the novels I used to love to teach was a surrealist work called THE INFERNAL DESIRE MACHINES OF DOCTOR HOFFMAN by Angela Carter. It is a messy proposition, loosely strung together, straddling genres and tones and writing styles and political points, but it’s also brilliant, funny, strange, compelling, and I love it (likely for the very aspects that make it messy). Early in the novel, Dr. Hoffman, an Evil Guy, invents a machine that makes metaphors into reality—everyone in the audience at an opera becomes a squawking, preening peacock, for instance—so that “reality” becomes a dangerous, unnavigable wilderness and Hoffman can, in the chaos, grab control of the world. Words become unreliable, meaning shifts, signs quite literally fail to work, and the world tilts.
Though this novel has always been about meaning-making and language and story for me (oh, please go read this bizarre, provocative, problematic book), those Dr. Hoffman machines must, I imagine now, garble up the world in a way similar to dementia. All the signs fail to function. Past and present and future run together like watercolor. Everything means what it wants to mean. Metaphor (“You’re like a daughter to me”) becomes reality (“You are my daughter”).
Both thinking and lack of coherent thought are the problem. A demented brain has a schism, a chasm, the thoughts and memories trapped somewhere far across the divide, unreachable and foggy in the distance. My mother-in-law grasps for what feels like truth, though the results resemble something like what happens in that game of Telephone in which a phrase gets so twisted through its whispered repetitions that it becomes nonsense. But my mother-in-law is also sure of what she knows; she thinks it, therefore it must be true. I must be her biological daughter; her homecare worker’s sweet and devoted 80-year-old husband is touching her butt. Meaning and thought are the ground most of us have come to believe is stable.
My mother-in-law’s homecare worker refers to her own “son-in-love.” I always figured this was a fantastic accident of second-language speech, but perhaps it’s actually intentional. After all, it is love, not law, that legitimates the relationship. This is particularly poignant for someone like me, who has been in a queer marriage since long before it was legally recognized. My partner and I just passed our 20-year anniversary but have only been legally recognized as married for less than six of those years.
My meandering point, I suppose, is that meaning and language are so very important, and to lose them must be gutting. Language has the power to create (biological ties have threaded their way between me and my mother-in-law) and it has the power to erase (I think back to when lovers were routinely referred to as friends or roommates, think back to Boston marriages and confirmed bachelors, and to that most pernicious modern slogan, “love is love,” which erases the specific political dangers of queer love). Language grounds you with logic, with temporal dependability, with consistency. When I was young, I could not even conceive of being queer: there were no models, and I had no word for it, only the knowledge that I was uninterested in boys and found girls much more magnetic. I thought I was unable to fall in love; I did not know that there were women who loved women—it was not even in my Imaginary as a possibility–never mind that there were women who loved people who were neither men nor women.
My mother-in-law’s mind has come unmoored. She is now irretrievably at sea. Watching, trying to ease her struggle, has been excruciating for me and for my partner. We still remember the exacting woman who trusted no one to cut her hair properly, who had been a model, who loved her little Yorkshire terrier, who escaped an abusive husband and traveled out of the country to get a divorce, whose life was a series of truly heroic stories. We’ve all drifted away from what we used to know to be true. Love only gets us so far, and doesn’t help us skirt the pain of loss, the long slow horror that this illness is.
The land is grounded, the ground is reason, time marches across it, steadfast, reliable. I think, therefore I am, DesCartes said, and I wonder what this means for my mother-in-law, who can no longer think in the same way she used to.
I think, therefore I am unmoored.