Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Unfamiliar Place

When I first decided to do paintings based on memory loss, I identified some possible subjects drawing on my observations of my mother's experience. Topics emerge in the normal course of our interaction, often from our daily conversation.

I call my mother every morning to help her prepare for her day. Our calls have gradually become shorter as content becomes less important than the call itself. Sometimes she asks me why I'm calling. "To talk to my mother," I reply. I've taken to saying, "Hi Mom, it's Susan" to help her identify both me and our relationship. Sometimes she asks "Where are you?", ever hopeful that I might be coming in and be in route at this very moment. Or perhaps she is confused about who is calling and is looking for an identifier.

The content of my call focuses on which aide is coming to assist her and when. She is still a polite conversationalist, asking me about my life, but I've learned that her attention span is short and will soon return to who is coming and when.

She went through a period of confusion awhile back, which fortunately has abated. It had us worried that we were entering a new period of decline as opposed to that imperceptibly gradual decline we had come to accept. On this particular day she started our conversation by saying "I'm confused".
"Is it good that she can identify it?" I wonder. She continues, "Where is everyone? I feel like I’m all alone. Has everyone forgotten about me? It's like I’m in a wilderness".

My mind seizes on the idea of a wilderness. Perhaps the definition will give me some clue to her experience. I look it up. A wilderness is an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. This is where she lives when she is dislocated, confused. A place that feels unfamiliar to a woman who always feared the unfamiliar.

I peruse the definitions. They speak of a voice in the wilderness as one who is ignored. Being in the wilderness means one who no longer has influence or recognition. Both are apt descriptions of one with Alzheimer's. The presence the person cultivated in their life and work now dissipates. They begin to withdraw, sensing the discomfort of others with this change in the person they knew, feeling their own discomfort with a suddenly unfamiliar world.

Wildernesses also signify a passage. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert, also a wilderness, as he shaped a people. Perhaps my mother's wilderness represents a passage as well. A gradual process of losing one's way, letting go of the world as we know it. Preparing for an unknown. It is a passage for me as well. One of letting go of the person who was most central in my life. Learning to accept this new permutation, still with her essence at the core, but different.

I wonder what is in this wilderness. What does she bring with her? What does she leave behind? What does she see? What does she hear?
I wrote a bit about this last year in Into the Wilderness before I began developing these paintings. This was how I pictured it...

Her cat is her companion and gives her comfort, another living, breathing creature. Her cat would accompany her into this wilderness. My mother writes a lot of notes to herself. Not always logical, she writes down times that five minutes later will be obsolete. It is the act of writing that helps fix her reality. I report how long before her companion would arrive, 20 minutes, 15, 10. She writes this down as if to capture time, to make it stand still for her like her oven clock, stuck at ten after eight for countless years. 

I picture a path of yellow post-it notes, a yellow brick road of sorts with her cat leading the way, her shadow behind. A thick and tangled forest in front. The red flash of time through the trees. And my phone call reverberating in waves, an anchor for her as she stands before this forest. I can picture this wilderness with its echoes of noise and light, her following her cat into the unknown.
Many of my paintings go through a long evolution. As you can see this one thus far is amazingly close to my initial description.

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