"People are living in my walls," she had said to me more than once, but it was only when I found a condom lying beside my childhood bed that I'd put two and two together. Manny, a boy who occasionally repaired things for my mother, was bringing girls into her upstairs rooms. I had talked to Mrs. Castle and hired a locksmith. It was not my fault my mother refused to move.
"Mother," I said, calling the name only I, as her sole child, had the right to call her. She looked up at me and smiled.
"Bitch," she said.
The thing about dementia is that sometimes you feel like the afflicted person has a trip wire to the truth, as if they can see beneath the skin you hide in.
"Mother, it's Helen," I said.
"I know who you are!" she barked at me.
Her hands clasped the curved ends of the armrests, and I could see how hard she pressed, her anger flaring up and out at me like involuntary claws.
"That's good," I said.
I stood there a moment longer, until it felt like an established fact. She was my mother and I was her daughter. I thought we could go forward from this into our usual unpleasant encounter.
I walked over to the windows and began to draw up the metal blinds by the increasingly threadbare cloth tape that bound them. Outside, the yard of my childhood was so overgrown it was difficult to make out the original shapes of the bushes and trees, those places I had played with other children until my mother's behavior began to garner a reputation outside our house.
"She steals," my mother said.
My back was to her. I was looking at a vine that had crawled into the huge fir tree in the corner of the yard and consumed the shed where my father had once done carpentry. He had always been happiest inside that space. On my darkest days, I had come to imagine him there, laboriously sanding the round wooden globes that had replaced all his other projects.
I knew she was talking about Mrs. Castle. The woman who daily made sure my mother had woken up. Who brought her the Philadelphia Inquirer and not infrequently cut flowers from her own yard and placed them in plastic iced-tea pitchers that wouldn't shatter if my mother knocked them over.
"That's not true," I told her. "Mrs. Castle is a lovely woman who takes good care of you."
"What happened to my blue Pigeon Forge bowl?"
I knew the bowl and realized I had not seen it for weeks. In my youth it had always held what I thought of as imprisoned food ? walnuts and Brazil nuts and filberts that my father would crack and dig out with a tiny fork.
"I gave it to her, Mother," I lied.
"She's been so wonderful and I knew she liked it, and so I just gave it to her one day when you were napping."
Help doesn't come free, I felt like telling her. These people owe you nothing.