My mother used to complain to me about a certain person’s conversational style, said that it eventually drove her almost insane. The talk was always rapid fire, the meandering stories long, involved, usually about friends or acquaintances of people this person knew, who my mother didn’t know, had never met or heard of. There would always be many twists to the endless, meandering tales, and a large, shifting cast of characters, and, not knowing any of them, my mother was hard-pressed to follow most of the drama, let alone care about it.
My mother would be at a loss for how to respond, she’d venture a polite, inane comment once in a while, just to prop up her end of the monologue. Her friend understood this non-engagement as a sign of my mother’s dementia and looked at her with a mixture of concern and impatience. My mother didn’t have dementia. She had strong opinions, and she spoke them to the end. She also tuned out when she was bored, like many of us do, but she was not demented. It was rare for my mother to have nothing to say and when she honestly had nothing she was at a loss, stumped, reminding herself that there was really nothing in the conversation for her. Trying to remember not to make another lunch date with this high pressure talking hose.
To the other party in these chats, it was easy to make the case that her old friend was demented. “First, she can’t really follow a simple story. I had told her all about these people already, only last week. Memory is another issue, she has no short or medium term memory, none! She stares at me blankly, her mouth partly open, like she’s in a daze.”
“It’s true, I go into a daze, like an alpha state, just to try to keep myself from screaming. I’m pretty sure if I ever started yelling it would hurt her feelings, there’d be some kind of trouble afterwards. But every week, these endless tales of interlocking, uninteresting strangers she barely describes, over generic food I can hardly eat. I hate that place, but it’s the only restaurant she likes to go to, it’s cheap.
“If she was a good story-teller, at least, but she’s not, she doesn’t set anything up right, there’s no through-line to anything, no dramatic shape or pay off, it’s all just: ‘So X and Y go over to Z’s house, and everybody knows what Z’s house is like, I must have told you about that shithole. Now, if you recall from three weeks or so ago, there is a couple named G and H, they were friends of U and V, the ones from college that they sort of aren’t really close friends with anymore, though they all claim to love each other and their kids, and those goddamned kids are another long, terrible tale, but anyway, as you may recall, G recently lost her hot shot job, a big blow to the ego and also to the family checkbook, and so H says…”
“It’s sad, the dementia. I still try to tell her stories, keep her engaged, interested in life, but it seems she’s sunken into her own dour thoughts, whatever they may be. It’s impossible to arouse her interest or engage her at all. She doesn’t even seem to care about eating anymore. It’s so sad, she was such a bright interactive person and now she’s just… like this.'” The eyes half close, the mouth falls half open, under the dropped eyelids the eyes move around slowly, without plan or hope of a plan.
“I become a zombie, I really do. After ten minutes of her endless narration I just want to sink my teeth into somebody’s arm and go ‘ahhhhnnnnngggggghhhhh….’ the way zombies do. I just want the noise to stop, that’s all it is, nervous, chattering white noise. ‘So H has the temerity to say, and when I say temerity, I mean, you can’t compare H to even Z in that regard. How people get so brazen and oblivious I will never understand. Anyway….’
“Last time she called I told her I’m sick and she said she’d come over, bring me that prepared overly salty chicken soup from Publix. I told her she’s very kind but that the doctor told me I’m very contagious. I almost told her I might bite her face, hard, if she didn’t let me hang up the phone right then, but thought better of it. I’m lonely enough and at least she calls, you know?”
I understood my mother’s loneliness better than most things. I urged her to write, but she never did. There was a world in there that was too painful to relax in, let alone explore, better to keep the mind busy with books, murder mysteries, and murder mysteries on television. It was uncanny how quickly she would tell you who the murderer would turn out to be, she pounced on plot points with the lightning quickness of a terrier grabbing a rat by the neck. She’d give it a quick shake and leave it twitching when the commercial hit. In the end, she was never wrong about the killer.