I take three cleansing breaths, and from somewhere deeper than my heart, muster the will to put my hand on the doorknob. I will be cheerful. I will smile. I will think lovely thoughts and be with my mother, or this person who’s impersonating my mother. I will say the right things, and for the next hour I will be the daughter I want to be.

I open the door to find her, as ever, sitting in the chair watching the birds at the feeder outside her window. She turns her face when I come in the room and stares at me, expressionless, blank as a proverbial slate. I have no idea what she might be thinking and now, eight weeks post-stroke, I will not find out because she cannot speak. I will try to discern some clue from an upturn of her mouth or furrow of her brow; but if today is like all the post-stroke days preceding it, I will know no more about my mother when I leave this room than when I entered it.

“Hi, Mom,” I sing and cross the room to kiss her cheek. She does not react. I straighten and take in the place.

“How’s your temperature?” I ask, habit contradicting the knowledge that she will not answer. I plow ahead. “Seems a little warm to me. Should we open the window a crack?” You are an idiot, I say to myself, but open the window anyway. It is warm in here and opening the window is something I can do for my mother, even if I have no idea if it’s something my mother might want.

I hate this. I hate this room, her vacant stare. I hate the screech and chatter of that hovering flock of hungry birds. She looks at me as I think these thoughts and for an instant the delusional notion occurs to me that she can read my mind. I think I see a shadow fall across her eyes just now, but of course, that’s lunacy. Still, I’ve got to keep those negative thoughts at bay. They might show on my face.

“So, guess what?” I half-shout for no reason; “Juliana got a lead role in the play—singing Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. She is thrilled! Also terrified because, you know, her voice is, well, not all that . . . brilliant, shall we say.“ I laugh. My mother blinks.

I keep up my end of the conversation, “We gave in and got her a voice coach, and now she is gargling and yodeling all over the house. She is so excited.”

My mother gazes at me.

“You’ll have to come see the show!”

Idiot, I think again; but still, I stare into my mom’s eyes and try to discern a reaction. I see two pools of unreflective darkness. They haven’t left my face.

I get up and begin to tidy the covers on her bed. “This bedspread looks nice,” I say as I think my god, how can she stand to look at those garish yellow daisies all the night and day. I also see that it is soiled and I suddenly have to fight to keep from retching; “Maybe I will just run it home and wash it, though, what do you think? Fresh linens are so nice!”

I wonder how my mother endures this place. I think of her gleaming, tidy house. This must be crushing her, killing her, and I bend over to fold the spread so she won’t see the tears in my eyes. I am a failure at this. There are so few things I can do for her, and yet . . . even those I rarely do, or do wrong. Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry.

My friend who’s been through this with her father has told me, “You don’t have to do anything. Just be there. Your presence is enough.” I want to believe her, but bestowing my presence, the tragicomedic display of my ineptitude, is an ordeal for me. For my mom, too, I imagine. I want more than anything to fly from this room.

“So! Have you had lunch already?” Again! I screech at myself. Then try to get it right, “Let’s have lunch, Mom. I was thinking maybe we could go out today, try the new place down the street with all the salads.” Even now I expect her to reply, but she only watches me.

Her vacant face makes me lose heart and I change my mind, “Or we could just go to the dining room. The food here is pretty good, right?” She gives nothing away and I think, well, I guess I’ll find out.

What insanity to believe I could manage a restaurant! I can barely get the wheelchair open and helping her in it takes ten full minutes. We leave her room and head down the hall toward the cafeteria. Along the way we pass other patients, or inmates I call them in my head, and a few workers whose good humor must be as fake as my own. This whole enterprise is appalling, and I am grateful that I am behind my mom so she can’t see my expression.

I cut her food into tiny pieces and wait an infinity for her to consume a few bites. How does she stay alive, I think and have to strangle the thought that follows—maybe it would be better . . . no, it would not be better. She might recover, the doctor keeps saying. Just give it some time.

Time more or less stops as our meal proceeds until eventually, regrettably, we are free to return to her room. I decide I have probably put in enough time bestowing my presence and begin inventing a reason to go.

“Well, Mom,” I announce when we are back to her room, “I need to pick up some stuff for Julianna’s costume and Winn has a baseball game this afternoon. So, I guess I should think about heading out.” I tell myself my voice does not convey relief.

She looks at me and again I imagine a tiny. . . something . . . in her eyes. “Next time I’ll bring the kids with me,” I say, and I think how much easier it will be when they are here to jabber on and give each other grief. Surely, Mom would like that, too? Not just me being selfish. But then I think, no; that’s a lie.

I close the window because now it feels too cool in her room, but this time I don’t ask if that’s what she wants. I kiss her again on the cheek and say aloud, “I love you, Mom.” I think, I do, oh Mom, do you know that I do?


My daughter suspects the fantastical truth that I can read her mind. From the moment my brain flamed out, I lost my voice, and woke up in this prison of a body I detest, I could hear every thought in her head.

It’s not a gift I sought, but its sudden appearance has certain benefits, I suppose. I know that she is trying. And that she is suffering. But from the other side of this wall, I can’t help her even though I’m trying, too. Inside my head I am also screaming, “Yes, it is awful here. I am so sorry this is where you are, this place where the shell of me sits, an obligation, a phantom, the living ghost of the mother you knew.” Sometimes she almost hears me, or almost perceives that I am reaching for her. But she does not imagine all that I know. What a disturbing intrusion into the privacy of this daughter whose unlocked diaries I never read. And yet, is it better than nothing?

I could ease her suffering if I could tell her that I know she is giving it all she has. Stop being so hard on yourself, I am trying to say. You are here and your friend is right: your presence is all I need. You don’t have to feed me. I don’t care if I eat. You don’t have to do my laundry (but, oh, I do thank you for that). Just sit here and allow your thoughts to keep me company.

It should have been the other way around, of course. It should have been she who could suddenly hear my thoughts. Then we’d have us a time. I could be chatting away in the silence and she could ask me anything at all. But we got the wrong end of some misbegotten miracle and there is nothing we can do about it.

And yet. . . you never know. Although she is on her way home now, miles away, I can’t help but think as hard as I can, over and over and over again, I know, my darling daughter, that you love me. I know that you do. Love is courier that brings me your thoughts. Maybe it will deliver mine to you.


Diane Parrish lives in Connecticut with her husband and their Corgi, Finn. Her essays have appeared in The National Gardener, Calla Press literary Journal, BookTrib and elsewhere. Her fiction has appeared in The Wild Word. Ms. Parrish’s first novel is currently out on submission.