by Shoshana Tehila Surek
Multimedia water color by Shoshana Tehila Surek
“I lose a word every time that I blink,” my mother said a year ago. “Just like that.”
She snaps her fingers.
She is lying in bed, too weak for awake, too anxious for sleep. With her forefinger, she draws loops, lines, and lassos. Her bedsheet is a canvas. When she was a young woman, she painted with oils. Tilting her head to the right, she created contour, canyon, color. Mistakes could be repaired, repainted. The canvas could be covered with white, with white, with the word for a substance used to prevent absorption of subsequent layers of paint.
She lost the word primer at 1:07 a.m.
Grumbacher oil pastels were her favorite. Pigment dusting paper turned sepia her fingertips, cyan her lap. Grapes, flowers, and red Folger coffee cans found their way to end tables, pulled to the center of the living room. She studied their angles and considered their shadows, but always ended the session by drawing a horse or a cat. Sometimes the cat had a large blue bow around its neck, other times the horse pranced through an unfinished field.
Sammy, her long-haired rescue cat, pounces on her hand. He had been watching her fingers trace on the bedsheets all morning. His neglected claws sink through the quilt, through her skin, but she does not notice. Her fingers move, perhaps spelling cyan, spreading sepia, imagining ochre, and the color white. The color white. The color that also meant a hard creamy-white substance composing the main part of the tusks of an elephant.
She lost the word ivory at 10:21 a.m.
My mother clicks her tongue as though a parakeet were close by. The nurse offers her water on a sponge.
“Pretty bird,” my mother coos. “Bird.”
The aviary built by her stepfather bordered the Mojave Desert. It was built between the cluster rose and a concrete fountain with a three-foot cherub. Branches from a jacaranda tree had woven through the cage wire. She had the job of cleaning the aviary. She had to scrub the walls, the wire, and the branches. The parakeets would panic when she entered, their talons catching her hair and scratching her cheek and forehead. She would cover her head to protect herself from the flurries of fluorescent green, sky blue, and screeching wing blasts.
The nurse rubs my mother’s lips with the sponge.
The base of the aviary was made from stucco, cracking from the high heat and blasts of sand carried on desert winds. Before my mother could call the job finished, her stepfather would inspect her work very closely. “Too close,” she says.
Water from the nurse’s sponge seeps into deep chasms.
My mother studied nursing in Junior College until she became Mrs. for the first of three times. She entered the first marriage in a panic, her own flurry of wing, of color, of arms. She stayed on the ground, arms over her head, to protect herself. To protect herself from the screeching. To protect herself from the sound. From the sound, from the violence, from the energy displayed in someone’s actions.
She lost the word fury at 2:42 p.m.
Summer air heavy with geranium and rust stuck to my mother’s olive skin as she swung on the porch swing. Her Virginia Slims cigarette grew long ash, in grey, in fog, in autumn, her favorite season. Large trucks sped past, Jake Brakes rattling the front windows and causing her ash to fall. It landed on her bare foot and she took out her drawing pad and sketched her toes.
“Her extremities are cold because her organs are shutting down,” the nurse says.
My mother sat on the pebbled beach at Lake Winnipesaukee, dug holes with her heels, and watched her four young children splashing in the water. She imagined the Pacific Ocean, traced waves in the earth, traced serpentine and quartz. She imagined the Pacific Ocean surrounding her. Surrounding her; her children gather.
Her children swat at the cat. They see errant movements from her fingers under the blanket. The nurse says she is sleeping peacefully, unaware, oblivious, and that any movement of her hands, her face, her eyes, is a remarkable concurrence of events without apparent connection.
She lost the word coincidence at 8:11 p.m.
When she received her breast cancer diagnosis, the doctor ushered her second husband into the hospital’s hallway. The doctor consoled him as he shared the surgical plan. “Let’s not concern her with the difficult details of a mastectomy,” he said. “We don’t want her to become hysterical." My mother went to sleep unaware, and she awoke without the word mastectomy, without hysteria, and without her right breast.
“You can see her chest pulling inward as breathing becomes more labored,” the nurse says.
The neurologist sat across from my mother and said, “Early-onset Frontotemporal Dementia.” He waited for that to sink in, and my mother took a breath, opening a space inside large enough to fit the entirety of the Pacific Ocean.
“Just breathe,” he said.
And she did, then. She felt the ocean gather and expel, foam gathering strips of kelp and entangling her ankles. She took a breath and her feet sunk deeper into the earth. The sand burying her, feet first. She fell back, started to write in the sand. She wrote words she was afraid she would lose, like safflower, cedar, bumblebee, turquoise, and the names of her grandchildren, the names of her grandchildren, her grandchildren.
She lost the word Sarah at 11:48 p.m.
Lost, like the dogs and cats who drank at the cherub fountain after finding their way through the desert from CR 23, just off Interstate 15, where unwanted pets were deposited, forgotten.
Vanished, like her right breast when she was thirty-seven years old and her left breast when she was forty-three.
Disappeared, like pieces and parts of her body eroding over time, transferred to dust, taken on wing.
“It is time,” the nurse says. “Time for the process or period of changing from one state or condition to another.”
She lost the word transition at 7:06 a.m.
Shoshana Tehila Surek is a first-generation American. Her father is a Holocaust survivor and her mother recently passed away from early-onset frontotemporal Alzheimer’s. Both of these inform her work and her search for words amongst tragedy. She received her MA and MFA Creative Writing from Regis University. Her essays, stories, and poetry can be read or are forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly, Blue Mesa Review, Carve Magazine, december Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Malahat Review, Vestal Review, Cease, Cows, 3Elements Review, f(r)iction Magazine, and others. In 2017 and 2020, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is a 2019 Curt Johnson Prose Award finalist. More of her work can be found at www.ShoshanaSurek.com.