“Not Your Mother’s genes!”
My own preoccupations conditioned how I heard the exuberant woman actor’s reading of the motto for the new/better/sexier denims for svelte young women that was itself a send-up of another product aimed at lumpy middle aged women. In that instant, what I heard was that I wasn’t genetically predisposed to the helplessness and insanity into which my mother sinks each new day, millimeter by millimeter. What I heard was whatever the admixture of nucleotides along Rosalind Franklin’s twining ribbons, I was going to safely head into my twilight years with the grace and poise my mother’s dementia has caused her to discard. My mistake though: the actress on my car radio was exulting about pants.
And if I look unflinchingly at the two generations of women in my family who’ve preceded me, I can see how the handwriting on the wall quickly devolves from elegant script to child-like scrawls within a few years of passing eighty years of age. It says “You’re next. Get used to the idea.”
If you’re younger than forty, the idea of having to deal at all with the myriad effects of rapidly accelerating mental deterioration when you become an octogenarian does not even show up on your screen. Your life is still a continuous right-to-left scroll of infinite possibilities and the battery indicator says you have plenty of time left before you have to finally plug in somewhere. My own battery currently says there is very little time to go before I NEED to find a working outlet. In point of fact, I’ve already started to search for one.
I’ve tried teasing my brain with puzzles, learning new languages, walking backwards, writing with my left hand — all to coax the three pounds of fat and water encased within its bony carrying case at the top of my spinal cord to allow me to decay with greater decorousness than the half dozen women whose long shadows defined the parameters of my childhood landscape. I watched as each of them, still smiling, eventually stopped calling me by my name as my mother does now from time to heart-breaking time. And I wonder how long it will take before she has no more name for me. Just a smile.
The dread of it sleeps beside me every night, stands next to me in the bathroom mirror as I brush my teeth in the morning, sits beside me waiting for the sun to rise when I wake up at four a.m. for the only hour that I will have alone for the next fourteen when my mother will be awake and in need of the constant reassurance of my physical proximity.
It’s just not fair. I didn’t get the long legs genes or the size six genes, or the dimples-that-can-hide-nickels genes — that’s been clear all my life. What I’ve yet to discover is how long I have until I no longer remember that any of that other stuff ever mattered anyway or if I, ultimately, didn’t inherit my mother’s aging genes.