In a 2019 essay in The Nation, novelist and essayist Lynne Tillman’s cross-genre writing was described as relying “on the concept of flashbulb memories, which psychologists define as the memories formed in moments of extreme surprise or crisis.” These are both the memoirist’s tool and their burden: one-dimensional snapshots which, by their nature, invite conjecture, speculation, a shadowy look-back resulting in stories that swing on a hinge of inference and doubt. What are we looking at? What are we seeing? Can we possibly know? We remember in pieces, disjointedly. Bits of experience come to us and vaporize as quickly as they arrive; memories only know what they know at any given moment, formed by extreme surprise or crisis.
It should not have come as a surprise to Lynne Tillman that her elderly New Yorker mother might eventually become sick and need round-the-clock care; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us as we watch our parents change, grow old, grow ill, and die. But it does, and the process often takes a very long time, even as elderly parents simultaneously remain lodged in our hippocampus as healthy and vibrant people with whom our relationships might be knotted with ancient competition, jealousy, or enmity.
“From the age of six, I had disliked my mother,” writes Tillman, “but I didn’t wish her dead.” And so unfolds “Mothercare,” a masterfully-wrought story of ambivalence that is both heartbreaking and exasperating. The author, together with her sisters (they have no names here, but instead geographical representations: Carolina Sister and New York Sister), a long line of caregivers, and a team of often inadequate physicians, see her mother, initially misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s and correctly diagnosed with rare normal pressure hydrocephalus, through 11 years of profound sickness.
In staccato prose that can be brilliantly maddening — the narrator often repeats herself within the same paragraph, the language circling back and forth in time and place, contradicting itself, meandering — the reader is taken on a narratively idiosyncratic journey that mirrors almost exactly the dissociative, circuitous nature of what it means to become a caregiver for one’s elderly parent, when one is abruptly dropped into a finite situation that may go on forever and that changes minute to minute. There are no ordinary days, when one is a caregiver. There are arrogant neurologists not interested in caring for an older person, and physicians who routinely contradict each other, leaving patient and family without guidance. There are pill cases dangerously misfilled and hospitals leaving elderly patients on gurneys in hallways, invisible. There are complicated procedures that fail repeatedly. There is the hiring and firing of private caregivers, some good, some not, the discovery that one is stealing and the Faustian decision to keep her on because Tillman’s mother loves her. There are the inevitable financial questions: how much do we pay for, and when do we stop because our own safety will be threatened. There are the bargains: if you stay with Mom, I can work, and if I stay with Mom, you can work. There are the vague attempts at maintaining normalcy and some semblance of a life, and Tillman does this when she takes a writing residency, leaving her mother to the care of Carolina Sister and New York Sister. There are the good days and the bad, the moments when Tillman’s mother seems to be returning to “her smart, tactless, competitive” self, and moments of near-coma.
Wrapped around this stunning story of caregiving, with its questions of obligation and ethics and what it means to care for someone who, perhaps, didn’t care for you, is the hint of familial disconnection. The few people who are named here are primarily the dead, or caregivers, and those in service: the beloved doorman is Ray. There are the geographically-named sisters, about whom we know little beyond their decision to work together to care for their mother, rather than fall into a place of estrangement, which the narrator implies might be inevitable because families sometimes come apart during times of such relentless pressure. The narrator only names her husband a few times, and he makes only a brief appearance. Who is he, beyond a musician? Did he support the narrator in the 11-year-long caregiving marathon she was living day in and day out? His absence may be representative of the constitutional loneliness felt by the narrator, isolated in her role which, when it’s over, leaves her stunned and exhausted.
“I performed the good daughter, my heart wasn’t in it, my conscience was,” writes Tillman, and in this starkly-told story, that is enough. Before Tillman’s mother dies, there are no attempts at reconciliation or false displays of love. Instead, her mother’s final words were to her cat: “Be still.”
By Lynne Tillman
Soft Skull, 176 pages, $23
Elissa Altman is the author of three memoirs, the most recent of which is “Motherland.”