Before her migration to dementia, her travels were no less fraught. Born Olga Irizarry during the height of the depression in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, my mother has always been a survivor. It’s her dominant feature, just like some people are tall or handsome. At the age of 2 she was abandoned by her mother. Unrecognized by her father, she was brought to New York by her paternal grandmother.
There she spent a month in a hospital, ravaged by worms and malnutrition. After she was fired, she sprang up like Lazarus to begin her new life in Manhattan, lavishly in corrective shoes and homemade clothing. She was raised by her abuelita’s childless daughter, Sarah, who renamed her Bunny. When she was a kid, the city was Bunny’s wonderland; her adoptive father, Ferdinand, often photographed her staring into the camera with a blissful smile.
At age 30, Bunny lived with two children in a rented apartment in California. It was 1967 and her husband was soon to leave for a life free from domestic shackles. With no child support, my mother donned a Goodwill suit, got a secretary job, and met the love of her life, Ron, a man eight scandalous years younger. Thirty years later, they retired to a senior mobile home community, ready for life. Then, when she was in her seventies, something in my mother’s brain changed or shorted out or just evaporated, and she ended up in her new country.
My mother is bedridden but still roams free. Because she has forgotten how to walk, she can still travel in her mind, which is full of holes but full of memory pockets. She gets to keep the early ones, the good ones: her enchanting childhood in 1940s New York, her beloved Abuelita, the adoptive parents who cherished her. Her dog, Tapsy, that she used to roam Central Park with. The day she heard screams from her Second Avenue window and looked down to see a young Frank Sinatra amid a plethora of blinded teens.
Sometimes she loses contact completely, she is unreachable. There is an expression for this in Spanish: ni de aquí, ni de allá † not from here, not from there. It is the national motto of dementia. She squirms, an invisible briefcase next to her. A citizen of the wind. Yet she always returns, and it’s always exciting, a resurrection.