Hours of Daylight
THIS IS THE STORY OF MY MOTHER’S FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.
It’s January of 1924, halfway between my mother’s sixth and seventh birthdays. My grandmother has been teaching both my mother and my uncle at their home in Port Arthur, Ontario. She thinks Mom is ready for Grade 2, but the Grade 1 teacher requires convincing.
The teacher says to Mom, “The Earth is round like an orange, slightly flattened at both ends. Can you say that back to me?” My mother replies, “The Earth is an oblate spheroid.”
She is put into Grade 2. By the end of that year, she is in Grade 3 with her older brother.
This is a story of nights that are broken in hard-to-understand ways.
More than seventy years later, in the family home in Oklahoma, I’m sound asleep when footsteps and the creak of hardwood floors pull me toward wakefulness. I recognize the special squeak of the door to the hallway bathroom, near my parents’ bedroom across the landing. Water murmurs.
But I’m far away and drifting farther, drowsing.
Then I hear Dad’s voice saying something like “What?” and suddenly I’m alert. I hold my watch in the orange shaft of light slanting in from the streetlight. It’s 2:15. I struggle to orient myself. Right. I’m at my parents’ home, visiting.
Mom must be up. Why is she in the hallway bathroom instead of the small bathroom off the master bedroom? Yes, the hallway bathroom has a tub, and she prefers baths to showers, but it’s the middle of the night. She can’t be taking a bath…can she?
Dad’s voice is loud but I can’t distinguish his words through my closed bedroom door. Should I get up? To do what, exactly? I shiver.
The bathroom door opens, and now Dad’s words are bullet-hard. “Come on. No, you are going back to bed.”
Mom’s voice, muffled, rises in pitch.
Dad answers, “No. It’s night. Come. To. Bed.”
Mom murmurs and I hear water draining. Then shuffling—Mom’s slippered feet on the hardwood of the hallway—and Dad’s even, measured steps. Silence when they enter their carpeted bedroom.
I lie back down, eyes wide. I should have expected this. I’ve read about it—sundowning, the agitation and sleep problems common at Mom’s stage of Alzheimer’s. I just didn’t think it would be like this, though I don’t know what I’d envisioned. I feel as if I’m always offkilter. I can’t imagine how it feels to Mom.
Earlier that day, we’d met with my parents’ lawyer to assign powers of attorney. I knew, and I suspect their attorney also knew, that Mom didn’t understand what she signed, but none of us acknowledged it. There wasn’t anything to say.
Mom had always been so sure of herself, an instigator of structure, rules and schedules. Although she complained of feeling awkward at parties, she enjoyed hosting meetings related to mathematics and teaching, her great loves. Around our dining room table, she gathered her younger math department colleagues to brainstorm ideas for grants. Each semester, she hosted a dinner at which her undergraduate applied math students met with mathematicians who had jobs in industries outside academe, where they solved real-world problems.
And Mom made peace with social expectations. Every December, the United Methodist Women’s Christmas party was at our house. The dining room table, fully extended, was also fully loaded. A punchbowl stood at one end, a silver tea and coffee service at the other, and the surface between was paved with homemade sweets—mint brownies, toffee, chocolate-covered cherries, divinity, fudge, orange/coconut cookies, candy-cane cookies, spiced and sugared pecans.
But during that March visit, the days of Mom’s teaching and hostessing are years in the past. Paper has sifted into the house, and now the dining room table is piled with mail and magazines and catalogues and programs and church bulletins. Dad gives me a long sidelong glance when I move a few stacks to make room for my place at mealtime.
I’m the youngest of their five children, and only the three of us— Mom, Dad and me—were home together during my high school years.
As a teenager, I was sullen, more withdrawn than overtly rebellious. After I went away to college, I became again their obedient daughter. A period of soul-searching in my late twenties worried them, but when I finished graduate school and found work I enjoyed 800 miles away, we became comfortable together again.
Still, in this house where I grew up, whose every shift and groan is familiar to me, where my swimming trophies and music awards perch on the shelves, I can’t find my thirty-something adult self. In the face of Mom’s illness, I’m afraid. As my vibrant mother disappears, I struggle to find a way to help her. What can I do? What if I only make her disease worse?
And how do I support my father? He’s a bookish historian and usually a gentle man, but he’s always had a temper. When we were young, he was impatient and cranky when asked to alter his routines. But he and Mom never fought—in fact, they never disagreed in front of us. So, led by Mom, we all adjusted to him.
When Mom’s illness first appeared, she repeated stories and lost words. Now she’s also agitated and afraid in the late afternoon, and she wakes up at night. Understandably, Dad’s showing the strain of caring for her. I’ve seen him angry more often during this visit than I ever have before.
“Helping Mom and Dad” feels possible in the abstract, until I’m actually with them.
This is the story of lengthening days.
March includes the equinox, the balancing point when day and night are the same length. In Oklahoma that year, March 16th has eleven hours and fifty-nine minutes of daylight; March 17th has twelve hours and two minutes.
Day by day, the amount of daylight changes only gradually. Nevertheless, these changes accumulate. Eventually, minutes become hours.
On that visit to my parents, crocus and hyacinth have awakened from winter and pushed through the soil to bloom. Jonquils and the forsythia bush are budding.
It feels particularly cruel to watch my mother’s life diminish during the spring, when everything around us speaks to a promise of new life.
When everything she is to me, everything and everyone she ever has been—they’re all slipping through my fingers.
I think, too, of all the versions of me that she’ll never live to see.
This is a story of unmet expectations.
In the bedroom I used to share with my sister, I find a manila file folder labelled “Hours of Daylight.” The words, pencilled in my mother’s strong handwriting, are from a previous era. The folder, now empty, once held notes for one of the applied mathematics problems she and her colleagues collected.
But I don’t know what the mathematics problem actually was— which company in which industry it came from, what they needed to know and why, what level of mathematics the students used to define and solve the problem. I don’t remember asking. My parents’ lives were so often simply wallpaper to mine.
Perhaps, out of politeness, I did ask, and Mom told me. I didn’t retain it. She wanted me to be a mathematician—as her youngest child, I was her last hope, she used to say—but she also thought the elegance of mathematics, its different language that gives a different perspective on the world, would enthrall me the way it had her.
But like my historian father, I’m a dreamer and reader. I liked mathematics fine, but I didn’t inherit my mother’s tenacity, her ability to work at a knotty problem past the point of exhaustion to arrive at understanding. I never imagined a career in mathematics—only in some field that let me read and write.
This is a story of fury and furies.
The next night, Mom gets up three times to go the hallway bathroom. Each time I hear her, I hold my breath until she shuffles back to the master bedroom. I wonder whether Dad wakes up, too.
At breakfast, we sit bleary-eyed over the standard morning meal—cereal, toast and coffee, followed by a devotional reading. My father and I are never cheerful in the morning, and my mother, who once loved morning, seems unusually subdued. I decide to take Mom for a walk this afternoon, after church and lunch. Maybe that will help us all get some sleep.
Mom pushes her chair back from the table and stands up. She smooths her skirt and heads toward the stairs.
“Here, where are you going?” Dad snaps. “We haven’t read the Upper Room yet. Get back here.”
I cringe in my chair, croaking out, “Hey.”
He yells over me. “Get over here and sit down.”
In one motion, he pushes his chair back and is at Mom’s side. I
half-stand. He places his hands lightly on her shoulders and steers her back to her chair.
Mom and I sit down at the same time. She stares at her plate, her mouth drawn, and picks up her knife to sweep toast crumbs into small piles.
Meanwhile, Dad marks the devotion booklet with a ballpoint pen from the stash in his shirt pocket. Then he reads aloud.
Tension buzzes in my ears, drowning out his words. I flinch when he thrusts the book at Mom.
“Here.” His voice is sharp. He points to the spot where she should begin reading.
She reads without inflection, stumbling over “appreciate” and “Thessalonians.” She doesn’t seem to understand what she reads, but she’s far more fluent reading than speaking.
She hands the book to me. I say “Prayer,” and “Amen,” and “Thought for the Day,” and in between, a host of other words I hardly hear. When I reach the bottom of the page, I close the booklet and hand it across the table to Dad.
Mom stands up again. This time, I go upstairs with her. At the top, I say softly, “Mom, can I ask you something?”
She pauses in the doorway of the master bedroom. “Yes, sure.” I swallow but say it. “When Dad yells at you like that, do you mind?”
She half-laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t...so, so tott.”
I rest a hand on her shoulder so she’ll look me in the face. “Really, Mom. Does it upset you?”
She sighs. “Not so much. He’s stotting things, you know, and he, he wants me to—well—sarft something, in a good way. He does a good job.”
“Well, if you get upset, let me know, okay?”
“Okay.” She smiles and the pucker in her forehead smooths. I rejoice, silently, to see her relax.
But my glow fades as I dress for church. Even if she understood what I was talking about in that moment, she won’t remember when she gets upset.
Still, I said something. I tried to help.
That Sunday afternoon, my walk with Mom starts slowly. On our sidewalk, she stops to lament the overgrown front garden. If I’m going to tire her out, we need to meander less and walk more.
“Okay, Mom, let’s go!” I slip my hand through her arm. She smiles at me, and as we walk, I can’t help but cheer up. The sunny
day feels more like May than March. Remarking on the neighbours’ gardens, we follow the street around the curve and downhill, then turn right. At the stoplight, we could turn uphill toward home or continue for another short block before taking a different street up to the house. Without asking, I decide we’re going on.
“But, no,” Mom says. “We want to go here.” She walks in front of me so I’ll turn.
“We’re just starting. How about we go another block.” I still have her arm, so I gently lead her across the street.
Once across, she tries to turn up the hill again.
I try to sound patient. “Mom, this way. Come on.” She pulls away from me, and I grab her hand.
“Oh, all right.” She walks with me. “But Mother won’t like it.” Mother? But…Grandma died thirty years ago. Cold with fear, I look at her. “You mean Dad?” I hesitate to refer to my father by his first name. “Ted?”
“No, Mother.” She shakes her head, impatient. “She’ll wonder where we are.”
“Well, Dad knows we’re on a walk.”
She says, slowly and distinctly, “Mother. Doesn’t.”
We continue walking. That is, I walk, and I have her arm, so she comes along. As we pass another garden, she moans, “Oh, Mother won’t like this. We need to go home.”
I turn to face her, my words cruel. “Mom, your mother is dead.” I take a breath and go on. “Dad, your husband, Ted, knows we’re on a walk. It’s okay.” I walk on, still holding her arm.
Beside me, her voice is small but defiant. “No. It’s not okay. Mother will be angry.”
At the next corner, she says, “Here, now. This way.” She turns toward home, yanking her arm from my grasp, her step purposeful—I can’t tell what force is pulling her up the hill, but it’s powerful. I have to speed up.
We face the afternoon sun, still high in the sky. A sadness rises in my chest. I had thought that my presence, if nothing else, would be of some comfort my mother. But I don’t know how or where she feels at home and safe—or, selfishly, where I do, either.
When we’re within sight of our driveway, she stops again to point out another garden. Whatever internal Fate or Fury that has driven her to “go home to Mother” has fallen silent. Once again, she speaks pleasantly, if vaguely, about blooms and stems and leaves.
This is a story of losing stories.
My mother has written two university-level mathematics textbooks. She’s written at least a dozen sets of curriculum for applied mathematics problems for university students, many research papers about neutron transport equations, and a biographical essay for an anthology celebrating a woman’s scholarship at Queen’s University, where she earned her BA and MA in mathematics.
She wrote family stories of her childhood and youth in Port Arthur, Ontario, in the years between the World Wars. She collated these stories, searching out and copying old family photographs, and gave them to my siblings and me.
But I can’t find any publication or manuscript where she wrote the story of her first day at school.
We know it, of course. The family—my father, my siblings and I, and other people she knows well—we all know that story. It has been left to me to write it down.
This is a story of hopes and horrors.
The night after our walk, the sound of running water wakes me. So much for the walk helping her sleep.
Pulling on sweatpants and sweatshirt, I creep to my half-open bedroom door. The light is on at the top of the stairs. I hide behind my door, listening to Dad’s raised voice.
“Now. This instant. You are coming to bed.”
“Get out of here.” My mother’s voice is low and rough, a bear’s growl. I gasp. I’ve never heard her like this, not even when I misbehaved as a child. I’ve certainly never heard her speak this way to my father.
Dad sounds like he’s strangling. “You will—get—come here.” I hear scuffling.
At the same time, Mom’s bear-voice says, “It’s terrible, it’s awful.” I burst onto the landing. Near the door to the girls’ bathroom, Dad stands behind Mom, again holding both of her upper arms. She twists, trying to free herself from his grasp.
I say, shakily, “Hey, what’s the matter?”
Mom looks at me and quits struggling. She is near tears. “He—I was—and then he—comes right in, and it’s, it’s not, not right.”
Dad’s voice is loud but calm. “Come to bed.” He drops his hands from her arms and holds out a hand. “Come on.” She doesn’t move,
so he picks up her hand from her side and leads her into the bedroom. She follows him without protest.
I stand on the landing, looking after them. The light in their bedroom is off, and the landing light shines only a few feet into the room.
I can’t go in. Whatever my age, or theirs, they’re my parents, and I can’t intrude.
I turn off the landing light.
Back in my room, I crawl into bed, sweats and all. I curl up in a ball, still shivering, then check my watch: 3:30. Not that it matters. Mom doesn’t even know what year it is. She doesn’t recognize her husband. She wouldn’t believe I’m her child.
I shut my eyes against the beam from the streetlight. Exhausted, I drift off.
Just a few hours after Mom’s harsh-voiced encounter with Dad, we’re meeting with a neuropsychologist, Dr. Whatley.
Mom’s neurologist suggested individual neuropsychological appointments for both Mom and Dad, but Dad hasn’t made an appointment for himself. As he explained to me on the phone a few weeks earlier, Dr. Whatley is “only” a PhD, not an MD, so he couldn’t offer Dad any medical advice.
I kept my eye-roll out of my voice. “Maybe he could give you advice about coping.”
“Mmmm,” said Dad, meaning Hmph.
Mom has disappeared with a nurse while Dad and I sit in the waiting room. I’m frustrated. We’ll never know what Dr. Whatley is saying to her. Mom can’t carry a message or describe what happened. I should have gone with her. I should have insisted.
Misery balls in my stomach as I brood. I still haven’t done anything concrete to help my parents, and I’m flying home immediately after this appointment.
Next to me, Dad mutters, “Was that Wednesday? Yes, I think it was.” He’s filling out a form on a clipboard. He adds, “Before last night, the last time she had one of those episodes of, what’s-it-called, sundowning, was last week.”
“How about Friday? And on Saturday night, she was up a lot.” “She did go back to bed, both nights.”
I try not to stare at him. “She was up three times. And Friday, she ran bath water.” The fact that he talked her out of getting into the tub is a technicality. He can’t play fast and loose with the truth.
“Oh, all right,” he says, as if I am being completely unreasonable. I feel my irritation rising in response to his. I stay silent and breathe.
“But the last time she stayed up was before you came, which would make it, let’s see, Wednesday night.” He heaves a sigh. “You know, my memory isn’t what it used to be.”
His memory? Sweet Jesus, I could kill him. In the neurologist’s office where his brilliant wife is being treated for her Alzheimer’s Disease, he complains about his memory?
At that moment, I hate him as I never have before, not even when I was a sulky teenager. Then, the very fact of his existence—his index cards, his different colours of ballpoint pens, his routines, the fact that he and Mom were the age of my friends’ grandparents—made my life a nightmare of adolescent, immature embarrassment. Even so, never has he been as loathsome to me as he is at this moment.
I bite my lips to keep from voicing the poison I feel. I fan my hot face with a magazine. While I seethe, Dad happily mutters his way through the rest of the form.
Inhale, exhale. At least he didn’t complain about his memory in front of Mom; that’s all I can find to be grateful for.
This is a story of holding on to grace as night falls.
Sunset doesn’t create instant darkness. It creates twilight, a grace period. After sunset, the upper atmosphere still provides light— enough light to do some things, but not others.
Twilight is divided into three phases. In civil twilight, you can still see objects clearly, without artificial light. During nautical twilight, the horizon is visible even on moonless nights, and mariners navigate by the stars. Throughout astronomical twilight, the last phase, the sun’s scattered light fades until it’s less visible than starlight.
That March, I try to calculate where the sun is in the immense sky that has been Mom’s intellect, her spirit, her life. Can she still see the horizon? Does she even look? I wonder whether waking at night frightens her. I hope the stars give her enough light that she can find some form of comfort.
Her handwriting on a file folder label, in a notebook, on an envelope (especially on an envelope, where she’s written my name, firm and clear)—when I find these scraps of who she once was, I grasp them tightly.
This is a story of listening, of speaking.
Dr. Whatley finally calls us back to his inner office. He sits on a rolling stool and motions us into chairs lined up against the wall. I settle between my parents.
He says, “I’ve been collecting data on Mrs. Agnew for a report I’ll put in her file.”
I try not to wince; Mom was always known as “Dr. Agnew” until her illness. It seems pointless to bring it up.
He looks at me. “Do you live here in town?”
I feel guilty. “No, I’m just visiting.” I clear my throat. “I do try to come regularly.”
“Ah,” he says, turning to Dad. “Then I’ll need to see you to follow up on some things. Did you fill out—oh, good.” Dad hands him the clipboard. He sets it aside. “I’ll read that over later. I may have some follow-up questions when you come in.”
Mom says, as if she’s reminding Dr. Whatley of something, “And tott’s a...serf one, too.”
He turns toward her and looks her in the eye. In spite of calling her “Mrs.,” he’s the only physician who seems to see a person—if not the gifted professor and mathematician, perhaps still the teacher who brooked no nonsense and accepted nothing sloppy, or the parent who never passed up an opportunity to urge us to harder work and greater ambition.
He answers her, “Yes, that’s right.”
To Dad and me, he adds, “I’m afraid I wore her out earlier. I was asking questions and she let me know she was done answering. She has very definite opinions to share, don’t you?” He shoots her a smile. She chuckles. “Yes, I spot ... spatt so.”
He turns back to us, with an air of dusting his hands. “So, that’s it for this time. Do you have questions?”
Dad shakes his head. I look at Dr. Whatley, debating. I like how he is with Mom. But can I talk to him about Dad?
We get up, and I fall back to let Mom and Dad leave before me.
I have to. I turn to the doctor. “Could I just—for a second—ask—” “Sure,” he says. “Come sit down.”
We sit and I take a breath. “When you see Dad, could you talk about...” Tears fill my voice. I say, indistinctly, “Anger.” Then words rush out. “She’s sundowning more than he admits. And he’s angry all the time, just all the time. She tries not to get upset. Lord knows I can’t blame Dad, she repeats everything and gets anxious and annoying, but still, he yells and then she feels so bad.”
I stop for breath and will myself into coherence. “I’m sorry; it’s just hard to...to be here.”
Dr. Whatley rocks a little on his stool. “I understand. It’s tough.” I gulp, betrayal and fear bitter in my mouth, but I go on. “It’s like he’s blaming her. But she’s not trying to annoy him. She’s sick. He doesn’t seem to get that.” The tears spill out of my eyes again. I blink and take the tissue he hands me. I blow my nose.
“Thank you for letting me know,” Dr. Whatley says. “I’ll talk about coping mechanisms at his appointment. Is he getting any support?”
“Like what?” After the tears, I can hardly think. Everything feels hopeless.
“Like caregiver support meetings, or taking your mother to the new adult day centre.”
“Oh. He’s mentioned them, but he hasn’t done anything.”
“The day centre is really important. She’ll get stimulation and one-on-one attention, and he’ll get a break from dealing with her all the time.”
I nod. “You’ll have to be the one to tell him, though. He won’t hear it from me.” And maybe not from you either, I don’t add. I pull myself together and thank him.
Back in the lobby, I pass Dad, who’s standing at the desk. “Making your own appointment with Dr. Whatley?” I say loudly, hoping the receptionist will take my hint.
Mom sits in a chair in the waiting area, knees together, hands folded on top of her handbag in her lap. She stares down at her hands, her lower lip trembling.
I sit down beside her and rub her back. “How are you doing, Mom?” I wipe my cheek with the wadded up tissue I’m still holding. “So-so,” she says. Her voice is sad and small.
“Yeah.” I put my arm around her. “Me too.”
She speaks so softly I almost miss it. “They think I’m in a bad way.”
I don’t know what to say—it would feel disrespectful to contradict the truth—so I rub her back, murmuring, “It’s okay, you’re okay,” while wishing it were true.
This is a story of resignation.
Later that afternoon, as I drive to the airport, fighting drowsiness, I admit that Mom and Dad may not have been the only ones affected
by interrupted sleep and worry. I too might have become crabby and unreasonable that weekend.
But I haven’t exaggerated Mom’s illness, nor Dad’s irritated response—his fatigue, his temper.
Although the hours of daylight in Oklahoma will continue to increase until late in June, Mom will never regain any of the abilities she’s losing. Her sundowning phase is followed by more declines and more loss, my father’s heart breaking a little every day as she fades away.
After she dies, I miss her—all of her—again. And I know that Dad misses her more, and more of her, than I can comprehend. Our sadness draws us together. I develop a new respect for Dad’s routines—even his index cards and ballpoint pens—as I watch them help him befriend grief and carry on for the seven years until his last illness.
This is the story of an oblate spheroid spinning on its axis and orbiting the sun.
My parents have both been gone for years. I know that only because I remind myself. Sometimes it seems as if they could still be living in the house in Oklahoma. But someone else sleeps in those upstairs bedrooms now—a lovely young family, the mother a former mathematics graduate student and the father an engineer; in Daddy’s study, they and their children film science and art videos and post them to YouTube.
One April, my siblings and I rendezvous in Oklahoma for the first time in the decade since my father’s death. My sister suggested we crash the Oklahoma State Mathematics Department awards ceremony, where every year, two students receive awards named for my mother. We weren’t sure we would know anyone—Mom’s former young colleagues are now past retirement age.
But my sister and I recognize Dr. Jim Choike, who once dreamed up projects and grant applications with Mom around our dining room table. We ask him to explain the Hours of Daylight problem.
Dr. Choike says the problem was supplied by McDonnell Douglas. For their Mars rover project, they needed to know whether it’s possible to calculate the hours of daylight at any location on Earth knowing only its latitude and longitude and the day of the year.
Years ago, Mom’s applied math students demonstrated that yes, it is possible to calculate the hours of daylight with only that
information. But to come up with their solution, they had to make one simplification in their assumptions—that the Earth is a perfect sphere.
“And,” Dr. Choike says, “as you know—”
The three of us say it together.
“The Earth is an oblate spheroid.”
And blink back tears. Because now, only the story remains.
Still, the story remains.