The Iowa Review

Still Life on Leap Day

- Molly Bashaw

The mechanical object was to become my worst enemy, and as for watches, they would have to be soft, or not at all! —Salvador Dalí

My mother looks over at me like a small child confronted with a spiral staircase. Time is related to tide. It’s okay. Don’t even worry about this, I want to whisper to her on our side of Dr. Silverstei­n’s big wooden desk. He’s just asked her the time and date, and now he is writing on his notepad, talking about my mother in the third person with my older brother and me, giving her the impression that we are discussing someone else. “Who?” she keeps asking, looking behind her for another woman. “Who do you mean?” “Tell me something else,” the doctor says, suddenly turning toward her. “Do you know who the president is?” I want her to answer boldly, as Andy Warhol apparently once did when asked a silly interview question: Can I just answer, alalalala? But she seems panicked, glancing around the room again. She says nothing. My brother is telling Dr. Silverstei­n how my mother recently mistook her fork for a straw, jamming it into her Styrofoam cup and trying to put it into her mouth. She looks first at my brother and then at me, as though we both are right now betraying her. “It’s not that bad,” she yells. The doctor asks her to draw the face of a clock and place the numbers on it, positionin­g the hands at ten minutes past eleven, labeling “L” for the long hand and “S” for the short hand. From across the table, I can see his chart. One point for a closed circle. One point for properly placed numbers. One point for including all twelve numbers. One point for properly placed hands. How long will it take my mother to draw the clock correctly? Can she ever learn to tell time again? Properly placed hands would be hands placed on hers right now, giving them a squeeze.

Since this visit, I’ve been keeping a list of things she could have said to the doctor, answers I might have given her, had I been quicker:

- Today is Thursday, February 23, 5:13 p.m. by my wristwatch, 11:52 by my car’s built-in clock, and 4:10 by the clock on the church tower.

- Try to think of me as a picture of the galaxies, a history, a collage, moments millions of years apart.

- Picasso once painted a woman from the front and the side simultaneo­usly.

- Unless there is a new mind, there cannot be a new line.

My mother is not a profession­al artist, but she is artistic. Her numbers trail off the clock like bees flying from a hive. She draws the eleven directly on top of the ten. Ten past eleven. It doesn’t seem entirely wrong. Her doctor tells us that if the patient cannot draw the clock or if it looks abnormal, she falls into the category of “probably” suffering from mild cognitive impairment or dementia. Within a month of this visit with the doctor, my brothers and I move our mother into a nursing home called Crescent Manor. From her window, my mother cannot directly see the moon.

Left to wander the hill pastures as they please, my father’s sheep, Horatio, Caliban, and Yorick, consistent­ly return to the barn exactly at sundown. When he hears their bells approachin­g, he says, “Must be time for supper.” The sheep have become his soft watches, guided by the sun. Animals are good at time. Plants are good at time. But human time must be told. And how should my mother tell time when words are exactly what fail her, when words themselves have become troublingl­y new? In Old Dutch, Blooimaand meant July and Hooimaand was August— flower month and hay month. In many languages, the word month itself is a close relative of the word moon. It makes perfect sense. I imagine my mother only would have had to go outside to see what time it was. If she were to create a new name for February, her birth month, she might say, The month of the pinecones that swing in gusts above the beehives wrapped in tar paper, or, The month when the little goats on the hill look up at me. She might say, The time of snow welling up toward leap day.

The last sentence my mother said to me before I drove to the airport and boarded a plane back to Europe was, “The best thing you can do for me now is be around a lot.” I was reading Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence on the airplane, eating my vegetarian pasta, and underlinin­g this: “It is important to experience all the times and moods of one good place. Every night out my window there is nothing except perhaps a bullfrog saying ‘Om’ in the creek or

in the pond.” I wished my mother could visit Thomas Merton and that listening to a bullfrog could be considered telling time.

The following spring, after I didn’t make it past the first round of an orchestral audition in Bern, Switzerlan­d, I consoled myself by visiting the Paul Klee museum at the edge of the city, standing for a long time in front of a painting Klee had made in the year of his death, called Still Life on Leap Day. In the museum shop, I bought a postcard of the painting and sent it to myself at my apartment in Germany. In it, I see large areas of amorphous flesh colors—red, browns, a plum tone—surroundin­g a thin black stick figure with one eye. The most human form in this painting, the only one with a head, seems to be the form most absent of these life-affirming colors. The stick figure seems to be an abstract representa­tion of a human, as if all that was living had moved outside of it, or as if being human was now the least human thing.

What if my mother sketches tigers with stripes and opened pomegranat­es, long, thin-boned elephants? For seconds, ants? What if my mother draws like Salvador Dalí? At a time in which the disease is the sixth leading cause of death in America, I have no idea if my mother is suffering. I do know she suffered in the moment we told her she had a condition that deemed her unfit to move freely among her bees and her trees at home. Her bees and her trees at home still would have recognized her, and she would have recognized them, I’m certain, with or without words. This I could read on her face. What if my mother’s words are like moths, trying to get through the glass window to the light? She remembered, for a long time after the first diagnosis, to walk all the way around her field to the bees she kept, the bees collecting pollen on their back legs. She could still sing a song called “Hard Times” that she had learned in the Yukon before I was born, standing on snow among the bright houses, eating whale meat and drinking beer. In spring at the edge of the marsh, she stood watching the bees emerge from their hives, dragging the dead drones out with them as though they were carrying the last words from this earth. What if my mother’s ailment is actually a healthy response to something? I’m reading W.S. Merwin’s poem, “To a Friend Who Keeps Telling Me That He Has Lost His Memory,” when my friend Alison calls from her time zone, one hour different from ours, to tell me that there is some

bird song we can’t hear because it is too high-pitched. She’s just heard this on the radio. What if our brains are like this, too? What if my mother’s brain is now registerin­g things I simply cannot register? What if her opaque language is actually full of meaning? When I still visited her on the farm, we would sing together in the empty grain silo where the grain had been falling on grain for years.

“Say these three words back to me in the same order,” said the doctor. “Apple. House. Chisel. If the person can repeat all three words, the person is not ‘probably suffering from dementia.’”

I called my older brother before I called my mother, after finding out I was pregnant. He laughed and said, “That’s weird. Mom keeps asking me about ‘the baby.’ I thought she meant Chase, and I kept saying, ‘Mom, Chase is already five years old. He’s not a baby.’ She insisted she didn’t mean Chase, but I had no idea what she was talking about. It’s probably just a coincidenc­e—there’s no way she could know, right?”

Unless there is a new mind there cannot be a new line.

My mother once told the bees many things she could never have told the doctor. And in her choir when she couldn’t remember the words or how to read the music, she just stood on her riser with her mouth open, singing with her two open eyes. Later, her children sat at a round table. “We must settle her will before we lose the house,” they said. Apple. House. Chisel. Forgive me, Salvador Dalí, I have written of my mother in the third person, and she is right here. She is saying, “Yes, yes, she is still barefoot. We’ll have to inject her. In that last room, all the words are dancing. Let me get the cucumbers out of my fingers for you.”

I imagine my mother’s doctor at the end of the day, folding his lab coat, looking out the window at the trees consumed by sunset. He stays a bit later, maybe, reviewing online articles on dendrites and the corpus callosum, while standing under his framed degrees. He has seen today that my mother can still sing, and sing in harmony, and remember entire verses and poems and gestures, and say “I love you” back to me just as quickly as someone on the street might say the time of day. What is music, I want to ask him. What is warmth, and why does rhythm keep burning inside her, though all the clocks have stopped? Surely nothing chains the soul to words alone. Surely there are at least two types of

time. If there’s no measuremen­t to soft perception, no human without words or dates, then what are her eyes still telling me? Why has the clock melted around her and the sun grown larger? How does she still know me, though I have no name?

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