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Preparing to Use a Fork, by Laura Musselman

When I dream of my mother, she is hiding in the farthest corners of dimly lit rooms, bewildered and pale-faced and all bold, brown eyes. This is not unlike the real image she inhabits, sitting in her walker or on a paisley-cushioned bench at the end of the hall as she tries to piece together the portions of my face, my hair, my body into something that falls just short of familiar or safe. 

My mother looks small sitting there, every day smaller than I have ever seen her. Frail, and barely there. The clothes that used to fit her snugly hang from her shoulders, sleeves like a tent meant to house the loose, wrinkled skin that hangs from her frame. She is my mother, of course, made up of the same cells that webbed into the bits and pieces of her that used to swab my dirty face with saliva and rub my back when I was sick. Conversely, she is not my mother. She is a ghost. And I am her daughter, and I am not her daughter. I am a stranger most every day she sees me.

Each time I see her, there is less to see. When people ask how she is doing, this is what I say. She is disappearing, and one day I am afraid she might fall through the space between the bench cushions. One day, maybe she will. One day, there will be nothing left. I know this, and yet my visits become less regular, less dependable. To see her is to see the formidable truth that soon she will no longer be there. And I am not that brave.

My mother does not remember how to use a fork, but she taught me how to identify one. How to use it to stab, and pry, and shovel. This is the sort of thing I do without thinking. It is an instinctual skill. When I feel the weight of this utensil in my own palm, I know what to do next. I do not often consider forks, but my mother studies them curiously, fumbling her fingers around this end or that in a solid attempt to make any sense of the thing. Most days, someone has to use her fork for her, to spear the slabs of meats and vegetables swimming on her plate. It is impossible to get her to eat. She doesn’t know the meaning of this activity, but I can tell she doesn’t like it.

In my baby pictures, the edges of our faces blurred into the background, it looks as though my mother is singing as she feeds me: her chin up, her lips slightly parted, her eyes bright and singsongy. My eyes fixated on the utensil coming towards me. I am not this gentle with her. Not this patient. I imagine her delicately scooping food onto my baby fork: tender. Me, I stab the potatoes, wait with an elbow perched on the edge of the table for a spare moment in her confusion, wait for a window through which I can thrust the fork toward her: convincingly. With rigid, forceful purpose. Like I know what to do next. Like I know what’s best. Like I don’t know why it should be this hard.

My mother doesn’t know why it should be this hard either, I suppose. Doesn’t understand why I need so badly for her to complete this one, meaningless task. I answer her questioning expressions with phrases like: You need to eat. You are too thin. You are too confused. You are disappearing.

Her use of a fork was methodical. She scraped food with reckless abandon, metal against ceramic. The two materials resisted each other; they produced a stinging, chilly sound, not unlike the sound of worn brake pads. It was silencing. My grandfather, her father, was brusque about how much the sound disturbed him each and every time we found ourselves seated around the same family table. He is a man that does not like to be silenced.

But she is silent, as we sit here. Because I do not consider forks, I cannot consider the way the thing must look to her, or the presumptions about its use, or the barely-there memories of times that she has used one lingering like the notes of a song not heard in years. Sometimes I wonder if I should do this, if it’s just a way of putting the inevitable on the back burner. It’s a strange thing to become her, to become the feeder. It’s a strange thing to mother my mother. To watch this thing eat away at her. To try to sate her hunger.

Once, I watched a documentary in which a man traveled to Switzerland to end his life because he was just as confused as she. He was beginning to forget how to use a fork. He was beginning to forget how to survive. Before he dies, he drinks tea and signs papers. He chats politely with his wife, and she feeds him his favorite little chocolates. She rubs his hands to put him to sleep. He has gotten used to the idea, he says. He feels he has little other choice. We don’t have much of a choice either, I think, because these are things my mother no longer knows how to do. I have reconciled myself to this regression, as she has, the way we reconcile the use of forks.


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