Sifting Through Memories

Do you remember who bought you your first comic? I do. The first comics I actually looked at were a box of my older brother's Marvels that were in our basement, classic stuff like early issues of "Avengers" and "Fantastic Four" and "Amazing Spider-Man." But the first comics that were actually bought for me were purchased by my mother.

I was a late-in-life baby. What is referred to as "a surprise," but let's be honest, what we really mean is "an accident." So my brother and sister were already teenagers by the time I was born, and had moved out of the house and on to their own adult lives before too many years of my life has passed. So I essentially grew up not unlike an only child. Lots of time to myself. Lots of time to read.

My mother was always a big proponent of reading. Reading -- any reading -- was good, and that included comics. My father was a kind and generous man, but he was not a big reader until later in his life, once he'd retired and finally discovered the joy of losing yourself in the written word. But when I was a child, reading was a curiosity to him. I can remember my father wondering, more than once, to my mother, "How many books are you going to buy that kid?" And her answer, always, was, "As many as he wants. So you might as well get used to the idea."

I am, in a very real sense, the writer I am today because my mother fed my imagination with comics, with Burroughs, with Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. I spent countless hours in bookstores as a kid, and I don't remember ever being hurried to make a selection, or hustled out the front door before I was ready. My habit was supported. My mother gave me what I needed, selflessly and without hesitation. Lately, I've been reminding myself of that.

My mother is now into her 80s (my father died 15 years ago), and increasingly suffers from dementia. She's not the same woman who bought me comics, or paperback novels with Frazetta covers. Not even close, if I want to be honest about it. She lives with my sister-in-law and brother now. Yes, the same brother whose box of Marvels were the first comics I ever saw.

My brother and his wife have taken on the responsibility -- some might say burden -- of caring for my mother full time. This began more than a year ago, when it became obvious she could no longer take care of herself. They had room in the house, as my two nephews are grown and moved away. My brother took early retirement from IBM, in part so he could more easily manage the duties of looking after my mother. To my mind, it's a pretty heroic deed.

My brother has property in Virginia, a large wooded parcel he expects to move to in the coming years. Whenever he visits the property, my mother stays with us for a week or 10 days at a time. At this stage, I can say it's much like again living with a toddler, someone who can't be left on her own, and who doesn't quite grasp how the world works or what's going on around her. I don't say that with any malice. It is what it is. As my brother has said, "Mom has left the building, for the most part."

This is the same mother who read me bedtime stories. Now she voices a relatively constant stream of chatter, a good deal of it nonsensical, much of it repeated every five minutes, because her capacity for short-term memory is all but gone. When she's with us, her days are spent piecing together simple puzzles, coloring in coloring books, petting the dogs, maybe watching television if the storyline is simple enough. She no longer has the capacity to retain much if any information, so reading a book, or even being read to, is far more confusing than entertaining for her.

She works in the coloring books in colored pencil, though you have to remind her to switch colors once in a while or the picture is apt to wind up with only one shade. She holds up the picture every few minutes, asking if it's good, wanting approval just as a child would. The puzzles she works on are too simple to be of much interest to my second-grader, though my kids are patient and understanding with their grandmother. Lately, I've noticed she's not really able to complete a 60-piece puzzle without their help.

I know she no longer remembers my wife's name, or the names of any of our children. She's just as likely to strike up a conversation with the television as with someone else in the room. She reads the words on the side of the day's coffee mug -- "Eveready Diner, Hyde Park, NY" or "Can Do! Hillsborough County Recycling" -- as if each time is a new discovery.

The dementia has given rise to obsessive-compulsive tendencies that were never part of my mother's personality previously. She now makes sure every crumb is removed from her plate and hoards tissues and napkins in her pockets or purse. She needs help in the bathroom in much the same way a toddler does, especially the reminder to wash her hands with soap and water.

I know none of this is truly terrible. There are dementia/Alzheimer's patients who are far worse, perhaps belligerent or even violent. What makes the situation sometimes overwhelming is the constant attention needed. If left on her own for more than 10 minutes at a time, without some interaction, my mother's anxiety level soars. She gets nervous, which prompts a refrain of "I'm so scared." At times, it's "I'm so cold," which really means "I'm so scared," since we raise the thermostat five degrees whenever she's here.

Life in the house is very different when my mom's staying with us, of course. We have to sort out the schedules of who's going to be home and looking after her, who's going to feed our horses, or drop the kids at swim practice and basketball practice and piano lessons, or pick up groceries and run to the post office. I missed my son and daughter's recent swim league championships, as well as their basketball games, because someone needed to stay here and babysit my mother.

My mother goes to bed by 7 p.m. or so, and seems much more content sleeping on the couch than in a bed. We still haven't quite figured out why. The house essentially shuts down right after dinner -- no television, no video games. The kids head to their rooms to entertain themselves. My mother eventually drifts off to sleep, though usually after an hour or so of talking to herself, much like a toddler will babble, using up the last vestiges of energy before napping.

All of this is, to say the least, an interruption of the routine for someone who works at home, especially someone whose job requires time to think, time to let loose the imagination that was inspired by all those books years ago. The days are draining enough that even after my mother is asleep, it's hard to form a coherent thought of any kind, much less sort through the myriad plot threads of something like "Artifacts." My production doesn't grind to a complete halt when she's here, but it's reduced to stolen moments and sleep-deprived, late-night sessions.

It's hard. It's hard mentally, harder emotionally. Sometimes it's difficult to look at her gaunt face surrounded by the shock of white hair. I find myself talking to her, but glancing toward the TV, or the dog. It's hard not to become frustrated answering the same set of questions literally every five minutes. It doesn't seem like it was that many years ago that my mother was at the gym five days a week and able to write out family recipes, including all the measurements, from memory. But I guess it is.

Every once in a while, though, like the sun peeking through ever-present clouds, there's a moment of lucidity. Some memory surfaces, clear and pristine, perfect but fleeting. Sometimes it's about how she almost drowned as a little girl, because her foot was caught under a rock in the lake, but one of the neighborhood boys named Roy saved her. Other times, she tells me how, after I moved out of the house, my father leaned against the wall and cried until the tears made his shirt sleeve damp, wondering, "Where did all the time go?"

But most often, what she plucks from her memory is how she would take me to the book store, telling my father that she'd buy me, "As many as he wants. So you might as well get used to the idea." She tells me this, her blue eyes clear and bright, and I'm again having a conversation with my mother. But then it passes and she's gone, replaced by a confused woman who will ask if she's safe five times in the next five minutes.

Something else my mother bought me when I was a boy was a coloring book, published by Dover, called "Pirates and Buccaneers." I actually still have my copy, packed away in a box with my high-school yearbooks and college diploma. I colored every picture in it, staying carefully within the lines with my markers, following the historically accurate thumbnails on the inside covers.

The first time my mother stayed with us last year, she was sitting at our kitchen table, staring out the sliding glass doors. I asked her if she might like to color, and being generally agreeable to most suggestions, she said yes. I unpacked her bag of...well, things to keep her occupied. I took out a wooden cigar box filled with colored pencils, and then I took out one of her coloring books. About half the pages were covered in spidery lines of colored pencil. Some of the pictures had been done all in one hue, as if someone had forgotten to change colors during the process. The book was Dover's "Pirates and Buccaneers." I picked out a page my mother hadn't yet colored, and she began filling in a pirate's green waistcoat. Then she looked at me and asked if I wanted to help her. "Sure, I'd like that," I said, and picked up a pencil and started to color.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, set to debut in June, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com

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