Miserere mei, have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving kindness. In your great compassion, in your great compassion, in your great compass, in your great…grandfather. Your great-grandfather came to bring us avocados yesterday. The day the avocados came he said he was a grand father, a great, great, great …
She knows us, she doesn’t know us, today she knows who we are. She knows who she is, but not where she is. She says she is on a train, and all these people are the passengers, and that man over there in blue scrubs is the conductor come to lead them home. They bring a tray of food to her, as she hunches at a square table in a room with floral wallpaper and brocade window treatments. It is a room that wants to be pretty, but the linoleum floor and plastic trays say institution. She eats with a big spoon with a bright red, fat, foam handle. Sometimes, she forgets and tries to brush her hair with it. Creamed chicken in her trailing locks.
Ne proiicias me a facie tua. Cast me not away from your presence, cast me not, give me the presents of your presence. Cast me not away a castaway. Et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me. Take not your Holy Spirit from take not want not waste not. Wastebasket. In the wastebasket there is a little man looking at me. See him peeking out of that lid? See his eyes? Why are you looking at me like that?
She wants to go home with us, she cries to go home with us, but she can’t. It’s not safe–the gas stove left on, the door unlocked, the kitten put in the refrigerator, and we saved it just in time. The neighbors found her on a corner two blocks away in her nightgown and hiking boots with a shopping bag full of cans of tomato soup. She can’t go home with us–we are so sorry, we tell her, so sorry that you can’t go home with us. You live here now with these kind people who will keep you safe.
I don’t want to be safe. I want to get out of here. Out of this place, this gymnasium with people on wheels and sticks. I want to go home, home to my mother and father and my little blue room at the top of the stairs that looks out on the maple tree in the snow. Is it snowing? It must be snowing because it’s Christmas. Sing a song of Christmas. Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam. Make me hear of joy and gladness, joy and gladness, joy and sadness. Sadness. There is so much sadness.
They showed us an illustration of what her brain might look like now—a shiitake mushroom with bites taken out of it. There were arrows pointing to various portions of the mushroom: Extreme shrinkage of cerebral cortex. Extreme shrinkage of hippocampus. Severely enlarged ventricles. They use words like that, like prefrontal lobes, occipital lobes. They use these words because they have no words to explain what is happening to her.
Of course, after she dies, they can do an autopsy to prove it. To actually see the shiitake mushroom that is her brain, the extreme shrinkage, the enlarged ventricles of Alzheimer’s. Until then, this is what they say, the only thing that matters: There is no clear way to prevent this disease. There is no clear way to treat this disease. There is no remedy for this disease.
Domine, labia mea aperies, Lord, open thou my lips, open my lips, open your lips and give me a big kiss. I am a pretty hot momma. Give me that good-looking mouth of yours. Come here, handsome, come to momma. I just need a little sugar. I just need a little loving. Love me, baby. Love me.
She would die of embarrassment if she knew, if she could see herself being not herself. She would cry if she opened her blank, grey eyes and looked, really looked, at herself in the mirror, with her greasy hair and no makeup. She won’t let them bathe her, she won’t change her clothing. She doesn’t want to be touched or handled. She is afraid of the water, of the drain, of the towels. But she no longer recognizes herself as the person in the mirror, so it doesn’t matter. So many things don’t matter anymore.
The words matter, though. There is a music inside of her that matters, that keeps emerging, trying to make itself known. The staff asks about the Latin, the mumbling, the humming. Was she a Catholic? Should they take her to mass in the activity room next week? No, we explain, it is just the Allegri Miserere, a piece of Baroque choral music, a setting of Psalm 51 with intricate, soaring harmonies. She has always loved it. It’s Miserere she wants, when she mutters and drones like that. We bring in a boom box and a CD they can put on repeat. When she hears it, in a small way, she comes back to herself.
Yes, sing this yes. Like monks in my mind chanting like English choirboys’ mouths like tiny Os. That note that C high C like angels singing. We have heard on high the angels singing. Et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam. My tongue shall sing. It sings, rings, sounds. Tuam.
Her eyes close, her head swirls side to side with the sound, like a tree in the wind. She mouths the words, hums along in a thin squeak as the notes rise and fall. Cor mundum crea in me, Deus, create in me a clean heart, O God. The prayer falls from sagging mouth, from thrusting tongue. She licks her lips and begins again.
Miserere mei Deus, floating–how the voices float, melismas of sound hanging in space. All her life she has listened to these voices, hanging on every word, on every note. She hung that music deep in the folds of her brain, and it has not been lost. Somewhere in the extreme shrinkage, in the enlarged ventricles, the words endure, the music remains.
Kit Carlson is an Episcopal priest living in Michigan and a lifelong writer with work appearing in publications as diverse as Seventeen Magazine and Anglican Theological Review. She studied last summer with poet Afaa M. Weaver at the Kenyon Writers Workshop, and she is author of the recent “Speaking Our Faith,” (Church Publishing 2019).