Peering Out

Life is easier with a paper maché head.

I learn this in fourth grade. I know it still.

When I am nine. Shy. Sheepish. Sweaty. Uncomfortable.

Book report season approaches and I consider my options. Run. Stage a sick-in. Drop out. Refuse. But standing in front of my class and presenting an oral report? Uh uh. Can’t happen. That I know.

Mom knows it, too.

Along with the book report, a prop is required. Something to demonstrate creativity. Something to keep parents on their toes. A shoebox collage, a poster, maybe a poem. For mom, that prop is the way to slay the shyness dragon. Brilliant.

We’ll build a big head of paper maché, she says. We’ll  cut eye holes so you can see the class. You’ll speak your report onto the old tape recorder. Put the head on. Press play. You’ll be hidden underneath. It will be easy.

And it is. Except we forget to rewind the tape after the last practice session. Pressing play does nothing. And I call out, in my loudest whisper. Get my brother, I say. And there is an uproar in class, or so it seems through my eye holes. A student races down the hall to the fifth grade. My brother arrives. He rewinds. I press play. I survive. Done.

Book reports get easier after that one. Mom helps. We make props for those reports, too. But none as big, as beautiful, as enveloping as the head.

I learn to look at the class without the paper maché between us. And they are friendly. It is ok.

Life goes on, as it does.

We recall the book report head many times, mom and I. It would have come in handy. During other sweaty and shy life moments. My first job interview. Less intimidating if viewed through eye holes. The birth of my first son. Less pain, I am sure, experienced with a paper maché head propped on the pillow.

My first date. My first love. Not nearly as awkward with a little paper and glue in the way. Mom has a good chuckle about that one, when it is time to chuckle about first dates and first loves.

Mom and I laugh about many things. The older I get, the more we laugh. I never knew, as Mark Twain marveled, that mom would become so wise when I need her most. Raising my children. Making my home. On lonely nights when my husband travels. A cup of tea, the kitchen table, and mom. There are no eye holes between us. It is easy. And the talking never stops.

Until it does.

It seems so sudden. That bastard Alzheimer’s. I don’t know when it starts. I am certain mom deceived us for as long as she could. I wish to rewind the tape. To know. There would be a clue. I am sure. But that bastard Alzheimer’s would have forced his way in anyhow. Into a mind with no interest in receiving him as a guest.

When it happens, mom takes cover. Behind a brave mask, her own paper maché head. But that bastard works his magic.  He starts small. He snickers while she struggles to thread a sewing machine. Read a book. Complete a puzzle. He rejoices when getting dressed, feeding herself, and walking become impossible tasks. That bastard takes her voice, her limbs, her self.

Before he steals her words, mom comforts us. It will be ok, she says. I will be ok. It’s nothing.

She is hiding, I know. We know, mom and I. I see her, under that paper maché head, peeking out the eye holes. Telling us to be strong.

I put the head on, too. It’s easier that way. I’ve hid before.

When mom stops eating, my sister calls. Come, my sister says. And I do. But that bastard Alzheimer’s takes her anyway. That bastard robs her from us.

Now she is gone. I am here. Wearing my paper maché head. Peering out from underneath. At the memories. At the reality. At the things I should have said but didn’t. At the goodbye hugs that were too hard to give. The words too difficult to say. I don’t want to come out. It’s easier inside. The eye holes are enough.

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