The Lipstick Helps
It’s almost criminal the way it steals from my mother—absconds with her memories, leaving open spaces inside her head with no bridges. A woman of fashion in her younger years, her thick black hair was always piled high, curled, and sprayed to perfection. I remember sticking pencils into her coifs when she wasn’t looking. My father would often say that she looked like Elizabeth Taylor. I hoped someday I would look like my mother. Sculptured dresses of plaids, polka dots, and paisley fit her figure secretarially. Silk stockings and high heel shoes accentuated her ankle when she crossed her leg.
Now she can’t dress herself.
At first she would wear the same clothes every day. As the disease progressed, she refused to shower and her glam hairdos fell to disarray. Now a caregiver bathes her, chooses her daily attire and helps her get dressed.
My mother taught me how to apply lipstick. “Line, apply, and blot,” she’d say, pushing the tube up and out like a confident artist. We’d stand in front of the mirror—mother and daughter—smacking and puckering our lips. “That’s a good color on you,” she’d say, nodding her head in approval. Her words made me feel beautiful and confident. She stressed the importance of finding the perfect shade. “It’s an instantaneous transformation,” I remember her saying. We’d stroll around drugstore counters together, testing colors against our skin.
Now she’s losing her teeth, one by one, along with her memories, because somewhere along the line she forgot about the importance of brushing. It’s as if there’s this relentless eraser in her brain that has been slowly smudging out details of her life. But the day she forgot my name—the day she forgot I was her daughter—my lightness of being became a little heavier and with the passing of each forgotten memory, a little darker.
I dab her lips with a pretty rose lipstick. Dementia has snuffed the light from her once-sparkling blue eyes, reducing them to dim bulbs. But, the lipstick helps. Just like when the sun carves through a cloud, making it glow.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she says. “You’re my angel.”
Her bony hands grab my arms and clench like tentacles, not wanting to ever let go, afraid the thief might take me away, too. We gaze at the sky inflamed with reds and pinks and decide that the sunset is like a giant kiss, beautiful enough to steal your breath. I swipe on some lipstick, from memory—the way she taught me. I smack, pucker, and smile just like we used to do in front of the mirror —mother and daughter admiring and complimenting each other.
“That’s a good color on you,” she says, and I am amazed at how those words can transform time. She may not remember where she lives or that she was married for fifty years. She may have forgotten my name, but she can still fire compliments, and for a brief moment it’s as if I’m 17 and she’s 40 and we are standing so lovely at her dresser in front of the mirror with our tubes of lipstick.
“You’re my angel,” I say, elongating my, as if by stretching out that little word I could eek out more time with my mother, more memories.
She takes my hand and kisses it, leaving a red smudge.
Sheila Luna’s essays have appeared in Spry Literary Journal, bioStories, PILGRIM: A Journal of Catholic Experience, and Sotto Voce Magazine. She is working on a book based on her experience living in the wilderness of northwestern Montana. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.