ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2015
issue/numero: # 07



I’m Here


Author | Autor: Marcelo Rubens Paiva


Translated by Alison Entrekin

Memory is an unexplained magic trick. A trick life plays on you. One

memory doesn’t settle over another, but beside it. A recent memory

isn’t retrieved before the thousandth. They become tangled. My

mother, with Alzheimer’s, can’t remember what she had for breakfast.

My mother, with Alzheimer’s, sees my one-year-old son, who looks just like me, and

recognizes him. She doesn’t think he is me, but she calls him sweet child, my sweet

child. And she always says:

“He’s just adorable.”

Sometimes she gets confused and says:

“She’s just adorable.”

Perhaps, having had four daughters, all babies are girl babies to her. My mo-

ther

complains a lot when we leave with him.

Old city center of São Paulo. We got out at the train station in Liberdade. My

mother, my sister Veroca and me. We crossed Sete de Setembro Square. I remember

the smell of impending rain and the movement around the courthouse. Mother

had already walked this way hundreds of times. But if we’d left her there alone that

muggy afternoon, she’d have stopped short, unable to find her way home. She’d

have lost herself in a circular reasoning; a flood of images, synapses, commands

and memories would have inundated her brain, making the familiar unfamiliar, resulting

in a single question:

“What am I doing here?”

Or better:

“What was it I came here to do?”

And perhaps:

“Where is this?”

Because the answer wouldn’t have been forthcoming, as the storm in her

brain prevented clarity of thought, she’d have uttered the phrase that marked the

beginning of her Alzheimer’s:

“I want to leave.”

Or:

“I want to go home.”

Sometimes smiling. Sometimes furious. Always surprising.

We entered João Mendes Court House. She looked at the place with familiarity

and smiled. She was enjoying the outing. We queued for a lift. Signs above the

lift doors showed which floors they were on. A busy ebb and flow of lawyers, in-

terns, defendants, witnesses, plaintiffs, police officers, prisoners, assistants, victims

and couples parting ways.

Turiaçu is a river in the state of Maranhão. The name comes from “tury” =

“torch” + “assu” = “big”. Big torch, big light, big fire. A bonfire in a high place seen

from afar used to help shrimp fishermen at sea. On dark nights, it showed those

who were further out from the coast the point of return. It guided the lost. Turyassu:

the big fire, the beacon that lit the way home, to the village, to their families.

Someone crashed into my car on a thoroughfare parallel to Turiaçu Street, one

cloudless day, and I was sued in that courthouse. My mother was my lawyer. Even

though the other guy was guilty, he was asking me for money. My mother agreed

to settle. The guy wanted five times the cost of his car repairs. He presented false

quotes. I was disappointed in her for not fighting to the end, not making justice

prevail. I was innocent. He’d crashed into me and now he was saying it was my fault!

“Just settle, son. It’s not worth the fight...”

Justice did not prevail. I paid for the guy’s repairs. We took the lift down with

the crook and his opportunistic lawyer. We rode in respectful silence and parted

ways without a word. I should have throttled them both, him and his lawyer. We

headed for Liberdade Station. On other occasions I heard, defeated:

“Just settle, son. It’s not worth the fight...”

I was legally separated in that courthouse, years later. My mother was supposed

to have been my lawyer, as she had been my whole life, for everything:

car crashes, contracts, labor squabbles, problems with the tax man. She was my

proof-reader and accountant, as well as lawyer for all five of her children and a

dozen cousins, friends, and even cousins’ friends and friends’ parents. She handled

friends’ divorces, probate, and represented factories, businesses, and Indians. She

was the divorce lawyer for Ronnie Von, the celebrity, who caused a furor when he

showed up at the office.

As one of few specialists in indigenous law, she acted as lawyer for the Gilberto

Gil Foundation, and for Sting, who donated money to the Cayapó Indians, in his

Brazilian affairs. He would call her at home, with his unmistakable English accent:

“Eunice Paiva, porrrfa-vorrr.”

“Mom! Stingi’s on the phone again! Make it quick, I’m waiting for a call!”

She represented the illustrious and the unknown, and was a legal consultant

to the federal government, the World Bank, and the United Nations. Where has all

that knowledge gone? It’s adrift in her memory, bobbing here and there in a sea of

chemical connections, where the big torch on the coast can’t be seen – the big fire,

that guides one back to land, to their point of departure. Like David Bowie’s Major

Tom, stuck floating around the earth in a most peculiar way.


“Ground Control to Major Tom.

Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong.

Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Can you hear me, Major Tom?”


Major Tom, in the dark, on his blind flight, at the door of his tin-can-like space

ship. “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.” I wonder if there is something

conformist in this outlook, the outlook of one who doesn’t believe in transformative

action or that man, a political creature, might make history, with actions he

once called revolution, or if, in some cases, the Earth is blue, it is much bigger than

us in our insignificance, and there really is nothing one can do.

We stepped out of the lift into the Family Division of the João Mendes Court

House, where we met our two lawyers, whom my mother had chosen, back when

she was still lucid, and groomed, in an office on Avenida Paulista, on what to do.

We waited in the corridor.

Handcuffed prisoners stood with their backs turned, faces to the wall, always

with a police escort. Sitting on the many benches, defendants, witnesses and

plaintiffs were all bothered by the same heat, by the knowledge that it was going

to rain, that by the time we left the building chaos would have fallen over the city.

All of them almost silent, respectfully silent, yes, sir, no, sir. Have I already said this?

The curious thing is that inside the different divisions, all hell breaks loose.

But outside, in the corridors, in the foyer, in the lifts, few words are spoken. When

someone speaks, it is in whispers.

At no point did my mother ask what we were doing, nor did she ask to leave.

At that stage in her illness, “going out,” seeing people and things, could make her

happy. And perhaps she felt comfortable there. The many times she had waited on

those benches were still somewhere in her memory. She must have felt at home,

which was why she didn’t complain. She still had some notion of the present, and

thus, of memory. And perhaps we don’t have just ONE single memory.

In front of each division was a secretary at a little desk. When they called us,

I looked at her. Let’s go? It’s our turn. She looked at Veroca. She trusted the two

of us, not just me. She trusted her oldest daughter and her only son. She didn’t

trust us blindly. She had never trusted anyone blindly. She was a lawyer. She double-

checked every decision we made to make sure it was the right one. She knew

that we were in command now. And, if she signed a document, even with Alzheimer’s,

she would check it five times. If she didn’t agree, she wouldn’t sign it. She

double-checked every decision that her lawyers made to make sure it was the right

one. She knew what her future would be like. She knew that dementia was a case

not just for medicine, but also for the legal system. She knew that there were laws

that protected her and safeguarded the greater good (and goods) of the family.

She believed in the legal system. She was proud to be a part of that world. She

always used to tell me:

“It exists to defend the weakest among us.”

They called her name. She obeyed, resigned. We walked in. The family judge

was sitting at a raised bench. We sat where the clerk told us to. An enormous,

badly-painted portrait of a soldier in uniform was the only picture hanging on the

wall, in front of the judge. To break the ice, I observed that it would have been impossible

for someone to fight in that ridiculous uniform, not to mention the heavy

helmet. He interrupted, saying it was his father, who had been a police officer with

the Public Force, the former Military Police, an example of good character. And

that that was his dress uniform. I couldn’t take it back. The judge read the case out

loud, skipping paragraphs, and looked at everyone. He turned to my mother.

“I see we have a fellow legal practitioner here.”

“Yes, I’m a lawyer. Retired.”

“Do you know why you are here?”

“Because I’m old and I need others to look after me,” she replied with her

trademark sincerity and logic.

We were in the Family Division of the João Mendes Court House because she was

old. That was the great irony. A specialist in declaring friends’ parents incompetent,

trusted lawyer of many, she was about to be declared incompetent at 2.35 p.m. She

was seventy-seven years old. Not that old. She had had old acquaintances declared

incompetent in dramatic circumstances. She knew, step by step, how it was done.

The judge had in front of him certificates from two medical specialists, one a

professor at the University of São Paulo, plus clinical exams, images of her brain

with the characteristic white marks that indicate the disease, and powers of attorney

from all five of her children requesting that she be declared incompetent. We

hoped that, as was the practice, the judge would appoint a reliable legal expert to

remove her civil rights. He treated the case with cool objectivity and respect; after

all, my mother was a fellow practitioner of law. He didn’t speak in legalese. It was

routine. How many cases like that had he judged that very week? How many times

had he read them out loud and seen the same words, terms, requests?

He turned to my mother and surprised her with the question, “What year is it?”

She looked at me in desperation. It was that expression, the new expression,

acquired in the last few years, as if she was trying to remember something banal

and couldn’t, the date!, what day is it today!, date!, day/month/year!, humiliated

by the connections in her brain, proteins that were dwindling by the day, more

and more, they want the date!, which left her with a strange blank. Where was the

torch? She looked at us as if she was being dragged by the current into the emptiness

of the ocean, she was going to drown, drown in forgetting. Startled, surprised

that she couldn’t remember such a simple thing. It took a superhuman effort to

row back. She had to guess the direction, defend herself, and answer what year it

was. She didn’t know. She didn’t know what year it was, what month it was, what

day it was. Time didn’t make much sense. She couldn’t have said for sure what she

had eaten for breakfast. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get the first

question right. The disease was winning, one-nil.

“What’s the name of the president of Brazil?” asked the judge.

Again, the look, despair, shame, blank, I’ve drawn a blank. She suffered terribly,

she always suffered when she didn’t recognize someone and the person asked, “Remember

me?” It was unnerving not to remember if she’d showered, forgotten to take

her medicine, left a pot on the stove, unable to see the fire on the hill to guide her

back to the coast with a boat full of shrimp, trawling done, mission accomplished.

The president of Brazil, mother, you know him personally. He came over to

our house, twice, when he was still a union leader. You helped found his party. You

fought beside him for Amnesty, for the direct vote, to restore democracy. They

even wanted you to be a substitute senator with his party. The house was a mess

when he came over one night. I was playing War in the living room with some

friends. We’d smoked pot. We were laughing loudly. You were in the bedroom.

Veroca brought him in with Geraldinho. He walked in and we cracked up laughing

because we were really stoned. He greeted us and chuckled too. He must have

smelled it from outside. Of course we didn’t offer him any. He came in and went to

talk to you about the direction Brazilian politics were taking. Brazil was organizing

itself, coming out of the dictatorship. We debated whether we should offer the former

steelworker-cum-union leader some pot or not. Best not. Back then, I smoked

at home with my friends. In my room, on the veranda, never in front of you. After

you found out that I smoked, after you found out that my friends smoked, after you

found out that your friends, and friends that you made after you were widowed, all

smoked, after your friends who smoked offered you some, and you didn’t refuse,

out of politeness, or shyness, and took a few tokes, curious... and didn’t feel a thing,

you saw that it wasn’t the devil’s work. You relaxed the rules.

Memory isn’t the capacity to organize and file away recollections. There are

no files. The layering of past on past persists to the end, memory upon memory,

through memories that become jumbled, distorted, blocked, recurrent or hidden,

or that are repressed or encased in lead by the survival instinct. A fire in a high

place would help. But fires burn low with time. And we can’t sail back home.

The judge waited for her answer. Veroca, as if talking to a child, tried again,

“Mother, you know him, it’s Lu...”

Nothing. Silence. She glanced at me. Nothing. It’s OK, Mother. It’s OK, it’s normal

to forget, you’re old, it happens, we all forget, you don’t need to get worked

up or feel guilty, we’re here to help you, we’re all going to get old, remember your

mother-in-law, Grandma?, it happened to her too, she ended up senile, your mother

aged and got old too, remember the friends of friends that you had declared

incompetent?, it happened to them, aging is a part of life, forgetting is normal, I’ll

forget things in the future too, me, Veroca, the lawyers, this judge, his dad, in that

ridiculous uniform, must be a forgetful old man now, don’t worry, we all forget,

forgetting is a part of life, it’s normal, growing old is normal, it’s a part of life, everything’s

going to be alright, the law will protect you, you believe in the law, we’ll

look after you, don’t worry...

The judge had asked the questions because he wanted to be sure we had a

case. Yes, my mother, the lawyer, was incompetent. She was suffering from some

kind of dementia. It was the disease that prevented her from remembering. It could

be Alzheimer’s. It could be hormonal or another kind of dementia. These days

dementias are identified and named, each different to the other. People grow old.

People’s brains grow old. An expert appointed by the judge would conduct the

final assessment. But Mother needed to be declared incompetent temporarily.

“We are assembled here today because your children are asking that you be

declared legally incompetent. They elect your son, Marcelo, to be your guardian.

Are you aware of this?”

“It’s because I’m old and I need them to take care of me.”

She didn’t name the thing that ailed her. She tried, at all costs, to be treated

not as a person who was sick or demented, but as someone who was equal to

everyone else, who, with age, was betrayed by memory, who grew old, doddering,

gaga, a little old lady.

“Can she be my guardian too?” she asked, referring to Veroca.

“No, only one can.”

“But can she look after me?”

“Of course, Mother, I’ll always look after you,” said Veroca.

And she did. They had already established a partnership of love and trust. I

wondered why I, and not her, my older sister, was being elected guardian. Because

I’m a man. The only man of the house. I had been chosen. After everything she had

done for me, my whole life, it was payback.

She began to talk about her two daughters who lived abroad, one in Switzerland,

the other in Paris, the grandchildren who lived in France. She said she wanted

to pay for them to come see her every year, since she could no longer travel. She

insisted that we should always keep her grandchildren close to her, that she could

afford it. The judge agreed. She insisted. She said again that she had two daughters

who lived abroad, one in Switzerland, the other in France, and three grandchildren

in Paris, and that she needed them to come every year, that she would pay for

it if they didn’t have the money, because she went to see them every year, but now

she was old, she couldn’t travel, she got lost in airports, she got lost in the street

looking for a taxi, she couldn’t buy tickets on the internet, she couldn’t buy anything

on the internet, she couldn’t use the internet, despite the afternoons I’d spent

teaching her, the mouse irritated her, she didn’t really understand the mouse, the

cursor vanished and reappeared, what she really wanted was to buy tickets directly

from Varig on Avenida Paulista, but the agency had closed, the company was

going under, Vasp had folded too, the company she had routinely travelled with

because of their promotion (save nine boarding passes and get one trip FREE).

They’d gone bankrupt. So had Transbrasil, everything was changing too quickly,

the banks were becoming automated, her newsletter from the São Paulo Lawyers

Association came by email now, instead of through the post on stapled newspaper,

and the dratted mouse wouldn’t obey her!

Repeating things is routine for those with dementia. I don’t know if it’s because

they’ve forgotten what they said or if it’s to reiterate what they said, since some

people don’t pay attention. This repetition, in fact, is a warning: it’s when the family

receives the first signs that the person’s thoughts are not on a continuous path.

The judge was surprisingly courteous and listened the second time as if it was

the first: she had daughters and grandchildren abroad and would pay for them to

come visit her every year. Of course, don’t worry, we’ll take care of it, he replied.

The judge gave me a serious look.

“From this date, you are legally and criminally responsible for your mother,”

he announced.

He said that I was supposed to do everything in my power to ensure her comfort

and wellbeing. He determined that she could not be left alone anymore. We

would have to arrange for her to be cared for twenty-four hours a day, seven days

a week, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. And he reminded me that I was

obliged to bring her daughters and grandchildren who lived abroad to come see her.

From that moment on, my mother would never again be left on her own.

The tables turned that very instant.

On 30th January 2008, that muggy afternoon, in compliance with the law,

in the Central Civil Court on João Mendes Square, 4th floor, room 426 of the São

Paulo State Court, first temporarily and then permanently, she who had looked after

me for forty-eight years would now be looked after by me. In witness whereof,

I certify that the foregoing is true and accurate.

I had become my mother’s mother.

And it didn’t rain.





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