"We do not die wholly at our deaths: we have moldered away gradually long before. Faculty after faculty, interest after interest, attachment after attachment disappear: we are torn from ourselves while living."
– William Hazlitt
I received an email from my sister some hours ago, which read, “Mom is very unsteady on her feet & keeps needing to take the shuttle to our room & can't do stairs.” This one sentence, while not surprising, saddened me. My mother has smoked since she was eighteen, and despite her robust arguments to the contrary, does not eat well or exercise. She does, however, drink a fair bit. Open her refrigerator, and you’ll be privy to an entire row of containers of orange juice. I know that seems healthy, but I don’t know if vitamin C can survive when drowned in vodka. Considering all that information, it’s only in recent years that I’ve seen a steady decline in my mother’s health.
Sinus infections, as my mother calls them, have become more frequent in the last several years. A couple of years in row, she had winter illnesses that caused her to cough for weeks after her antibiotic prescription had been emptied. Then I noticed that she also got hit hard with something in the spring. And when I visited this summer, she was on antibiotics again, with a hacking cough to match, blaming it on her swimming pool (Don’t ask).
My mother likes the routine of our visits. Weather permitting; we head to Northport Village, so she can stare at the water and boats (while having a smoke), as my children play somewhere, ignored in the background. Then we head to her favorite restaurant, where she gets the same dish every time: pasta mellanzane, with whole-wheat linguine and a Coors. Sometimes she mixes it up by getting a side of broccoli rabe. The last time, there was a car show in town, so we decided to park near the top of the road and walk down to the water. After harbor viewing was done, we headed back up Main Street. At some point, my husband and I turned around and realized that we’d lost my mother. She had wandered to window shop, which wasn’t like her. Then she made her way to a parking lot full of fancy antique and vintage cars to find our car (We have a 2006 Mazda, which clearly wasn’t there). As she walked with us, I noticed my mother’s slow and unsteady gait.
Although I’d seen her decline for years, the difference that day was distinct. Her place in this world has always seemed precarious. Many times I thought my mother would be fired from her job, and when she finally was when I was pregnant with my son, I had doubts that she was employable. During those stressful months, I’d find myself raising my voice, while my fetus would kick me from within as if to say, “Calm yourself.” Luckily, I was wrong, and she’s had the same job for over eleven years. These days, I wonder when she’ll be too sick to work. What will happen then? My mother has little savings. Will she go quickly like her father or will she go slowly like her mother? If she does go slowly, how will I cope? How will my sister cope?
The fact that my sister is with my mother on this seventieth-birthday vacation speaks volumes. Both of our parents turned seventy this year. It was my idea to ask family and friends to contribute Best Buy gift certificates so my father could purchase a flat-screen television that he’s talked about buying for years. But it was my sister’s idea to ask family to contribute money so my mother could go to Bermuda at least one more time.
My mother first went to Bermuda when she was twenty-seven-years-old, and fell in love with the beaches and sand. That’s where she spent her honeymoon. When my parents were separated, and my mother made enough money to save up for a trip, she went to Bermuda and took my sister. I was invited first, since I was older, but I refused because I knew I didn’t have the stomach to spend that much time with her. Though all their vacations didn’t go smoothly, and a couple of them were disasters, my sister has endured quite a few of them. But the last one my mother took by herself, and it wasn’t the same. She didn’t feel comfortable being alone and felt that the staff treated her badly. Because of that and her money situation, I don’t think my mother believed she’d ever go again.
It’s nice what my sister did, though in the months, weeks, and days leading up to it, she took to it like a two-year-old does when she’s been told she can’t get a chocolate bar at the cash register of a supermarket. Still, she did it – not me. And now my sister is tolerating the roller coaster of emotions that spending any time with my mother generates: happiness for the little things that make her happy, frustration for what she says, embarrassment for what she sometimes says to strangers, resentment for the shared history, and pity. The pity used to be for my mother’s mental limitations, but more and more, it’s for the physical limitations too. For my sister, this may be the most difficult trip of all.