I last saw my mother alive on Christmas Day. She was 96. I’d brought her a pale pink sweater with tiny white pearls sewn into it. We opened gifts by the fireplace, and she sat in a wheelchair babbling on and on. She never once stopped muttering. She was unintelligible. So, I just talked over her.
Dear God, I just talked over her.
The night before I left for college, I passed the door to my mother’s room. She was propped up in bed reading as was her custom, her face defenseless, soft, devoid of makeup. I was the last of her children to leave home. By supper the next day she would be totally alone, alone as it would turn out, for the rest of her life. When I returned in a few months for Thanksgiving break, I would be a visitor. A visitor, as all grown children become, for the rest of my life.
A wave of grief washed over me standing there in my bare feet and nightgown; grief for myself, grief for her, grief for the inevitable passage of time. I entered the room, the circle of light by the bed, and gave her my sorrow. “There aren’t going to be any smaller goodbyes.” I stumbled on the words, “Any lesser leavings.” She knew what I meant. Each goodbye after leaving home, would be a progression of detachments until the ultimate parting. She held me close. She smelled of safety, soap, and Ponds Cold Cream.
“When I die, a long, long time from now,” she said, “You’ll have a family of your own. You’ll be ready.” That is where this story ends.
Here is where it begins.
My mother is a five-year-old girl being raised on an Illinois farm when she steps on a rusty nail while running away from her older brother. Within days, a thin red line maps a lethal path from the puncture in her instep all the way up her leg to her groin and she is deathly ill.
There is an emergency operation in a small-town hospital where there is not enough food for the patients. My grandmother gives my mother her own meals and sleeps on the floor by her bed until the poisonous progression toward unacceptable loss is stopped. My mother lives but is unable to walk for six months. At a small clapboard farmhouse down the road from the farm, two elderly brothers wonder where the little girl has gone who used to come by to borrow books. They whittle a pair of crutches for her, and she is mobile again, radiant at her independence, her freedom.
All my life my mother has driven gripping the wheel of the car as if fueled by the memory of this early immobility. The first car I remember was black and utilitarian. She was a married mother of three young girls, and we lived out in the country then. We needed that car to get to the school bus stop, church, to the nearest grocery store. By the time I was nine a blue Ford had replaced it and my mother was a newly-single parent, anxious and probably angry, which may have contributed to events the night she plowed that car into one driven by an elderly man leaving the county’s first shopping mall. I was her passenger sharing the front seat with a load of wet laundry.
The old man had a stop sign and she didn’t, but it seemed to me that my mother saw him coming and engaged in a grim contest of wills. Maybe she was just distracted, wondering what beautiful 42-year-old women who were not the sole support of three daughters were doing on a Friday night while she sat in a commercial Laundromat with her youngest. Either way, a nice policeman drove us back to our new home—a house of just girls. I sat in the back of the police officer’s car with a plastic tub of wet towels and glass in my shoes.
As my mother approached her mid-sixties, I noticed she was having trouble backing out of our driveway. From behind the living room curtains I’d watch her repeatedly veer into the border of young Leyland cypress I’d planted.
Then came the small dents and dings; backing accidents mostly, until in her early eighties, with glaucoma, cataracts, and an old whiplash injury that made it difficult to turn her head, she totaled her Camry on an exit ramp. My sisters and I talked about what this meant. We talked to our mother about it, but she was defensive and stubborn, which made us insistent and humorless.
“I’m buying another one,” she announced when the insurance company gave its verdict on the car.
One Sunday in March shortly after turning 86, Mother stopped by after church. She was eating less and less and didn’t want lunch, so we talked about my sisters and when it was time for her to go, I steadied her by the elbow as we walked out to her car. As we approached the vehicle, I did a double take. The car had been left at a crazy lurch in the street, as if abandoned by a driver who’d just seen a wasp on her blouse.
“Mom! Look how you parked!” The car’s bizarre angle was forcing most oncoming traffic to stop and veer around it. “Honestly, Mom. Didn’t you notice?”
“Notice what? Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Now behind the wheel, she pulled as hard as she could on the gaping door but because I was standing and 32 years younger, I had the upper hand. “It’s not that bad,” she said, both dismissive and a touch flirtatious. She wrested the door closed, stepped on the gas, and rolled through a stop sign, not even one flash of a brake light.
My mother put my sisters and me through college, left vases of wild plum in our rooms when we came home, and got a Master’s degree herself at 52. She soothed Calamine lotion on our poison ivy, made at least 36 Halloween costumes by hand and 54 birthday cakes. Her aging was making me crazy and breaking my heart. I didn’t want my mother to die.
“And we don’t want her killing anyone,” my ever-practical middle sister reminded me.
So, we researched the protocols, and, in the end, it was a phone call to the MVA. Their intervention was to appear routine, a reassessment of her driving ability because of her age, but when the letter came it was clear she had been reported and she was frantic to discover the identity of her betrayer. When she called me, I couldn’t bear her confusion. “It was us,” I confessed.
“You?” She was stunned, relieved and bewildered. I explained how scared my sisters and I had become. That it was a difficult decision; that we agonized, that we would help her get around. I said we wanted her to be our mother for a long, long time.
After a moment’s silence she said, “I understand that you love me and thought you were doing what was best.” I was in awe. Later she had to say the rest because her anger was as valid as her understanding. It was mean of us. Wrong. Unnecessary. Sneaky.
“My children will probably do the same thing to me someday,” I theorized. We were companions in the moment, vulnerable to the power of those who love us.
“I hope so,” she said, and I smiled. Or maybe it was, “Do you think so?” Together we paused, the connection between us, electric, alive.
When I left her that last Christmas Day, as she predicted, I had a family. But as I closed the door behind me, I didn’t know I was stepping into a future in which she was already gone, holding only her promise that I would be ready.