It’s the morning of my departure. Saying goodbye to Mom is the last thing on my list. I drive over to Sunshine Villa and let myself in her room. She’s sitting, as she usually is, on the flowered couch, newspapers scattered on the table before her. I clear off a space and sit beside her. I scootch over and take her hand.
“When are you leaving?”
“In an hour.”
“You mean, right now? TODAY?”
“Yeah, I’m leaving right after I leave here.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Ohh…..” A wave of unhappy concern flashes across her face.
“Darren is coming to see you this weekend and Karyn will come visit you. Lizzy will be around. You’ll be okay, Mom.”
“It’s not that I can’t manage on my own. But I’m used to having you around. I’m used to talking to you. We talk every day. I will miss you.”
“I know. I’ll miss you, too.”
“Now tell me again where you’re going?
“I’m going to Scotland. First I’m going to the Edinburgh theatre festival. And then I’m going to teach a retreat in northern Scotland.”
“Have you ever been there before?”
“No, I’ve never been to Scotland. I’m excited.”
“Have you ever been to Europe?”
“Yeah, Mom. I’ve been to Europe. I’ve been to England and to France and to Ireland. And now I’m going to Scotland.” I squeeze her hand and snuggle up to her. Then I pull out my phone and start taking pictures of us. I shoot seven shots, in quick succession. “I’m making up for lost time. I have to catch up with you and all of your travels.”
We are sitting under her mask collection—masks from her travels all over the world. Since she stopped traveling herself, all of us bring her masks from our travels—and her eclectic collection continues to grow.
“Ah, that’s wonderful. I hope it will be the start of a lot of traveling. It probably will be because you’re going to be on a list someplace of someone who has an interesting workshop and is willing to travel. I’m sure you’ll get a wonderful recommendation.”
“Well, thank you. It’s nice that you have confidence in me.”
“I do. I have tremendous confidence in you. You’ve never let me down.”
I laugh. It’s amazing what dementia does to her memory. Has she forgotten our entire history of war, struggle and eventual peace? I decide a bit of reality is called for. “Well, that’s not quite true.”
“Remember?” I start laughing as recognition dawns on her face.
“Like not going to college….” She starts laughing, too.
I carefully enunciate every word: “I turned down the full scholarship to Wellesley College when I was sixteen and moved into an ashram instead. Remember that, Mom?”
“I don’t know how I survived that!”
I keep laughing; both of us are enjoying this. “I can’t believe what I put you through.”
“Yeah,” she says, a big smile on her face, her warm dry hand in mine. “And your brother, too!”
“So you can’t say I never let you down.”
“You have. You have let me down.” We’re both smiling. “I don’t know how I handled it.”
“How did you handle it, Mom?
“I don’t know. I didn’t have a nervous breakdown.” She hesitates before she answers, searching for the words. I’ve noticed lately that she’s been having more word retrieval problems, but she still manages to communicate in a simpler way. “I went into therapy. But I was in a pretty shaken up state.” But that seems to be all she wants to say on the topic. Once more, the conversation stops. I show her the pictures I’ve taken.
“Oh, I love you Laura. Did I ever tell you what the doctor told me that infants who survive that kind of prematurity have something special?”
“Right.” This story—the story of my premature birth was her litany last week, when it was my birthday. She told this story ten times in the course of the one hour birthday lunch we had with Karyn at Ristorante Avanti: “Did I ever tell you what the doctor told me when you were born…”
And now here it is again. “….they all have something special. Strength to get through that. That was a miracle. An absolute miracle. And I’ve loved you ever since….and then what you and your brother put me through…”
Mom grows silent. I see her hit a blank space. The words stop, and then she gathers herself and they start up again. “So you’re going to Scotland. How long are you going? Three-and-a-half weeks?”
“Two and a half, Mom. I wrote it on your calendar.”
“How exciting! How absolutely exciting. Is it your first trip to Europe?”
“No, I’ve been to Europe before. I’ve been to France and to England and to Ireland. Do you have any travel advice for me, Mom?”
“Let me think.” There’s a long silence. Another barren stretch of the road. Fried synapses. “I can’t think of it, but it has to do with making certain connections. But I can’t think of it. My mind isn’t functioning.”
I sit and hold her hand and smell her soft, sweet old lady smell. I’m happy to just sit in her proximity. It doesn’t matter what she says. It’s being close that matters. “I’ll think about it today and tell you tomorrow,” she says. “You’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Mom, I’m leaving today, as soon as I finish saying goodbye to you.”
“Oh boy, you’re leaving today? And have you ever been to Europe before?”
“Yeah, mom, I’ve been there before.”
“Well, I think it’s great. It’s going to be the start of a lot of world travel for you. Because you’re going to be on a list some place as somebody who has something to offer in a foreign country. A good list. And I’m sure you’ll do a wonderful job. This is going to be the start of a lot of other trips. There’s funding for….” And here she drifts off again, the idea, the thought, the words drifting away from her. Finally she picks up the thread again: “You’re getting paid to travel.”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“Now how did I do it? How did I travel? I didn’t spend my own money either.”
“You rented your house at the Jersey shore for the summer, when school was closed because you had the summers off, and then you used the money from the rental to go on trips. Very smart.”
“Well, you take after your mother.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You’re shrewd. You’re very shrewd about money.”
“I like that word, Mom. Shrewd. What a great word.”
“What do you like about it?”
“I guess all those consonants and only one vowel in the middle. What a great Scrabble word.” Mom and I used to play Scrabble. I’m pretty sure we never will again.
“I’m going to miss you. When did you say you were going away?”
“In just a few minutes, Mom.”
“And where are you going?”
“I’m going to Scotland.”
“Are you going to have a computer?”
“Yes, mom, yes I will.”
“So will you email me? Will you leave me messages on my computer?”
I smile. Mom hasn’t turned on her computer, not once, since she moved into Sunshine Villa last December. But her mind hasn’t yet caught up with reality. The reality is that Mom will never read another email again.
“I’m going to send my blog posts to Antonia and she’ll print them out and bring them to your room. Just like she did the last time, so you can read about some of the adventures I’m having.”
“Oh good, I really liked that….” She pauses and pats my hand. “My wonderful daughter who nearly didn’t live. Did I ever tell you what the doctor told me when you were born?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. She just continues on, the tape is turned on; the story comes out. “The doctor told me that if you survived you were going to be among the top percentile in terms of achievement and health and everything. He was right.”
“Yeah, Dr. Gabel.”
“Oh yeah, Mom, I forgot to tell you. Terry Berman called me and told me that Adie Gabel died.”
“Yeah, Mom, you’re the last one left standing.” I lean against her and press my fingers on the palm of her hand. She squeezes back. “So, Mom, do you have any other advice for me before I go on my trip?”
“I didn’t think about this until this very second, but something about Jewish. You should drop into a synagogue for a holiday or a Friday night service and tell them about your adventure. And they might be hospitable or make suggestions to you. People like to help their own. That just occurred to me.”
I’m sure this isn’t something I’d ever do, but I do appreciate her telling me. “Anything else?”
“Be careful of what you eat. And you’re not a drinker so you don’t have to worry about that…
“I don’t know. I heard they make the best scotch in the world in Scotland. I might have to try some of that.”
“You can have a drink. That’s okay. But you’re not the kind of person who’d overdrink.” She pauses and laughs. “I am.”
I laugh, too. I never thought this would be something we could laugh about.
It’s almost time for me to go, even though I want to linger. Will she still be here on this couch when I return?
“So you’re leaving today? How wonderful. I’m so proud of the way this has come about. You’re making a contribution and you’re being paid for it. You’re going to be right in that country living their lives. That’s wonderful. So you’ll email me right?”
“I’ll send the updates to Antonia and she’ll read them to you.”
“Great. I really loved that. I read them twice.”
“Well, I have to go, Mom.”
“That’s okay. You go. I’m not worried. You don’t do that much for me. I’m not really dependent on you for too many things. I’m just going to miss you personally. Like the way we’re chatting right now and sitting so closely next to each other.”
“I’m going to miss you, too, Mom.”
“I get so much pleasure living near you in my life. Just having you available and sharing your children. And Karyn. You have a wonderful family.”
“I’m so glad you moved out here, Mom. It’s really worked out for both of us.” And I mean that. I’m glad she lives right across town.
“You’ve turned out to be a wonderful daughter. And I told you, didn’t I, that Doctor Gabel foretold that—if you survived that kind of traumatic birth, that you’d be special. You have a quality of being able to adjust and adapt to setbacks.”
“That’s really, true, Mom. I never thought of it that way.”
“Just be aware that there are always people to turn to. Even when you’re traveling.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Mom. But it’s time for me to go.”
“Well, I’ll be thinking of you and I’ll be getting your…your…? What do you call them?”
I reach over and hug her, her soft smooth cheek next to mine. “Boy, I lucked it with you,” she says, hugging me back.
“I lucked it with you, too.”
“Have a safe wonderful educational every-you-want-it-to-be trip.”
“I will, Mom. I love you.”
And then I smile at her one more time, get up from under her wall of masks, and once again, I leave my mother behind.