Many of you are already familiar with my 85-year-old mother, Temme, who I moved out to California four years ago. She lives in Sunshine Villa, an assisted living facility about ten minutes from our house.
Yesterday the last thing I did after all my errands and the final check of my bags was to go over to say goodbye.
When I got to her door, I knocked. I usually carry a key to let myself in, but I’d already stashed it, along with my safe deposit key, in a baggie in my underwear drawer. “Mom,” I yelled from outside Room 103, “Open the door.”
She yelled back, “Come in!”
“I DON’T HAVE A KEY,” I yelled louder. “You’re going to have to let me in.”
She, louder: “COME IN!”
“I can’t! I don’t HAVE A KEY!”
I knocked and called two more times. Then I waited a long time, five minutes at least, but finally she tottered over to the door and opened it. “Why didn’t you come in?”
“It was locked, Mom.”
“It was locked?”
“Yes, if you close the door, it locks automatically.”
I picked up a pile of newspapers from the floor in front of her and dropped them into her recycling bin. We settled ourselves on the couch, underneath her salmon-colored wall full of masks from her travels all over the world.
Mom stared at me with open-hearted joy. No one, except my children when they were small, and our family dog, has ever been so happy to see me. “So you’re leaving?”
“Yes, Mom, I fly out tonight.”
“And where are you going?”
“I’m going to Australia first, and then I’m going to Bali.”
“Where are you going in Australia?”
“To the Gold Coast. I fly into Brisbane,” I said, pronouncing it, Briz-bane.
“It’s pronounced Brisbin,” she corrected.
“Thanks for the tip, Mom. Now I won’t sound like a tourist.”
Mom smiled. She still had something to offer me. “You know, I’ve been to Australia.”
“I know, Mom, you used to go visit your friend there.”
“I wonder if she’s still alive. Maybe she’s dead.”
I took her hand and laughed. “No, Mom, she’s alive. She contributed to your 85th birthday book last year, remember?”
Oh course she didn’t, but that didn’t matter.
Mom squeezed my hand. I squeezed hers back. “I’m going to miss you. I really count on seeing you and talking to you.”
“I know Mom,” I said. “I’m going to miss you, too. But Antonia is going to come in and read you parts of my blog. So you can follow my trip, too.”
“When did you say you’re leaving?”
“In just a few hours, Mom.” She looked happy and peaceful, and as I held her gaze, I kept thinking, Please don’t die while I’m in Bali. Please don’t get sick. Just keep hanging in there, one day at a time. No big changes this month, please.
Yet I knew that nothing was certain—in my life or hers. A month was going to be a long time for us to be separated. What if this was the last time I saw my mother alive? What if she had a stroke or fell and broke a hip? What if something happened to her? All I knew for sure was that we had this moment.
“You know, Mom,” I said to her, “you were the original traveler. Once you started traveling, you traveled all over the world.”
“Have I been to Bali?”
“I don’t think so, Mom, but I know you went to Tahiti.”
She smiled a big grin. I looked up at the masks and wondered which one was from Tahiti. I knew that she couldn’t tell me. But I guess that really didn’t matter.
“Laurie, be safe. You know there are thieves everywhere. You have to be careful with your wallet.”
“I know, Mom.”
“You just have to be careful. There are pickpockets everywhere.”
“I’m glad you’re telling me, Mom. That’s what mothers are supposed to do.” In just a couple of hours, I’d be saying goodbye to my 16-year-old daughter, who would be leaving for a six week trip to study Arabic in Morocco while I was away. I’d probably tell her much the same thing.
Mom paused and looked off into the far distance, going to a place I couldn’t follow. “I don’t think anything really bad ever happened to me.”
“But you had lots of great adventures.”
“You’re going to have adventures, too.”
Her hand, so familiar, felt warm and soft in mine. I patted her gnarled knuckles; the skin around them was so soft.
We’d been sitting there for twenty minutes. It had been long enough. “Mom, I have to go. I’m really going to miss you.”
Her face looked so open, her smile wide. “I’m really going to miss you, too.”
And then I gave her a hug and sent up a prayer that nothing happen to her while I was away. It was hard to leave her, but I knew she wanted me to live my life. She had always loved to travel and now a trip to the dining room sometimes seemed much too far away. I know she wanted me to go.
“I love you, Mom,” I said, taking another moment to memorize her face and her smile, to feel her skin, still warm.
At the door, I waved back at her and she waved at me. Then I made my way through the hallways of Sunshine Villa, past dozens of small American flags commemorating Memorial Day. They were stuck in the center of all the dining room tables and pasted all over the walls, with signs like, “America, Right or Wrong” with the “or Wrong” crossed out. Probably the flags would still be there when I got home; the 4th of July was just around the corner.
On my way out, I greeted some of the residents I knew, signed out in the guest register, and walked out through the big double front doors, off for my big adventure. I was leaving my mother behind.