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Friday, November 15, 2013
"Meetings and Departures" (on a visit to my sister and mother)
meetings and departures
I visited my sister and mother in Boone, Iowa on November 8th through the 10th in 2013
I’ll meet you at the bottom of the escalator, e-mailed my sister about my impending arrival in Des Moines on November 8, 2013. I had been to a sales conference in Minneapolis, and being that close to my home state of Iowa, I had determined it was time to revisit my 88 year old mother, whom I had not seen for three long years, the last time being a special Thanksgiving dinner which my sister and I had hosted, the last event celebrated in her home before she determined to return to assisted an living home in which she had temporarily been staying. Now she was living across the state from that original residence, in an Eastern Star Home which my sister had found for her. Although I called and spoke long to my mother every week, I felt I had to see her again before the inevitable might occur.
The small plane connecting from Minneapolis to Des Moines, a Delta Airlines flight, arrived uneventfully and on-time, and I quickly preceded with the others on the flight to the afore-mentioned escalator. In the second row of a series of fixed seats sat a woman, who I recognized, faintly, as my sister. I say “faintly” because I was tired, my eyes slightly blurred, and my powers of perception not as sharp as they usually are. There are also times when we see, even loved ones, from a slightly new perspective that, although reminding us of the original image of family and friends, presents them also in a slightly disorientating and “different” perspective. This woman, who I logically knew to be my sister, seemed somehow transformed. In part, it was because she was reading, leaning into her computer, head bent, completely transfixed by the words before her. In that position she looked slightly older than I had ever perceived my sister (who is now 60 years of age), her breasts slightly sagging, her eyes a bit tearful. Perhaps she is being emotionally moved by the work, I thought to myself. I stood for a while beside the row in which she sat, hoping that she might look up and recognize me, freeing me from any lingering doubts. But she remained “caught up,” so to speak in her reading, transfixed in a world that clearly did not include me and which also, accordingly, slightly transformed her own visage.
Pat is a vigorous, forceful woman, whom you might describe as an high-achiever, an organized and engaged woman, clearly in charge of her world. But this “figure,” hunched over her Kindle, in her inattentiveness of the world about her, in her fixation on the text before her, seemed like someone else, and I was a bit afraid of disturbing her, afraid that I might, in fact, discover that she was not my sister, at least not the sister whom I felt I knew so well.
“Pat,” I called out. There was no response, as if I were speaking in a vacuum. “Pat,” I dared speak even louder. Still no recognition that anyone stood near or, for that matter, that all of my fellow fliers had just trudged past. My sister hates her given name, which I now brandished in the hopes that it might awaken her from her enchantment: “Patricia?” Still, no reaction came from this dreaming woman. Since she did not respond to her own name, perhaps, I imagined, a bit like a blind man, that she was not “Pat,” but another woman sitting there in her place. So confused was I that I walked past her, checking out the baggage area, where I saw no one even slightly similar to her appearance. Laughing at myself and the ridiculous situation, I turned back.
In my absence the reader had apparently stood up to put on her coat. Perhaps the spell had been broken, I pondered. But still, the magic talisman of her name had no effect. “Pat?” I cried out, slightly desperate at this point to be recognized. Still the reader was silent, caught up in her book. I considered actually going over to sit beside her, but that seemed so intrusive that I stopped mid-way. What if she really weren’t my sister, I ludicrously considered. Finally, the reader momentarily awoke, looking up and then, quickly, at her watch.
“Pat,” I called out one last time. She looked in my direction and quickly stood, suddenly becoming the woman I had known now for 60 years. She was now my sister without a doubt, and quickly led me out to her waiting car.
When I later humorously tried to retell the story of her inattention, she felt abashed and embarrassed, insisting that I must have whispered her name. But I saw the momentary (about 10 minutes in all) lack of recognition—hers of the world outside the word, mine the failure to identify my own sibling—as slightly moving, certainly poignant. For a few moments we, both of us, were not the beings we thought we had become, but were somewhat elderly figures in a landscape in which we could no longer recognize even ourselves. I tried to explain it to Pat by recalling the time, years earlier, when Howard and I had dined in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. Across the way was a woman who eerily looked, at least from a certain angle, like my mother. Of course, my Midwestern mother was not dining in this D.C. restaurant, and besides, head-on the woman did not look like my mother at all. Yet….again and again I kept staring at this woman who, in profile, looked so much like my mother that I couldn’t comfortably eat or even sit in that restaurant without feeling ill at ease.
Pat laughed. “You should have spoken up,” she responded, always the rationalist.
The next day she took me to the Eastern Star Home to see my mother. Both Pat and I had told my mother numerous times that I was coming to visit her, but my mother’s short-term memory had nearly disappeared, and when we suddenly came upon her and her walker in the hall, she was startled by my sudden appearance, although most pleasantly surprised. I greeted her almost as I might an acquaintance whom I had just encountered on the street, but a quick return to her room, which she ruled, sitting upon her favorite chair, brought back our intimacy. If she had forgotten that I might be there, she was nonetheless absolutely delighted that I was there and was planning to share lunch with her.
In the dining room, the workers had set up a separate table for me and my mother, which clearly disappointed her, since she was hoping to sit at her usual table so that she might introduce to one and all her older son come all the way from California. Soon, other diners began to appear, each of them with a walker in front, she way-laying each of them with her introduction of “My son from California.”
As I sat across from her after all these years, seeing her in her new “home,” I could suddenly saw how, although she was still a regal beauty, that she had grown older, her beloved hair (she demands a weekly permanent and rinse) beginning to thin out. She was, however, still strong of mind, able to recall things long past, only forgetful about what I had told her a few moments just before. Pat had told me the joyful news that my brother Dave, his wife, Jill, and his son, Pete, along with Pete’s fiancée Ashley—whom none of us had yet met—was coming to join us the next day. My mother’s three children had also not been together for years, and the event loomed large in my mind. Every few moments, however, my mother would repeat, “Are you going to see Dave on this trip?” or “Are you coming back tomorrow?” or “I better fill out a form for tomorrow’s lunch.” I repeated, “Yes I’ll see Dave, and you will too. We’re all going out to eat,” or “You don’t need to choose tomorrow’s meal, because we’re taking you out.” But she simply could not recall a few minutes later, repeating her questions over and over.
From my phone calls with her, I knew that she had become slightly demented, but I had no idea how serious it had become. And it was utterly no use to say, “you just asked that,” or even slightly scold her for her inattention, because she was oblivious in her lack of remembering, blind even to the frustrations one might feel for her inabilities.
I tried to imagine the fog in which she must live, a world in which she can obviously recognize and know what is going on, but, simultaneously, is unable to piece it all together, unable to comprehend that my being there might also result in another day or two of joy. And I realized how fearful one might feel in such a situation, where at any moment, inexplicably, the joy one felt in suddenly and accidentally encountering a loved one, might suddenly disappear as quickly as it had come
The next morning, Pat called my mother to remind her we were coming to pick her up, and my mother, miraculously, seemed suddenly to recall the promise I had several times made. Well dressed, she arrived, quite literally, basking in the joy of the arriving family members. I cannot ever recall her smiling, as if being washed over with an afternoon sun, so continuously. As little as she usually eats, she downed two pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and two cups of coffee at the Pizza Ranch where the 14 family members celebrated.
Afterwards, Pat, in taking my mother home, suggested she take us on a short tour of the schools and houses where her daughters lived. It was almost touching, as we passed the high school, to spot my niece, Jill, with whom we had just dined, busy grading papers in her classroom. It was a pleasant journey, much of it through a beautiful park, a journey which my mother seemed to encourage—that is, until suddenly, half way through these various detours, she announced to my sister, “My goodness, I never knew that I lived so long away from your house!” We laughed and returned her to her residence.
Pat and I took her to her room, and there, after a few more words, we did, just as my mother had always feared, “disappear.” Kissing her goodbye, I noticed tears welling in my mother’s old eyes, tears of love and joy certainly, but also tears of loss and loneliness. She would not see me, and she knew it, for a very long time—perhaps not ever again, although I promised to revisit her soon.
My sister reminded her of their regular Wednesday meetings, when Pat always brought her a bottle of wine, which the two women, mother and daughter, shared in a slightly illicit bond. “Mother loves her wine,” she repeated about a woman who had been a teetotaler almost all her life.
Pat is less of a sentimentalist than I, and upon leaving her she briefly allowed a kiss before driving off as I stood still at the curb. The pleasure of her and my family’s company, also for me, had been far too short.
Upon opening the door to our condominium on my return home, our cat Lily loudly called out to me in what seemed like genuine joy, rushing toward me to get her deserved petting.
Los Angeles, November 14, 2013
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2013).
Photographs ©2013 by Douglas Messerli