On the evening my mother died alone in a retirement home in Chicago, I was 1500 miles away in Austin, Texas standing in line with our eight year old grandson waiting for Rick Riordan to autograph the very latest in his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
It was one of those perfect May days. I’d stopped to have coffee at an outdoor café and treated myself to the Times crossword. Dawdling in the morning was the first course of what felt like the feast of life in Austin, beautiful weather, beautiful grandchildren, enough work to be interesting, but not enough to be stressful. In what still felt like real life, the one from which I had just retired as English teacher and college counselor in Charlottesville, by this hour I would already have taught a class, answered emails, and tried to soothe a handful of worried parents. Here in Austin I was sitting on a sunny patio, gazing at a skate boarder with puffy dreadlocks sailing cheerfully past. No one seemed in a hurry, least of all me.
I’d made a point of calling Mother as I sat there, a daily ritual, one usually performed in the evening, but that I’d somehow neglected the night before. If Mother was disappointed , she didn’t say so. She rarely complained, although everything that had kept her going was now gone– her husband of almost 75 years, the family that now sprawled across the country, her capacity to read and write. At 99 she had become almost totally dependent on others.
Struggling to hear her murmured words, it was easy to forget she’d taught until she was 90, consulted until 95, authored two books, nurtured three generations , and thrived as partner in an exemplary marriage. Often I would find myself almost literally shouting over the phone, trying to make myself heard across a rapidly thickening wall of separation. And often, honestly, I was relieved to hang up.
I hadn’t known that morning that Mother’s and my brief conversation would be our last, that she’d sleep through most of the day, and grow increasingly unresponsive. If I’d called the night before I might have captured her for just a moment by reading from the volume of poetry that I kept by the phone for that purpose, knowing that shared words could almost always draw her back into life. But I hadn’t called, and not for any complicated reason. I was just plain tired. Weary. Weary of monitoring high blood pressure and low, weary of falls and infections, weary of fearing the sound of the phone and keeping a packed suitcase beside the bed. Weary especially of the endless question of whether I was doing it well enough -- fulfilling this unexpected assignment of helping my parents through the ends of their lives.
Oh, I knew then, know now that none of us had cause for complaint. My parents had had long life, good health until the end, ample resources. I wasn’t wrong to revel in a perfect May day, to choose the company of an appreciative eight-year-old, to postpone my next visit just a little longer. Surely the choices I made that sunny Austin day were exactly the ones I hope our own children will make some day. Or so it seems now.
-- Karen O'Neil lives in Charlottesville
- ▼ April (5)