By now I am used to my mother and the dotty things she says. Like the time she woke up from a nap, looked straight at me and said, “Where’s Jane?” When I said, “Right here,” she answered, “No, the real Jane.”
It only lasted a minute, the misunderstanding. We got through it. Now it’s a joke between us (at least on my end).
So last Sunday, during our weekly 10 a.m. telephone call, which I look forward to no matter how disjointed or confused they are, when she asked me, “Am I your real mother?” I didn’t get upset or unhinged. I merely said, “Yes.”
I gave the same answer when she asked three more questions: “Are you my real daughter? Was there anyone in between? Was Nana your real grandmother?”
After going through the whole family tree - yet again - she said quite cheerfully, “OK. I get it now. Perfect.” She followed this up with, “I guess I’m getting used to being old.”
At that point I couldn’t resist a question of my own.
“What’s it like, getting old?” She’s 93.
After a short pause, when I wasn’t sure if she heard me or not, she gave a fairly neutral, appropriate, levelheaded response. “Not much fun.”
Hard to know where any of us will end up in this business of life.
Last summer a distant cousin of mine I’m very fond of, a playwright, early 60’s, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After that, she and her husband left their upstate New York home for an apartment in Dallas to be closer to a treatment center and to her sister, who lives there.
Soon after, her parents moved into the same complex, “so we can all worry together,” my cousin said, “like stagecoaches huddling together for safety.”
We talk now and then but never about her situation. I’m guessing she talks and thinks about that enough as it is. What news I get - and it’s not much - is from her sister. Then, a few months ago, on a cross-country trek, I found myself in Dallas. Should I call her or not?
Maybe she wouldn’t want to see me. Maybe she wasn’t seeing any one. I called anyway.
Come over! she said. Visit! So I did. And it was great. Lots of laughs, angst about the president, the world, stories of family mishagas. Nothing serious, nothing specific. When I asked if she talks to old friends, trying, I suppose, to broach the subject of her illness, she said, “Not much. It gets too emotional.”
The only other reference she made to her situation was when she said she’d been doing research on what to do with her cockatiels, “you know, when the time comes.”
Towards the end she talked a little bit about her treatment. There were three options, she said, none of them good. I wasn’t listening real well at that time because I didn’t want to get emotional the way I know I could have.
But are you in any pain?, I finally asked.
No, she said. Occasional headaches. Some fatigue during the treatments. Frustration at not being able to find the right word.
Are you writing?
No. Too hard.
And that was it. She feels okay. She and her sister complain about their parents, “the old people.” She goes to movies, shops with her daughter when she visits and every once in a while has to push her husband out of the apartment and out of town so he can keep in touch with the rest of his life.
There have been miracles before. They could happen again. Any one of us could get hit by a car on any given day. We just don’t know. She loves hearing about my mother, whom she has met. She laughed hard at her recent spate of questions. What will happen to her, we don’t know.
I’m ready for the worst, looking for the best and planning on continuing to talk to her.
But, don’t you know. Death is swirling around all the time. We do not have to look far to find his ways. He is not selective, not picky. And not shy. The other day when I rode my bike to Back in the Day Bakery, debating what to order for lunch, looking forward to a little banter with Cheryl Brown, the delightful owner and chief baker, I saw a sign on the door that stopped me in my tracks.
Her sister Natalie, 49, the cheerful, chatty, lighthearted, clever and always pleasant woman whose voice floated from the Brownsville side of the cafe, who always had a story, always something to say about her dogs or someone else’s dogs, had died. In her sleep. Just like that.
From a heart condition that she and others knew about but that was presumably under control.
As we read the note, a group of us stood there, stunned and speechless and sad.
“I just saw her the other day,” one woman said. “But I didn’t stop. Now I wonder why I didn’t take time to talk.”
So do I.nç
E-mail Jane at firstname.lastname@example.org