“We’re a trip, right?”
Mom smirks as she speaks, nodding slyly toward my father, who has just come downstairs. Dad is wearing a garish green shirt with joker card faces on it, gray pants, and the black sneakers the VA gave to him for his diabetic feet. Mom has on black slacks, a red and white polka dot blouse, and a black sweater. Dad puts on a black jacket to hide the joker card faces, and we depart. Another of their friends has died, so we are on our way to a wake. Again.
Glo and Wes still live in the two-family house they bought in 1965 when we moved from Harlem to the Bronx. On the day we moved in, Mom, Dad, my brother Neal and I raced back and forth over the glistening hardwood floors. We ran up and down the stairs, marveling at the space and the freedom.
Fifty-three years later, the space is cluttered, the freedom is less free. Gone are the lithe, active parents I knew, replaced by frail facsimiles. Who are these people? This forgetful man who frequently repeats himself. This unsteady woman who walks haltingly with a cane. Sometimes, as Marvin used to sing, it makes me wanna holler. And sometimes it just makes me want to cry.
Don’t misunderstand; I get it. My parents are card-carrying members of the Greatest Generation, and I’m fortunate to still have them in my life. I thank God every day that I can still pick up the phone and hear their voices. I’ve been blessed. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the blessing is at times bittersweet.
Back in the day, Dad worked as a correction officer and Mom worked as a school nurse. Dad was the original party animal, the cool cat who dressed well, drank hard, played the numbers. He eagerly “took you to Boston” — talking smack all the way — whenever the opportunity arose in a game of bid whist.
Mom was the family’s first college graduate, the money manager, the cook, the lady with the contagious laugh.
They were a pair, competent and committed to keeping the family together despite the issues that arose between them. Together, they made a life. Together, they were strong. But sometimes, when I look at them today, I’m sad, even if I feel that I have no right to be. Each has lost weight and each faces a myriad of health challenges. Between Dad’s diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, back pains and prostate cancer and Mom’s hypertension, kidney issues, vision loss, insomnia and anemia, we make multiple doctor visits each month. Dad has trouble hearing; Mom has trouble walking. The bad days are starting to outnumber the good.
I love my parents, but sometimes I fail to respond lovingly. Dad asks the same question for the fourth time in 30 minutes and I sigh. Loudly. Mom rejects my hand as she does her best Miss Jane Pittman walk from the car to the drugstore and I pout. Really?
Frustration walks lockstep with fear inside me because I know that things aren’t going to get better for them and there is only one way this will end. I get mad at myself for not always treasuring our time together. Meanwhile I get palpitations when the phone rings late at night. Is this the call? I’m always wondering. Always worrying. Always waiting. Yes, that is the bitter.
But there’s also … the sweet.
Mom’s laugh remains contagious. Mentally she is still on point and exercises at the senior citizen center when she can, attends church when she can, cooks a meal or two on the weekends. Dad still fixes bacon and eggs each morning (did I mention that he has high cholesterol?) eats ice cream at night (did I mention he’s a diabetic?) and roots for his Mets on TV. He actually climbed a ladder in the backyard last summer to cut some vines from a fence. To me, this is the very definition of cray cray. When I cajole him about the wisdom of a 91-year-old man taking on such a task in the heat of the noonday sun — alone — he is unapologetic. “I’m not useless,” he responds. “I can still do things. I’m still me.”
Drop the mic: There it is. Dad is still Dad, headstrong and willful. Mom is still Mom, supportive and sharp. They are who they’ve always been — in some ways diminished, in some ways altered, but at their core, unchanged. And the beauty is that, despite how hard life has become for them, they haven’t given up. In my parents’ determination to make it on their own for as long as they can, I see a strength that is almost unimaginable. For that, I am grateful.
We’ve returned from the wake. Mom descends the stairs gingerly, holding the bannister with both hands for support. Dad sits in the brown recliner and wrestles with a Jumble puzzle from the day’s paper. He’s been doing these puzzles for at least 50 years and, as he has ever since I was in high school, Dad solicits my help when there’s a word he’s unsure of. “G-e-y-s-e-r,” he spells out. “Geyser — that’s a word, right?”
“Yeah, Dad,” I reply. “You got it.”
He fills the letters in the puzzle. Mom goes to the kitchen to reheat the dinner they picked up from the senior citizen center the day before. We engage in a little small talk before I prepare to drive to my own home, which is 35 miles away. As usual, my parents walk to the front porch to see me off.
“Call and let the phone ring once when you get home so that we know that you got there safely,” Dad says.
I am 61, not 16.
“Sure,” I reply.
I walk down the steps, then glance back over my shoulder. Mom is standing behind the slightly-ajar screen door, Dad is standing in front of it, and they watch as I start my car and pull away from the curb. Flo and Wes wave from the front porch. Their images get smaller in the rearview mirror as I slowly drive away.
Glo and Wes, Loves of a Lifetime
Married 62 years, Mom’s 93 and Dad’s 91. I shuttle them between wakes and doctor visits. At 61, I’m so blessed to enjoy home cooking and word puzzles in the house where I grew up. But driving home afterward, I shake off the anxious certainty that any of my visits to see them together will someday be the last.
“We’re a trip, right?”