The past week and a half was a whirlwind. If I could mark the map of my life with a GPS tracker, there would be a dizzy ribbon stretching from Massachusetts to New York and back and back again, unfurling out to the west coast, coiling from LA to Claremont and back home again. I realize people travel like this for work all the time, but I am unused to it. It feels like little molecules of my self are suspended along the way, unable to keep up with my body’s movements. They’ll catch up eventually, but for a while they lurch in a drunken orbit around me, dissociated.
My travels have been family related, beginning with a visit to my dad in New York to catch up and check in. Now that my divorced parents are in their eighties, new fissures emerge in our family narrative, and my role as daughter and caregiver spans that breach. Mom and Dad lead separate existences on either side of the Triborough Bridge, close enough that it seems a wasted opportunity to only visit one or the other, but far enough that the details, and the traffic, can be vexing. When your elderly parents are not married to one another, visiting them, caring for them, staying on top of their ups and downs is an a la carte gig. Where do my own needs fall in this algebraic equation? How do we solve for Holly? The solution involves sharpening clarity about my boundaries, getting comfortable with the balance of what I can provide vs. what I cannot, acting from love instead of guilt, and developing skill at discerning the difference. Also: chocolate. And: wine.
My dad is in good health, overall, which means in terms of mind-share, he’s been on the back burner for a couple of months while other family members have taken bigger swigs from my loving cup. It was good to see him. We had a couple of nice meals together: a lunch of elegant salads at the French bistro across the corner from his apartment on 73rd street, and later, take-out Chinese food on tray tables in front of the Yankees-Astros game in his den/bedroom, walls chockful of artifacts from his travels to Asia back when my stepmother was still living. I caught him on up on the kids’ comings and goings, we traded impressions of a recent family wedding weekend where we’d been seated at different tables both nights and hardly saw each other. He seemed healthy and upbeat, although I wish he got more exercise. Also, more variety in his diet of TV and online news. Dad asked how Mom is doing. They have recently struck up a phone correspondence, comparing notes on their three fifty-something children. He knows Mom’s partner of forty years died this past spring. Dad lost both his mother and his wife in the past several years, so he has lived the brutal walk of grief. He observed that Mom doesn’t sound like herself, which is funny to hear coming from him. But it was nice of him to enquire; he knows a lot is on me. Mom has told me his perspective is reassuring, which I relay to him, passing a shuttle through a loom, weaving another line.
Sleepless and addled, my mother still feels her partner Jim’s May death like a punch to the gut. She wonders when it will pass – if ever – and whether at 82 she has the drive to write another chapter. She is isolated, rattling around in her own head like a loose part, pinging against the margins, constantly aware of her disrepair. This is grief, we all tell her. Give it time. But at her age she wonders, how long will it take? What portion of her remaining store must she earmark for suffering, then for rebuilding–selling a house, sorting through decades of belongings, perhaps moving to a new state, a more suitable community, one with handrails in the halls and dinner at five in the dining room (neither of which you need right now but you don’t know when you will, only that the day is closer this month than last). I tried several times over the past few years to engage her and Jim in addressing this awful inevitability: someone would be left grieving and alone. What was their plan? He was building a big house of his own design, a gracious residence that I felt would be over-sized for a young family of five. Jim was a gifted architect, and this was his last hurrah. They planned to move there from Mom’s more modest home in year or so when it was completed. Jim was suffering from CPD. At eighty-nine, his hearing was tenuous, his gait shuffled, he breathed shallowly, effortfully, as if he was sucking a thick milkshake through a straw. I was concerned for them. Was building this elaborate home a good idea, I asked again when they visited my house a year ago for Thanksgiving. Mom told me they had his family’s backing for the ambitious venture. After all, he was the one bearing the burden, financially, artistically, and as project supervisor. But what about our backing on our mom’s behalf? I worried she was forestalling decisions about her long-term situation that would affect our ability to be there for her when the need arose. The question was never really put to us. The salient unit at issue wasn’t mother and children, but mother and partner. Understandable. Frustrating. Complicated.
One of the threads weaving its way through my last week was to scoop up Mom from the service plaza just north of Mamaroneck on the Hutchinson Parkway and bring her to Massachusetts for a short visit. I’d suggested it about a week or two ago when I knew I’d be in New York seeing Dad. Although it’s hard to rebound from parent to parent in such short order, the efficiency is undeniable. Mom doesn’t like to travel. With her tendency towards migraine headaches, it’s no longer practical for her to do a four-hour drive on her own. Once up in Massachusetts, the hope was to get her some rest, a couple of good meals, dinner with my older brother who lives in Ipswich. If she felt up to it, we planned to tour a continuous care community that my sister-in-law Binni and I checked out over the summer on our reconnaissance tour of “adult prep schools.” Once Mom arrived at my house, her eyes brightened. She chatted with Lucy at the kitchen table, and bonded with Lucy’s cat, a lap jumper who meows conversationally in a running commentary on feline philosophy. The dogs barked and wagged, annoyingly underfoot. There’s life here: animals, conversation, cups of tea. Yes, Mom assured me. She wants to move to Massachusetts. “It’s okay, mom, if you want to stay in Long Island,” I told her. “It’s okay if you don’t want to visit these places just yet.” What we think we want and what feels right don’t always align. But she expressed certainty. She was here, after all, and couldn’t get back up our way until spring because she winters in Florida. “Let’s go visit Carleton Willard,” an assisted living community nearby, she said. I was glad. It’s hard, but we need to consider the possibilities.
I decided to drive her there via the back roads in Concord. In October, Monument Street looks like a page torn from a tourism calendar, rolling vistas unfurling in red, green and gold. The pavement winds charmingly between woods and farms, quintessential New England. I wasn’t sure how to navigate to Carleton Willard coming from west of Bedford. I programmed it into Waze, and the app did that irritating thing where it plots the most circuitous route imaginable, but since you’re on unfamiliar ground, you hesitate to overrule. It took over a half an hour to get there when it should have been a twenty-minute drive at most. As we pulled up the hill towards the main entrance, I could tell mom was already drained. It’s a quirky facility: the original revolutionary-era structure augmented by a low, flat brick 80’s addition on one side, and a tasteful, teal-colored 00’s shingle affair on the other. The effect is rambling and wonky, attractive in its own way, nicely landscaped, but not architecturally cohesive. Particularly not compared with the five thousand square foot, high-end home with formal courtyard and custom rounded moldings your long-time partner was building for your golden years.
After lunch in their new bistro ( the burger gets five stars–the carmelized onions were delicious), we got a tour, followed by a long sit-down with Carleton Willard’s masterful and empathic marketing director, Peggy. She is soon to retire after over twenty years. She could tell Mom was unnerved. “Everyone always asks ‘why are all the people here so old?’” she reassured us. You couldn’t help but notice the walkers and wheelchairs maneuvering carefully, like city traffic, through the main corridor. “I can promise you that almost no one who makes the decision to move to a community like ours does so because it’s what they’ve always dreamed of,” said Peggy. “The reason you do it is sitting right here,” she gestured to me. “Because you have to make a plan, for your family.” I appreciated this validation. A tidy balance of clear-eyed pragmatism on one hand, and compassionate salesmanship on the other: nobody wants to admit they are at this life-stage, but nonetheless, this is where you are. I get it. Let me help. Peggy will be difficult to replace when she retires.
Despite Peggy’s best efforts, the surprisingly good food, the perfect location, I could tell something about the place stuck irritatingly for mom, like a burr on your pant leg. There was a lack of fit she hesitated to express. She was willing to plop down her deposit for a spot on the wait list, box checked, duty done, but that would have belied her gut. Over tea back at home, I suggested perhaps we should check out another community, the one my sister-in-law and I felt would appeal to her the most after our summer touring – Fox Hill Village, a cooperative community that’s more formal and luxurious than Carleton Willard, the kind of place where men wear jackets and ties for dinner. Even the convenience store there was elegant. Fox Hill also had a bit more zing, energetically. Mom was open to it, even though we didn’t have an appointment and wouldn’t get the full download from Karen, their Peggy-counterpart. We made a detour down there on Saturday, before delivering Mom to the friend who had come to drive her home. Diane, the front-desk receptionist, walked us around. It wasn’t her job and she didn’t have to, a kindness more compelling than a color brochure. An older gentleman noticed us and took obvious interest – my mother may be feeling frail and grief-thumped, but she has always been spectacularly pretty and is no less so for her current stress. He joked loudly with staff members in an obvious gambit for Mom’s attention. They bantered back, good-natured, playful. There was a lively and generous mood to the place, not to mention the physical plant is drop-dead gorgeous and more in line with the aesthetic Mom and Jim preferred. Something in her shifted. She could picture herself there, imagine another chapter, in a pretty apartment with a little patio. She might try bridge again or join the hand bell choir. There would be people to share meals with, her kids popping down for lunch or dinner. Maybe she’d even adopt a cat. How we get there from here is overwhelming to think about, but the end result could be okay. Maybe even good. Possibly very good.
The next day, John went to visit his parents in Connecticut, Lucy was at work, and I had the house to myself. It was Indian summer warm, so I took my laptop out to the porch, hoping to close out a novel chapter I’ve been wrestling with, one that refuses to end, just keeps spooling into another fragment like a Lernaean Hydra, growing new heads every time I try to cut one off. Things got cooking and I stumbled onto an unexpectedly gristly plot twist, which is the fun part of writing. When the land line rang, I ignored it – it could wait. The only calls we ever get on the home phone anymore are telemarketers. Or one of our parents. But I had just seen both my parents and John was with his. Then my cell rang. Hmmmm, some distant voice wondered in the back of my mind–should I get that? I was scribbling a scene that takes place, appropriately enough, at the retirement home of the narrator’s father. It made me laugh. I ignored the phone.
Ten minutes later, my cell rang again, and since I had to pee anyway, I decided to check it. Patty, my mom’s Long Island housekeeper slash friend slash caregiver. Shit.
By Monday afternoon, I was down on Long Island by my mother’s bedside in the telemetry unit at the community hospital, where doctors were trying, with limited success, to diagnose the cause of her sudden onset of symptoms: aphasia, nausea, light-headedness, confusion, high blood pressure. Atrial fibrillation throwing off clots, leading to a series of TIAs? A small stroke? Or just “a really bad migraine,” possibly brought on by stress? Neither the range of options nor the lack of clarity inspired confidence. Her pacemaker rules out MRI testing. Her CAT scans looked normal, but the EEG showed definite left hemisphere glitches, we later found out. For some reason, no one thought to download the data from her pacemaker, which would confirm or deny the presence of a-fib. Or perhaps they weren’t able to, for some reason? The logic of hospitals is perpetually murky to its subjects.
When I arrived, Mom’s eyes were cloudy and she looked at me as if from a distance. She ranged from coherent to garbled, sometimes making perfect sense, then lapsing into spoonerisms: I had mightnares Laturday sight and I wouldn’t cake up. Her cellphone wallpaper (a benign white daisy on a black background) was undecipherable to her, making her think she couldn’t dial calls. Her roommate cried out, “Help me, help me!” Courtesy of Patty-the-housekeeper’s charm and extensive local connections, God bless her, we moved Mom to a private room, talked to doctors, did the best we could to understand her condition, which improved markedly with sleep, hydration and the promise of discharge. By late Tuesday afternoon, she was back home, clear-eyed and articulate, if still a little foggy. My brother Randy arrived from Ipswich to take over. I drove home Wednesday. I had Lucy’s debut show as a paid costume designer to see; I had to pack for my early Friday morning flight to California, get the house in order, retrieve a car from the shop. Picking up the threads of my own life.
On Friday by lunchtime, I was checking in to the Beverly Hilton, an “Oasis” room that was simultaneously hip and dated, with a sliding door leading out to a fountained interior courtyard that would be lovely, except for the cheesy artificial grass. You feel the lurch, right, from the dimly lit Long Island hospital corridor, to the plastic glam of Beverly Hills? I certainly did. On Friday afternoon, I visited with my brother Welles’ wife Liz and their young kids while he, inconveniently, was on set in New York. There was a flurry of stories and hide and seek, my four-year old niece Tess making me laugh out loud when she offered to help me wedge “that big booty” in the kids’ tiny pop-up circus tent for a game that I never quite understood (in which I had to growl like a bear from inside the tent while Tess and Sam disappeared outside). Liz ordered take-out Ramen for the kids, and later take-out Italian for us. John arrived from a business trip in San Francisco and we drove to Claremont after breakfast on Saturday, the Scripps College campus saturated with sunshine and roses, mountains rising aridly behind a backdrop of white stucco Spanish revival buildings with red tile roofs. Mia was showering when we arrived, so we drafted into her dorm in the wake of another student. We wandered through the exquisite common spaces: a vast terra-cotta tiled entry foyer with soaring ceilings and a grand staircase, the upholstered living room with its antique piano, a quaint interior courtyard with a stone-carved well in the center. Standing on the courtyard lawn we considered the balcony above, trying to pinpoint the French doors to Mia’s second floor double. One set of doors was festooned with laundry, hanging from the sage green shutters and black wrought iron railing. I recognized Mia’s plaid shirts, a flowered dress, her red bath towels. What a luxury of the desert college lifestyle. Air-dried balcony laundry was not a feature of my New Jersey college years.
A second breakfast with coffee crackled with Mia’s animated recitation of her collegiate life: classes about the environment and cities and music; acapella and play rehearsals; her job as an admissions tour “ambassador;” her study-abroad application. To borrow a word from her girlhood friend Chessy, she seems “thrive-y,” vibrant and blooming. After Mia left for her pre-show call, we checked in to the Doubletree and took a quick shopping trip to Trader Joe’s, stocking up on her favorite Luna bars and dried mango, getting a bottle of Pinot Grigio for the dorm fridge. We delivered these to her room, leaving congratulatory flowers in a ceramic mug on her desk. We took in both Saturday performances of “Cabaret,” in which Mia played several roles: a cabaret patron, a German-speaking train conductor, a Kit Kat club dancer. The timeliness of the musical is disconcerting: Germany’s slide into nationalism, from there to perverse nativism and racism — how easily evil roots when leaders demonize the “other” and good people look away or make excuses, many turning to escapism. The parallel to our current political climate is chilling. The performance, chosen at this time, means to provoke discussion, reflection, perhaps even action.
We grabbed dinner between shows with our daughter, still in full stage makeup, laboriously blinking enormous false eyelashes. “Ugh,” she said. “There’s something in my eye.” Dozens of bobby pins pin-curled her long hair close to her skull, better to fit under costume wigs. She ordered steak as she always does, with béarnaise sauce and truffle fries. I couldn’t stop marvelling at how beautiful she is, how full of life, so interesting and engaged, a woman coming in to her unique power. She told us about the backstage drama, the challenges of updating the play while respecting history. A Jewish friend in the cast was wounded by the revisionism; castmates rallied, outraged, to the young woman’s defense; tense conversations with the director ensued. Mia’s college experience is exactly as it should be, I thought. I miss her.
By Sunday morning at seven a.m., after logging in four hours of sleep at the Doubletree, we were back in LA, sitting on the tarmac, hoping to beat bad weather to Boston. Our plane pitched and rolled precipitously just before landing, yanked out of our approach pattern by air traffic control because of a runway emergency involving a galley fire on an incoming aircraft. We landed at four. By five-thirty, we were home.
Monday morning, I was still in transit, mentally and spiritually, so my class—the first time I’ve taught in ten days– felt a little disembodied, the opposite of what a teacher wants to transmit in a movement class. But today, I felt drenched in sensation, the music washing over my skin and into my sinews, swirling in and among the students in a whirlpool of healing movement. I’d be lying to say that I am not greatly and deeply pleased to be back home. I’m mindful, though, of that old bumper sticker: “Wherever you go, here you are.”