Back in January, my father had fallen on his tailbone, walking backwards as a balance exercise, and he was still in a great deal of pain. He had had two epidurals — one outpatient, one in the hospital — but they hadn’t budged the pain. I was concerned for him, and for my mom, who relies on him for so much. “My work’s pretty mobile these days,” I assured Mom, “and if you ever need me to come stay with you, let me know.”
My dad called three days later. He needed help getting his tax papers ready for the accountant and wanted to take me up on my offer. I couldn’t imagine being particularly useful in that regard, but if he was asking for help, I was not inclined to hesitate. My father is a crack businessman — organized, efficient, self-reliant. I couldn’t remember him wanting anything from his children other than our company and happiness. But the storyline was changing.
I loaded my laptop with any work I might need, and cashed out some airline points for a flight to Florida three days later. When their car pulled up to meet me at the airport, Mom was behind the wheel. I don’t think I’d ever seen her drive when Dad was in the car. As Dad got out of the passenger seat to give me a hug, I could see that just getting out of the car was painful. I hoisted my suitcase into the trunk and got in the back seat.
Memories of my last visit, just three months before, flooded me when I walked into their apartment. In December, Charles and I had flown out from Santa Fe, and our son Ariel and his girlfriend Hanna flew in from Germany, where they’ve been living. We celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, winter sunshine and my dad’s birthday. Wheeling my bag into the guest bedroom where “the kids” had slept, I could still see Hanna’s cute sandals and Ariel’s big flip-flops in my mind. But the story was changing.
Dad had lost 10 pounds since January. Standing up, he would lean on a counter or chair for support; sitting, he slumped a bit from the pain. The dining room table had been co-opted as his workstation, since it was less painful than sitting at his desk. He handwrote tax data into lists that I typed into a computer spreadsheet.
We all know we’re going to lose our parents someday. It’s Chekhov’s proverbial gun on the wall in the first act that will go off by the end of the play. It’s actually the “better” grief, compared to seeing children go before their parents. My parents have been remarkably healthy and fit for their 80-some years. I loved seeing my friends’ jaws drop when they learned my parents’ ages, when they came to visit last summer for Ariel’s graduation party. I told my brother our dad had been “blessedly spoiled” by good health for so long. But age was gaining ground.
I made Dad’s breakfast in the morning — an elaborate ensemble of three or four cereals, sliced fruit, raisins or dried cranberries, which I’d watch him make for years. I made dinner with Mom, watched Dr. Oz with her in the afternoon (“Ozzie!” as she gushingly calls him), and showed her how to search for recipes on her laptop. I accompanied them to doctor appointments and met their financial advisor. I enjoyed the time just to settle into being a daughter, without rushing off to the beach or a museum with the hubby and son.
After dinner every night Mom took two containers of gelato from the freezer and put them on the kitchen counter with three spoons that we’d use for eating straight from the jar. I could still hear her shrieking when as kids one of us put a spoon in the ice cream container after it had been in our mouths. The rules had changed.
For several years I’ve had a tendency to picture a human lifespan in the typical five-act structure of a Shakespearean drama. By their ages — 84 and 88 — my parents are deep in Act V. They’ve just been so healthy that that reality hasn’t pressed itself upon me. By the usual formula, the Grand Dramatist may have plenty of action in mind before the final exeunt but no major new plotlines, no new characters. Looking at their lives’ drama, I see two profoundly kind people: loving parents, good citizens. They donate to PBS, recycle everything, support the arts, volunteer. They’ve even been able to model a loving 60-year relationship. I don’t know how much more you can hope for from parents.
Meanwhile, the other half of my loving relationship was 2000 miles away. I was able to keep up with work by email and phone, but as my trip ended its second week, Charles began emailing photos of the apricot tree blooming outside our front door. Spring was reaching Santa Fe — for all intents and purposes for the first time in two years. Would the hard frosts and winds that blasted out last year’s spring nip this one before I got home?
“You should write a story about the apricot tree that didn’t bloom long enough,” Mom said.
The night before I left, I woke from a frightening dream. I was climbing a ladder to the top of an unfinished building, with a group of people I didn’t know. At the top we were informed that we’d have to jump off the roof. I was terrified. I was angry. “How can you expect us to jump off a two-story building?” I shouted. No one else seemed worried. Someone was even annoyed with me for making a fuss. I asked a sympathetic looking woman for advice how to do this. “Don’t think too much about it,” she said. “Just jump, and when you get to the ground your feet will be happy.”
I peered over the edge, hoping I had been exaggerating the distance to the ground, but as I looked down at the terraced slate patio below us, I couldn’t imagine jumping without getting hurt. I woke in deep panic, before my turn to jump.
I couldn’t make heads or tails of this dream until I told it to Charles the morning after I got home. It was about preparing myself to let go of my parents, he suggested. We know many people who have gone through the process, but each of us has to make that leap ourselves. I know it is a natural, inevitable process, maybe even ultimately beautiful. But I also know I’m not ready to see that curtain fall.
Now, I know you must think I say this about every Tumbleweeds, but this is a really, really great issue. Did you know that there are over 28,000 species of worms? That there are more than 150 species of plants in the Railyard Park? That a single cup of healthy soil contains more living species than have ever lived above ground? Or that foraging bees pass nectar to their sister-bees by kissing each other? Read on!! Celebrate the life around you in all its expansive, exquisite, messy and hopeful splendor. And please let us hear from you!