Tomorrow I fly to North Carolina to retrieve my eighty-one-year-old mother and bring her here to South Dakota for as long as she wants to stay. I can’t wait to throw my arms around her and wrap her up. I won’t let go until she lets go.
I haven’t seen Mom since our family visited her and Dad, the week after Christmas, 2019. More than five hundred days ago. Back then, none of us knew that a pandemic was bearing down. Back then, Dad still recognized us. Back then, he was still alive.
Now, in preparation mode, my mind is running wide open, full-throttle. How best to ease Mom’s way through airports? How to transform our “music room” into a downstairs bedroom? What foods to stock for her, what meals to cook? How to arrange for her oxygen and manage her prescriptions? What to do in case of an episode with her heart?
As I problem-solve, my thoughts sometimes race ahead to a point when all such questions will have been answered. Suddenly, in my imagination, I’m walking into the front lobby of Abernethy Laurels, the elder care facility that has been my parents’ home, the past several years. Only recently has it started to reopen to the public, permitting a limited number of guests per day for brief social calls. Everyone screened, masks required.
Once I sign in at the receptionist’s desk, I turn left by habit, headed to Dad’s room in the skilled care wing. Then I remember: He’s not there anymore.
I backtrack toward Mom, in assisted living. Once I reach her hallway, my imagination falters. What will happen next? Will I hurry, fast as I can, down the bright corridor to her room, or will I move slowly, gathering myself from a swirl of emotions? Will I knock softly on her door, or will she have left it ajar, to welcome me?
Once I step inside and our eyes meet, will either of us speak? Or will I hasten across the room, without words, so our bodies can fold in on each other, with a familiarity begun in the womb? How soon will our tears begin to flow, joy and grief and relief mingling on our faces?
I can’t do this. Much as I look forward to being with Mom again, I can’t keep playing out our reunion in advance. Such rehearsals can help contain or control surges of feeling. They can also offer a sweet foretaste of desire, fulfilled. But they aren’t real. And they can set up expectations that might lead to disappointment. I mean, what if I arrive to find Mom asleep in her chair, or closeted in her bathroom? Hardly the dramatic scene of my fantasies!
Let whatever happens be enough, I tell myself. After such a painful stretch of physical separation, after so much lockdown and loss, whatever happens will be enough, if only I can let go of wishing for this or that.
* * *
For so long, everyone in the country has been high up in the Big Top, each hanging onto our own trapeze, swinging back and forth, scared and tired, unable to get off. None of us ever wanted to be in this one-act circus, let alone performing aerial tricks. The pandemic is what put us here. We’ve just been hoping to hold on until the end of the show, without falling.
At last, thanks to vaccines, life’s ringmaster is allowing us to climb down to the ground. There are a lot of us, and only one ladder, so it’s taking a while.
After so much time aloft, we’re a little wobbly on our legs, once we’re safely down. But we’re getting stronger.
We’ve rigged a sturdy net under those still up in the air. “Why bother with a ladder when you’ve got gravity?” we holler, urging them to jump.
I beckon to Mom, still swaying on her trapeze. She’s so afraid of heights. “Trust me,” I call up to her. “Let yourself go. We’ll catch you. I promise!”
* * *
Mom hasn’t been to our home in South Dakota since Nathan was nine, nearly a decade ago. Thereafter, as it became harder for her and Dad to travel, we always went to them.
Now, Nathan is about to graduate from high school. We’re thrilled that Mom agreed to make the cross-country trip to celebrate this milestone with us.
Somehow, Dad will be with us, too. I can just see him—younger, able-bodied—helping us prepare the picnic shelter in Hillcrest Park for the graduation party. No decorating, though. “That’s for you women.”
I can see him after the ceremony, grabbing Nathan’s hand with a broad grin and yanking him into an awkward man-hug. I can hear him delivering a congratulatory speech, exuding his farmer’s gospel of faith and self-reliance. I can see him puffing up with pride over Nathan’s full-tuition college scholarship. I can hear him quizzing Nathan about possible fields of study and careers, until finally we have to say, “Hey, Dad, this is a party—remember?”
Like my reunion fantasies about Mom, none of these visions of Dad are real. Yet, I do believe they’re true. They’re true even as memories are true, still coloring and shaping our lives even when we’re unaware.
So it is that those who are gone from us remain. They’re not with us fully, but they’re with us enough that we can learn to live with their absence. They’re with us enough that they, too, form part of the net of love into which we drop, trusting it to catch us.
One more day, Mom. Then you can let go.