Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Comrades in Arms

When my son Grant was looking for his first car, he wanted something zippy and red. The best he could do on his budget was a tarnished-silver 280Z that had seen better days. It was a tank (drivability, not durability), but we had it painted red, and he loved it.

Actually, he didn’t love it that much, but that was the line he gave my mom after he left it behind to go off to college in her hometown and they began hanging out when his laundry hamper got to be too aromatic or the dorm cafeteria was closed. I can see his sorrowful brown eyes, her eyes, damp in the corners if he was on his game, as he told her I had sold his baby to buy a car for his sister.

On our way rejoicing
No matter how many times I told her Grant was just having fun at my expense (payback for my various sins), Mom went to her grave believing, or at least not disbelieving, Grant’s tall tale. Now and then over the years she and I would be talking and, especially if she was annoyed with me, she would stop whatever she was saying and lean over and touch my arm with a trembling hand, as if to exorcize my callous insensitivity, and say, “Mac, why did you sell Grant’s car?”

Meg and Chris and Nick and I moved to Nashville not long after Grant graduated from Vanderbilt. Living in the same town with Mom again was like rediscovering her. You grow up and go off to life, and maybe there have been some rocky times at home and you can’t wait to get out of there, and you don’t look back. For better or worse, your parents are pretty much frozen in that moment of your departure.

But I got a second chance with Mom. Dad was gone by then, dead for twenty years. Mom had lived on her own all that time. It was getting harder for her to take care of herself, though, so I was glad to be able to be useful. If you’re a man (me at least), you can rediscover you mom while being useful, but not so much any other way.

I began helping her pay her bills and driving her to exercise class. Meg and I had her over for brunch on Sundays, and she reciprocated by inviting Chris and Nick to her house for macaroni and cheese and a movie once in a while so Meg and I could go out to our favorite Mexican restaurant and have margaritas on the patio on warm evenings and talk about our books and pretend we were wild and free. Mom was kind to us, and wise (except for falling for Grant’s malarkey), but kind was the main thing.

As Mom aged, her persistent anxiety made it harder for her to get out. Then she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Meg and the boys and I moved to California, and Mom came with us. I sold her house in the city where she had lived her entire adult life and found her a sunny, upper-floor apartment in a nearby assisted-living community. She still came to our house for brunch every Sunday, with a walker at first, later in a wheelchair. She had Grant’s and my taste for sports cars and always wanted to ride in my old Porsche with the top down.

When she needed more care than the assisted-living facility could provide, I began the search for a nursing home. Here in Northern California, nursing-home care is terribly expensive, and even in good facilities the conditions are not that great: the best place I could find that was affordable said she and her roommate would be separated by a curtain and the only clothes she would need would be a few comfortable cotton outfits that could be washed in hot water.

Mom loved her clothes. Even when she could hardly see, she could identify each blouse and sweater by touch. No way I was putting her in drawstring sweatpants.

My brother, David, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, said they had nice, less-expensive facilities there, with quiet, comfortable private rooms. Mom said she would like a private room. She said she was afraid she was becoming a burden to me, that would like to spend some time with David before she died. Still, I could see the fear behind her brave smile as we flew together to Louisville.

In war movies (and Hemingway novels) the fallen man always looks up gamely from the bloody dust and tells his comrades in arms to go on without him. Sometimes the hero picks up his friend and carries him to safety. Sometimes he leaves him behind with a bottle of cognac and a loaded pistol.

I knew my brother would be good to Mom (he was), but still, seeing her sitting there helplessly in her wheelchair, listening to an eager caregiver speaking to her as if she were a child, calling her “Miss Page” (which she hated), I couldn’t help feeling that instead of carrying her to safety I was leaving her behind with a bottle of cognac and a loaded pistol…or not even a loaded pistol.

I went back to see her a few times before she died ten months later. I wheeled her around the nursing home and she showed me the caged lovebirds. She sang “Bye, Bye Blackbird” for me, just the way she had sung it to me when I was a child. I left her sleeping in a dim, cool room, her still lustrous gray hair slicked back over her scalp, her breathing soft and shallow, her face, at eighty-four, still girlish.

Mom has been dead two years now. The other day I saw an article in the paper about a planned expansion of a local nursing home. The neighbors are up in arms, opposed to the prospect of a noisy building project and more traffic. I thought: Gee, that will be a nice place when they finish. Maybe Mom would like to come back from Louisville and live there.


  1. I'll tell you when I've had enough!
    (very nice, by the way)

  2. You and Meg were wonderful to Mom, no pistol and cognac. I wish I could have done as much for her. Lizzie

  3. :-)

    This is my favorite photo of her

  4. Love this piece... Thank your lovely wife for sending it my way.

  5. You have a marvelous way with words to describe
    the meaningful things in life. And why did you
    sell Grant's car!!!