May 17, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
The evening flight was a mistake.
I was grateful to my brother-in-law for donating the frequent flyer miles and arranging the trip. At this point I could have afforded it, but he and my sister both understood I was not just coming for a visit; I was “spelling” Whitney so they could have a vacation without worrying about my parents.
I have to admit, after the grant deadlines that week (including a complicated proposal to the Minnesota Department of Human Services for their Aging in Place initiative), an afternoon departure was relaxed. But leaving Minneapolis at three and changing planes in Detroit meant I wasn’t scheduled to arrive in the tiny little Elmira Corning Regional Airport until nearly ten.
Night driving is not a problem, my father insists.
The macular degeneration only affects his ability to read small print. But if his eyesight was impaired, would he tell us? I don’t know that he would tell himself.
I do know that since my mother came home from the hospital in February, after another bout with pneumonia, she has been more confused in the evenings. And sometimes less… cooperative.
My father has always bullied those he loves.
He thinks they understand – or they should understand, anyway – that he’s being pushy for their own good. It was always my mother’s job to explain that to us. Now she doesn’t always understand it herself.
I don’t know what triggered the first episode; I wasn’t there. Perhaps she did not want to take a bath, or put on her nightgown, or brush her teeth. I only know that after refusing to do what she was told, my mother burst into tears, and said she wanted to go home. She wanted her sister Alice.
Alice would have been 81 this past week.
She died in February 1994, almost a year to the day from when my mother’s youngest sister, Carol, died. Both had breast cancer, though Carol actually died of pneumonia after a bone marrow transplant compromised her immune system. Alice was 60; Carol was 47. My mother will be 83 on the first of June. Home has been the very same house for the last fifty years.
Both my parents had hacking, persistent coughs all through February.
My father’s eventually responded to antibiotics, but left him with a rattle in his chest. An X-ray showed nodules on his lungs that necessitated a trip to a specialist for a CT scan, to rule out malignancy. His brother had died of lung cancer, though his lungs had been free of cigarette smoke for twenty years.
“You know your mother can’t be left alone,” my dad told Whitney. As if that were not obvious. It did not dawn on her until later that he wasn’t talking about running errands by himself.
They used to call pneumonia the Old Person’s Friend. Now they have vaccines for it. For Carol that would have been wonderful. For my mother, it means she may die of forgetting how to swallow.
My sister set the cab up.
It would be disruptive for mom, she said, to bundle her into the car that late. I said the same. Remarkably, my father agreed. It was strange not to see them there when I arrived, not to have to argue with my dad about which one of us should lift my bag into the trunk of the car. But it was also a relief.
The text message came while I was waiting.
“Just so you aren’t taken by surprise….mom is a little fuzzy about you…I am sure it will become more clear but tonight may be difficult….would have been better if I was here for the transition …keep me posted.”
I was prepared for that, I thumbed back. I wasn’t, really.
The kid who picked me up was working two jobs, and not particularly good at this one. Friendly, but late, and seemingly unaware that it is the cab driver who generally puts the passenger’s bags in the trunk. I tipped him anyway.
I had to ring the bell.
They never used to lock the front door until they went to bed. Now they seldom use it. My father’s arthritis was acting up. It took him a while to get there.
“It’s Paula!” he said, a little louder than necessary. My mother stood, hesitant, in the background. “Your eldest daughter is home!”
“I know,” my mother said. “I know.”
She seemed happy to see me. When I hugged her, she hugged me back. But she did not say my name.