June 26, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
My father took an early retirement, at 55.
My mother, four years younger, taught her third grade class for nine more years. She held on to that world of colleagues and women friends, that world outside the circumference of my father, as long as she could. I married you for better or worse, the saying goes, but not for lunch.
She was sixty when she gave up teaching. “They’re introducing a new curriculum,” she told me. “I don’t have the energy for that.” Her own mother – my grandmother – was in the Memory Unit by then.
That was when my mother started walking.
Except for where the houses blocked my view – there weren’t many trees on those lots at the time – I could see most of her route from an upstairs window. Up Greensview Drive, around Fairway, down to the clubhouse and back around in a loop, over and over, her head down, determined, but not really going anywhere. It was as if she had been spooked into exercising – something she had never shown any interest in before.
Next came the decade of travel.
First everywhere they wanted to see in the United States – Alaska, Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco – then Great Britain and Australia. They stuck to English-speaking countries, though my father wasn’t entirely sure Scotland should have been on the list.
My mother would extend each trip by buying a book or two to read once she’d returned: a historical novel, a book of short stories, a memoir. She was the daughter of Slovak factory workers. Reading was the way she’d always traveled.
They became snowbirds, wintering in a fancy condo in Florida each year.
They had retired well. My father was proud. We children knew the monthly rent for the condo, and the price tag for every trip. He may have enjoyed telling us this more than he actually enjoyed traveling. “We’re making good memories,” he’d say. But “it’s always good to be back in your own bed.”
Florida must have been where they started walking together. The walks slowed down then, I presume, because of my father’s arthritis. Then came the year my mother could not keep up with him, kept running out of breath.
They knew something was wrong.
Still, they thought it could wait until March, when they’d be back in New York and could see their own doctor. Dr. Terry may have been flattered, but she was not amused. She immediately referred my mother to a cardiologist.
A pacemaker was implanted that week. The trips and the snowbirding stopped. My parents spent their winters walking the mall.
My millstone – I mean, milestone – birthday arrived Memorial Day weekend.
My father wanted me to come home, so we could celebrate my birthday and my mother’s birthday together – she was 84 on June 1. I am now the age my mother was when she began walking. Though there is certainly no retirement in my near future, I do enjoy walks.
My dad wanted to pay for the trip, but he didn’t want to pay more than he had to. He called me before my move, eager that I make up my mind and schedule something. I had procrastinated on this longer than he liked, claiming there was a lot to do, citing the open house I hoped to have for my friends.
“You’ll have a whole month to do that,” he said. “And considering your mother’s health…” I talked about wanting to be back for my daughter Maggie’s birthday on June 8th. “She’ll have plenty of birthdays,” my father said.
In fact it was my father’s health we had been concerned about lately.
Over the last month or so he had been experiencing increasing problems with fatigue and balance and joint pain. We thought at first it was just the cumulative effective of caregiving…and certainly that did not help. But his voice was different. Farther away, somehow.
It wasn’t until I cited my work schedule and the amount of PTO (Paid Time Off) I had that my father cut me any slack. He didn’t want to get me into trouble at work. He knew someone my age would have a hard time getting another job.
I could tell already this was going to be an uplifting occasion.
The truth is I did not want to celebrate this particular birthday with my mother. This millstone/milestone.
Not that I did not want to be in her company. But I did not relish spending my birthday in the company of Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s her mother also had. The Alzheimer’s that is more common in women than men, and that may or may not have a genetic component.
In doing the soul work that entering this new decade entails, I know I have to bow to this stranger in the shadows. It is not enough to hope I beat the odds, or hope they find a cure if I don’t. What does it mean to be spared, this stranger whispers, if others aren’t?
I know he is right. But I do not want him at my goddam party, all the same.
I book a flight for June 2-7.
Not on anybody’s exact birthday, but it will avoid my most pressing grant deadlines, and allow my out-of-town brother and sister and their families to join us. In reality, for my mother, one day is the same as another. In reality, it is my father who wants me home.
But that is now how it happens. That is not how it happens at all.