On the cusp of 70, my mother has begun to slow down – but by her standards, that’s like down-shifting from the Indy 500 to the Autobahn. She was an indefatigable wife and mother and, after my parents divorced, an even more steadfast working single mom. Since her retirement, she has been globe-trotting routinely, starting with a long-anticipated trip to Africa to celebrate her 50th birthday. There, she didn’t find the spiritual experience for which she’d hoped, so she kept on searching, until she found it in Nepal – a country which, if you’ve been reading, you know is a less soothing spot for me than for her.
When I, her sole son, began to raise her sole grandchild on the wrong end of the continent, she didn’t miss a beat: she bought a house in Cape Breton, but kept the condo in Edmonton. Until recently, she was keeping up a steady yet astonishing rotation of Edmonton-Sydney-Kathmandu, once or sometimes even twice a year. Her stated goal in spending a third of her time in Sydney was to help ease the burden of parenthood (a burden which, if you’ve been reading, you know I like to gripe about). But she eases burdens elsewhere, too – she helps administer a children’s charity in Nepal, and out West she gives succour to stray cats and fellow seniors and even hapless young parents, as well as involvement in local charities. You think I’d feel forgotten amid all the philanthropy, but the opposite is true.
Yet Mom and I share a cynically pragmatic streak. She has admitted that her nurturing of thirtysomething parents is an investment of sorts: for now, in her late 60s, she can supoort them by providing meals (and leftovers for lunch) on their busy weekdays and take their kids on sleepovers from time to time – but those grateful parents are the ones she calls when her printer breaks down, or she needs heavy moving done, and they will be the ones she calls 10 years from now, when she has trouble getting out of bed. Again, I could interpret that attitude a as subtle reprimand for having abandoned her when I moved East – but, again, I choose to see it rather as a permission. Rather than feel anguish about caring for an ailing parent who lives 5,000 km away, I’m now free to feel angsty about all the other stuff.
We all assumed that “10 years from now” was accurate, or even conservative – Mom’s been active despite some arthritis, and even after surviving an earthquake in 2015 with a diagnosis of PTSD (when her psychiatric team ordered her to resign from various boards, and to go on a therapeutic oceanside vacation in Portugal) – but nothing’s ever certain. Recently, we got a minor taste of the helplessness that everyone has to look forward to, in some form or other. Late Saturday night, after having just moved her phone up to the third floor beside her bed, Mom headed back downstairs, misjudged the first step in the dark, and tumbled down to the second story, throwing out her back in the process. She’d fallen and she couldn’t get up, so that’s where she stayed. For ten hours.
Sunday was Mother’s Day. Cynical as I am about corporate-driven holidays, I’ve never been a staunch observer of the date, but I figured at the very least I would step up my game a bit, from an email to an actual phone call. The call went to her answering machine, so I assumed she was out whooping it up with her fellow moms (her small circle of friends still includes E, who was raising her own kids three doors down from us when I was a tyke). Mom has a land line and an old-fashioned answering machine, which means she would have been able to hear me leave the message on the ground floor. But now there was no phone on her floor, so she couldn’t pick up.
But perhaps my message was a factor in spurring her to try, for soon afterwards she was able to crawl down to the ground floor, where there was a phone, and food, and a cane to help her stand. When I called back late the same day, Mom was able to pick up. I got a partial version of events at that point – in the spirit of all discourse between parents and children since the invention of language, she dialled down the worst details so I wouldn’t worry. She had already decided not to go to the hospital, but I helped persuade her to call some friends to stop by for an assist.
Distressingly, Mom’s friend E had just taken a bad fall of her own, down a flight of stairs while exiting a concert hall. But in a way that was good news for Mom, because it meant E’s son and daughter-in-law were in the neighbourhood, looking after E, and could stop in to help Mom as well. The two seniors subsequently convalesced in tandem – Mom recovering a bit faster than E, since she is 12 years younger – exchanging sympathetic words on the phone in thin, weary voices. Mom was impatient to recover, of course, but not only for the usual reasons of wanting to keep busy. She had a secret plan already set up, which her accident had forced her to delay.
About 30 years ago, Mom had been the sole caregiver of her own grandmother – or rather, step-grandmother, a British woman named Jessie who’d been brought into the family under scandalous circumstances, and who – after having been widowed in the 80s – stayed in Canada, living alone, collecting pensions till she was in her 90s. When her age had advanced to the point where a tumble down the stairs or a slip in the bathtub became clear and present dangers, my Mom resolved to call Jessie every night to make sure, basically, that she was still alive. Mom called Jessie once a day for about 15 years, until she conceded to move into assisted living. Jessie died at 94; I didn’t speak to her often myself, but every time we had a conversation, she’d say some variation of: “I never thought I’d live this long.”
I bet very few of us ever get it right. We either assume we’ll live forever, or else we spend each day dreading the end. Maybe both. But sometimes, the surprises of life can be good ones, too. Just as I was psyching myself up for becoming a long-distance caregiver – to phoning my Mom once a day for the rest of her life – she executed her secret plan, flew to Sydney, and showed up on our doorstep. Now she can convalesce just down the street, in her Cape Breton house (fewer stairs!), with her Cape Breton circle of friends pitching in. And instead of calling, I can drop by. It’s a tiny but significant victory against the isolating forces of time and mortality.