Both my mom and mother-in-law died last year, so I have done some mourning and processing and I wrote this story to commemorate my mom’s last visit to California for Christmas. Our relationship was mixed but I miss her and will miss her, and not only at Christmas. Enjoy…
Mom’s Last Visit
Caroline insisted she’d wear her reindeer antlers to the airport, but they were gone– or rather, the damn antlers with little bells seemed to have been sucked into the big black hole of my life where things customarily vanish into, only to emerge again at a moment in time when the lost object has become utterly redundant.
Being Dutch, I had always been amused by the American enthusiasm of looking the part for the holidays. During my first Halloween in this country, I was surprised to see witches behind the wheel and Teletubbies in the metro. Grown American women would wear Christmas, not so much on their sleeve, but on playful sweaters, and since my daughter was the assimilated version of myself and we were picking up my mom from the airport for Christmas, we could not leave home without the antlers.
I looked at my watch. Time enough, unless we hit traffic in the tunnel or on Bay Bridge, and that was usually the case.
“It’s important you be on time,” my older sister had instructed me.
“Mom’s a little off,” my other sister had warned me.
“Off? What do you mean by off?” I had answered.
“She seems more confused and mixes up words. Like she calls the remote the TV bar…”
“Bar?” I had said out loud, thinking of Cosmopolitans.
“Yeah, like a bar, a TV bar, or a stick, like a stick of butter; the TV stick.”
I looked at my watch again and leaned back into the couch. Something poked me in the back. The TV bar? I reached for it and it jingled like a mini sleigh. Caroline came running. “You found it!” She plucked the thing from my hands, walked to the mirror and placed the antlers on her flaxen blond head as if it were a debutante tiara. She flashed a sugary smile at me: my Dutch-American daughter was turning into the perfect Barbie doll for whom politeness and courtesy were second nature. I couldn’t fake that if my life depended on it but then I was sooooo “old country” according to my son’s teenage wise cracks.
We got into the car and as Caroline’s gaze drifted off to the horizon to while away the time it took to get to SFO, my thoughts went back to my elderly mom. Earlier in the year, she had seen a neurologist which was prompted by her short-term memory issues and growing lack of inhibitions: she had officially been barred from her creative writing class as she had suggested to the teacher that writing some porn might loosen up the 70+ crowd which mostly consisted of prim and proper ladies who just wanted to pen tidy little memoirs for their grandkids.
The MRI pointed out that mom was in the beginning stages of a kind of dementia that is known as Lewy Body.
“Lewd body?” my husband had asked, probably wanting sex that night.
Lewy Body is an aggressive form of dementia that comes with hallucinations and Parkinson type symptoms. When I asked my mom at the time about the prognosis, she told me that the neurologist had made a CD-ROM of her head and that she had an affliction which was not lethal but incurable.
The odd thing about it was that my mother had developed all these symptoms shortly after my dad’s death. It was as if my father had always been her voice of reason, her rock, her anchor– the moment he gave up the ghost, her boat that had been safely docked in port, got unmoored somehow and she found herself floating on an uncanny stretch of ocean, without a compass or the ability to steer her vessel to safer waters near the shore. She drifted off, like a ship at night, quietly, without the ability to let us know, and when we realized what was going on, she was headed for an even darker storm. Calling from the shoreline didn’t help. She was at that point already far out of earshot. Besides, she was deaf in one ear, which my dad referred to as her selective hearing.
“Mom’s restlessness has gotten worse,” that was my sister again, warning me via Skype. The restlessness implied a potential danger because my sister had added with a strange tone of wish-fulfillment: “If she doesn’t see you immediately at the airport, she might just wander off and then you’ll never find her,” as if the San Francisco Airport was as treacherous as the Amazonian rain forest.
The airplane had just landed when we entered the spacious international terminal at SFO; she still had to go through customs. Caroline was thirsty (from wearing her antlers, no doubt) and I bought her a big lemonade.
The glass doors separating the waiting area from the terminal opened and out stepped my mother, insecure at first and slight bent over as if defeated by the travel, but when she saw my face in the crowd, she perked up. When she came over, I saw how she had carefully misapplied both her lip stick and her eyeliner, which Caroline saw too but thankfully didn’t mention. My mother, on the other hand, asked why Caroline had brown sticks in her hair. I took over the cart with her large suitcase and we started our trek to the parking garage. We had to do this slowly, for every five steps my mother was out of breath. In between breaths I asked her about her flight.
To make sure she would be taken care of, my brother had booked her a business class ticket with KLM, but that seemed to have been a mistake as my mother replied: “I am going to write that damned airline because there were all sorts of monkeys jumping around the cabin.” Caroline, who could not have been much older than 9 or 10 at the time, was old enough to know that monkeys don’t fly business class, so we exchanged a puzzled look. I looked at my mom, studied her face with the sad eyeliner and then realized there was something in her eyes I had not seen before; her eyes were muted, as if they were a numb reflection of the light inside that was dimming. Her eyes had lost a certain vivaciousness and sparkle and her irises looked like weathered old glass, the kind of glass I have in the leaded glass windows in my house: old, fragile glass– you could polish it all you wanted but the glass refused to shine.
My mom was panting. I told her we could stop for a moment, so she could catch her breath. She pushed her rear into a big flower pot that was not meant for sitting. I looked at her eyes again and shivered. There was a little madness in them. This was no my mom anymore. The disease, all that Lewy Body plaque that had penetrated my mother’s brain like a sticky cobweb, was oozing from her eyes. I swallowed and tried to make small talk: “It’s funny,” I said, “You’d expect KLM service to be better than that…”
My mother, grateful that she had my attention, shook her head: “Service, schmervice… even the purser kneeled down by my seat and opened his jacket to pull out a baby chimp.” When I told my sister the next day, she answered that that chimp must have been the Veuve Cliquot because the last time she checked, KLM still stashed its big animals in the belly of the plane.
Hitting the highway on our way home, Caroline mentioned she really needed to pee.
“We should be home in less than 45 minutes…” I tried.
“Just don’t sink about it… and the feeling goes away,” my mother suggested as if she were the pee-fairy.
“Aggghhh,” came from the back seat. “Sinking just makes me think of the Titanic (her favorite movie at the time) and more water!” Caroline let out, looking at the choppy waves of the large body of dark water that bordered the highway and SFO.
I realized then that “not sinking about it” had been my mother’s mantra all her life. Bad news she buried or ignored, praying that it would go away by itself.
Driving on and hitting the first bottle neck with traffic, my mom and I exchanged news from the home front. I was interested in hearing news about my siblings, but my mother was more into exploring the relationship she was developing with a German guy she had met on a Rhine River cruise. The guy’s name was Detlev which my siblings soon changed into the derogatory Beflap (“beffen” is cunnilingus in Dutch), not because we have anything against Germans (aside from the fact that the Nazis confiscated all of our bicycles and killed off nearly the entire Jewish population), but because we suspected him of writing raunchy e-mails to my mom, a few of which my brother had seen by accident when trying to retrieve her password for the gazillionth time. It felt as if my mom had never even been married to my dad for more than half a century, but that she had fallen in love for the first time, blissfully gaga like thirteen-year-old. Alarm bells went off when she mentioned she had sent him money in the mail, carefully wrapping euros in aluminum foil so the mailman wouldn’t intercept it. I was about to object when she said:
“His marriage is loveless and his daughter wants a sex change.” This was vintage mom, the queen of random comments. It was almost Hemingwayesque at times, for Hemingway wrote sentences like “We loaded our guns and Spring had come.” Growing up, I would come home from school and tell her about my day, and rather than making me tea or offering cookies, she would pour herself a sherry and say something like, “My toe hurts like hell and aunt Pauline has a hole in the interior wall of her nose.”
“Why does your toe hurt… wait a hole in…” But my mom had moved on already and would say something like “Dad will be home late and the asparagus were on sale.”
We were slowly moving past the city on our way to the Bay Bridge. Caroline was complaining about her full bladder.
Hearing her voice from the back seat, my mom said: “Oh jimmeny crickets, I keep forgetting you have a kid in the car,” as if my daughter were a random hitchhiker I had picked up on some highway overpass. Had she forgotten Caroline’s name already?
“We’ll be home in a jiffy, hon,” I offered. Caroline merely glared from the back seat.
“I think everyone on those planes is a homo…” a random comment again which I ignored. This seemed to egg her on: “I think homosexuality is a job requirement for waitressing in the air…” Now, in my mother’s defense, my mother never was a gay basher. In fact, she had many gay friends. “Those homos do give you better service, monkeys or not,” she mused.
My sister described my mom’s recent behavior as having a certain lack of filters, a loss of overall decorum, which was tragic as my mom had always insisted on decorum as if she had been Ms. Emily Post incarnate. My silence about gays made my mother change the subject: “Detlev makes my day when he calls but we’re not going to fuck.” I looked in my rearview at Caroline who was sticking her finger down her throat, enacting a pretend puke. I was shocked. I had never even heard the F-word out of my mom’s mouth. This time my mom took my silence as a sign of encouragement, for she said:
“I guess the beauty of having sex at my age is that you cannot have unwanted babies anymore.” This was a can of worms.
“You mean like me?” I shot back. Every time my birthday would roll around, my oldest sister would bring up the fact that my mother had come home crying from the doctor’s, announcing she was pregnant (again) with me, her 4th and unwanted child. My mother sighed in the car seat next to me and murmured, as if still caught in some unprocessed form of the past: “If it weren’t for the Catholic Church, I would have aborted it.” The “it” was me. Had she now also forgotten that besides Caroline, who apparently was a phantom child in the car, that I was the IT, the unwanted child who was driving her to our house for an American Christmas? I wouldn’t let her off the hook:
“You mean me?” I said. It was as if my mother hadn’t heard me; she would have these fugue-like states, my sister had told me: “Like she’s far away, sunbathing in Nice, or enjoying some après ski schnapps on an Austrian mountain top.” My mother came down from her Alpine reverie. “Oh, but darling, I love you nonetheless,” she explained soothingly, followed by the shocker: “But the 5th one I flushed out with the Morning After pill.” Now that was news! I could have had a younger sibling! She continued and said something about fertility in our family, followed by the advice: “so you’d better, better start… your, your daughter on the birth control pill the moment she starts mensturbating.”
“You mean menstruating.” I looked in my rearview again. Caroline was plugging her ears.
“So what do I do to get a drink around here?” My mother changed the subject.
“You mean here, in the car?”
“Yes, well wait– ” my mother looked at the daylight and the heavy steel beams of the bridge. “I guess I am no longer on the plane.”
“That’s right. You’re in the car with me and we’re driving home.”
“Your place or mine?” she asked. This question seemed to give her a sense of much-wanted autonomy which was being eroded day after day. Later that year, my brother had to take away the car keys after she had scraped off her entire front bumper on a pole that, in her mind, shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
“We’re driving to my house.”
“Oh, yes, that’s right.”
Thankfully, traffic on the bridge was light but my eye was drawn to the dashboard. The oil lamp blinked bright red. I didn’t want to break down on the bridge as there was no emergency lane: was this to dissuade suicides off the bridge or was it rooted in the American blind faith in cars or roughing it as pioneers: after all, there had not been no plan B for the Donner Party either.
The oil light refused to dim, so, like my mother, who insulated herself against bad news, I chose to ignore the red light. After all, how bad could it be? Pfffft. A little oil. Wasn’t it like gas, I mean, when the gas light comes on, you can still drive a generous 50 miles, right? Look away, look away, I heard in the back of my mind, like when my mother, years ago , told me, when staring at a boy who was hanging upside down from a jungle gym, practically inviting the concrete underneath to split his head open, “Look away, honey, for if he falls, we have to go rescue him.”
We made it off the bridge but we were not in the clear. Hitting I-24 and nearing the tunnel near our house, the engine seemed to lose power fast and the steering became really heavy, as if we had hit a patch of quicksand. I had to steer the car from the outermost left lane to the emergency lane on the right. What emergency lane? The car finally bogged down on a tiny strip on the right side of the road, next to a concrete wall, covered in ivy. Cars were flying by, making whistling sounds and at times, shaking the car.
Maybe it was the ivy, for our stop prompted my mother to ask the question of the day: “Are we going for a picnic?”
On family vacations, my mother always wanted to do picnics, but my father had a lead foot and wouldn’t stop anywhere. “Oh, look at that tree with the beautiful shade,” my mom would try.
“Not here,” my dad would yell, which was always followed by the standard excuse: “I’ve got a car riding my bumper, so I can’t stop here.” The same comments were made when one of us had to pee.
The mention of the picnic brought it all back to me. Even though my mom was losing her memory, her residual memory with landmarks from a more distant past, like my mom’s bohemian notion of picnics in foreign countries, was still intact and opened up a world of memories which I thought I had forgotten.
“The car broke down,” I said calmly. “Something in the engine… we’d better call AAA.”
Caroline groaned and threw off her antlers. My mom said that she drank a little but that calling AAA was overdoing it.
AAA told me it would at least be 45 minutes and no, they could not call us a cab even though there was a slightly demented woman in my car who had just gotten off a 10-hour flight. Cars shot by like heavy bullets. My mother looked at me: “So why did we stop again?” I looked at the car lanes. This was the Bay Area and countless of Lexuses and other luxury cars whizzed by. No one seemed to stop or even notice us.
“So why are we here?” my mom repeated, philosophically almost.
Rather than explaining that I had called Alcoholics Anonymous, I told her I had called the ANWB, the Dutch version of roadside assistance.
This was very reassuring to my mom, whose grandfather was one of the founders of the ANWB. “Honestly?” she exclaimed. “They have the ANWB here, too?”
I looked in my rearview. An old beaten-up and rusty truck had pulled up behind us. Out stepped a Mexican, nearly scooped up by an oncoming Land Rover, and, as he pressed himself against the car, then the wall with ivy, as if we were in some low-budget spy movie, he gestured to Caroline to open the window. She lowered it, and for the heck of it, she put her antlers back on.
“Signorita, what eez your problem?”
“We broke down; AAA is on the way.”
“Can you start the car?”
“You not safe here.”
“I am aware.”
My mom leaned over and whispered: “Is that the man from the ANWB? Have you seen his truck?” I ignored her.
“OK,” the man said, smiling at Caroline. “I will push you with my truck.”
And that’s what he did, all the way to the actual emergency lane further down the road. Once we were there, the man backed up and took off. My mom seemed in distress for the first time.
“Why is the ANWB taking off like that?” I explained he was a goodhearted Samaritan and that the tow truck was on its way which triggered the totally random comment: “Oh, did you know aunt Sally had a facelift?” which was followed by “We sure must have had the wettest summer on record.” A light bulb went off over Caroline’s head. We had had a year of tests behind us and they seemed to indicate that Caroline had some ADD issues in school.
“Now I know,” came in English from the back seat, “who I will have to thank for you know what…”
“I keep forgetting you’re in the car!” My mom said to Caroline, almost apologetically. Caroline just looked over at me and continued in English:
“But maybe hers is worse than mine..”
“Yes, honey” I said, “it seems like it skipped a generation…” as if that were a consolation. To my mom’s credit, when I explained later that Christmas to my mom what ADD was, her face was all enlightenment, like I had not seen all Christmas, and she exclaimed: “My god, that’s what I have!”
Right in the middle of this little heredity lesson, a blue and yellow truck pulled up in front of us and out stepped a tall, older black guy. As I got out of the car, he flashed a smile of reassurance and calm, and I noticed he had about three teeth. I explained to him what had happened and all he let out was an ominous “uh-oh”. My mother, whose last name wasn’t Patience stepped out of the car. The man immediately latched on:
“You ok, mam?”
“Yes,” my mom said with authority. “I’m her mom and I have come all the way from Holland. Are you the ANWB?” And then to me in a loud stage whisper: “Don’t they have dental coverage at the ANWB?”
“Get out of here!” the man exclaimed as if we were the three kings, ready to gaze at baby Jesus. “That’s your momma?”
“That’s my momma…”
“And lemme guess… your momma is here for Christmas. Ain’t that something!”
My mom lit up like the star that led the three kings to Jesus and the fatigue of the 10-hour-flight seemed to fall away from her. She became borderline flirtatious. “Mom’s on the rebound,” my brother had said “Anyone of the opposite sex who will compliment her becomes an immediate catch.”
Our little reindeer Caroline couldn’t miss out on the action and stepped out of the car.
“And who is this fine young lady?”
OK, this tow truck driver charmed the socks of off all of us. All the tension, irritation, stress– it melted away at the same speed that the evening fog was now rolling in. But naturally my mom thought she was the only young lady in sight, so she held out her hand and said: “Mrs. Hollander, but you can call me Laurine.” The man winked at me, and rather than kissing her hand, he shook it and welcomed her to America. The wind had picked up and it was getting cold. I got down to business: “I need to call a cab–”
“Cab?” The man said, “You ladies come with me. We can’t leave your momma on the highway!” We were beginning to sound like a Danny DeVito movie.
I looked up at the truck; there was just a cabin, a threeseater in front and that was it.
“Why don’t you get your stuff out of the car and I will get you guys ready to tow.” I dragged out the heavy suitcase which the driver took and even he didn’t expect the weight, so he turned to my mom: “Are you moving here, Lorraine?” It was a good question and one I should have been able to answer, feeling guilty over all the care my siblings had put in, taking care of my mom but the question was never answered. My mother looked at the sky, as if in another fugue-like state and I was looking for bits and pieces to get out of the car myself. With one fell swoop the driver threw the heavy suitcase onto the truck, where, among the cables and tools, it lay out of context and alone. It reminded me of my mom’s situation and increased isolation.
As I emerged from our Saab I saw how my mom tried to climb into the high cabin of the tow truck. This was only partially successful, so the next thing I saw was the driver hastening over and pushing her dead weight into the cabin, first with outstretched arms and then he threw his full weight into it, with back and shoulders, like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain. The guy was a fucking saint.
Inside the warm truck I started to relax a bit more. The truck was cozy, my mom was smiling and Caroline was happy to be close to home and a toilet. As the man started the car, he looked sideways at us, taking in the view, as if this was the moment he wanted to tell his wife about that night: three stranded white farts in his truck. “Look at that,” he said “three generations in my truck!” This big statement opened the discussion to more, as in “Your momma should come live with you, for this country is the best.”
I am always thrown by that one. I love America, too, but was more in love with the good Samaritans of that day, a Mexican with a rusty truck and a tow truck guardian angel with three teeth. They were what made this country great.
After we dropped my mom and Caroline off at the house, I went to the garage with the tow truck driver and returned about an hour later. As I walked into our house, the warm jazzy tones of Charlie Brown’s Christmas were filling up the house. My mom was lounging in the living room with a nice cup of hot tea and some cookies which Caroline had put out for her. Caroline had become the mom and my mother was turning into a child. It had been a rocky day but we were still three generations and there was something to be said for that…