I’m sitting on a train, swaying back and forth as we glide northwards. We roll through forest filled with the bright new green of spring, past swollen creeks and gnarled branches heavy with moss. Small-town stations feature people huddled against the rain and the backs of dull apartment buildings, cheap because of their location near the incessant train whistles, painted in shades of tan and faded green. On the outskirts of these small towns, abandoned houses with sagging roofs have gardens filled with bright daffodils, probably planted 50 years ago when living near a train had its advantages. At the train crossings, a lone car idles.
I’m on my way up to Tacoma to visit my mother, who’s 84, has Parkinsons, and recently broke her hip. It’s a sad visit. She’s just gotten the news that the assisted living place where she’s been for the past 4 years won’t take her back. They say they can’t keep her safe; they can’t trust this stubborn frail woman to stay in her wheelchair and not get up on her own in the night. I understand this and they are right; she is not to be trusted. There’s something about old nurses, not to mention women of her generation. They think that, having survived so much already, they ought to know what risks aren’t really risky. They are used to being in charge.
She has already gotten the news. My brother and his family broke it to her the other night. I haven’t talked to her since–I don’t even know if she knows I’m on this train, wending my way up through strands of trees still barren and grey on this leaden afternoon in early April. Since the fall and subsequent surgery, she’s been in a nursing home. It is impossible to call her there. I try most days; ask for her extension and let it ring and ring and ring; ask to be transferred to the nearest nurses’ station only to face the same situation.
So here I sit, on a leather seat with plenty of legroom and an outlet for my laptop (although of course no internet connection). Train travel is nice. It’s cheaper than driving, given current gas prices, and it’s relaxing. The station is nothing like airports in our post 9/11 world, and carries a sense of the romantic past that airports can’t pull off.
It won’t be a long visit–just a couple of days. The kids are doing well with school but they still need me. Elliot’s going to make my recipe for spaghetti. He’s done it a couple of times already and it’s very good, and he’s only a little obnoxious when he gives me his tips on improving it, ironically making it the way I actually do. (I never measure spices, just add generously; turns out he does too)
The rain slants against the windows, but after we emerge from a long tunnel, we see the Puget Sound sparkling deep blue under a cloudless sky. That’s just the view from one side of the train, however, and by the time we pull into the station it’s raining again. The nursing home isn’t as bad as many of them are, but it’s not good either. Mum’s room-mate lies on her bed just staring at the ceiling, and doesn’t respond to any attempts at greetings. At meal-time, residents must wear long bibs that reach their waists. The walls are painted a depressing pink. The radio blares non-stop, a soft rock station that probably none of the residents would have chosen. Mum is dressed in clothes that are not hers and that are comically large on her; although to be fair, it’s hard to imagine clothes that would fit her. She’s shrunk drastically, losing 15 pounds in the last month and a half.
We talk of the past. I ask her questions–when you first arrived in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia, in 1954, what was it like? Were you scared? What did you think when you first met dad? What was in like when you moved to Beirut in 1963? Tell me about the time you and Dad took my two brothers, then about 2 and 3, on a tramp steamer around the entire coast of Africa and then on to England! And she does, her memory holding steady. She tells me about having tea with the governor of the Ile de Sainte Helene, who was a distant cousin of hers. It’s a good visit. She is lucid, only getting the days mixed up a few times. (And, frankly, I do that too sometimes)
Afterwards, Phil and I stop by her old place to pick up some of her clothes, although he has already brought some to this new place. Where are her things and why have they dressed her in those ghastly pink sweatpants? I determine to find out tomorrow. I collect her old knitting and sewing things for Ilsa; Mum hasn’t had the fine motor skills to use them for several years. I gather photos of family members for her new room; the one of her wedding day, where between she and Dad and the best man and maid of honor, 4 nationalities were represented; the one of all the grandchildren crammed onto a couch, all wearing pyjamas.
I think I’m too young for this, but I’m wrong. None of us are ever too young or too old for any sort of tragedy, any sort of life event. I may feel cheated, but frankly, without her surprise unplanned pregnancy, I wouldn’t have been born. At least I made it to adulthood with her–my dad died when I was 15.
So instead, I’m thankful for this visit, these connections, these memories. I always meant to record her life and write a book about it. She lived through bombing in Wales in WWII and helped evacuate some children to safety in the countryside; she was a midwife in Ethiopia in the 50s where she delivered the Emporer Haile Selassi’s grandchildren; she met and married my father in Addis Abbaba and they literally circumnavigated the globe for their honeymoon. And that’s not all. But I always put it off, and now I face regretting it for the rest of my life. But I’m going to get what I can out of her, now, before it is too late.