I’m in Seattle, sitting at my mother’s bedside. It’s an image made familiar from centuries of art and literature, the family gathered round from, in our own modern twist, the globe entire. I’m not going to describe this process, of me holding her hand and talking brightly, of her slipping in and out of sleep and a vague, non-communicative consciousness, of lack of fluid and food stretching her sallow skin tight across her bones. I doubt this is an experience you want to live along with me in full Technicolor. It’s enough for me to be here.
And I am actually fiercely happy to be here, to hold her hand, to whisper brightly in her ear. “I love you Mum!” “I’m here!” Sometimes I get a flicker of an eyelid or a twitch of a smile in response. Sometimes I get nothing, but I’m pretty sure that none-the-less, I am heard and appreciated.
Instead, I’m going to republish something I wrote about my mother a couple of years ago. You’ll see where I got this travel bug from. I come by it honestly, having had two parents who traversed the globe back in the days when that meant taking ocean liners (yes, I’m totally jealous too!). Oddly enough, out of 3 children, I’m the only one who really got it. The other two are willing to travel a bit, but they like their lives in the US. I’m working on my nieces and nephews though.
The following was originally published in July, 2006
By the time my mother was 30, she’d left her native town of Swansea, Wales. She was working as a midwife in London when she decided to move to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There, she worked as a midwife and even delivered the grandchildren of the then-emperor, Haile Selassie. She also met a young American who was there teaching English. They got married, traveled the world on their honeymoon. Since in those days, airplane rides were shorter, not to mention that the Ethiopian government was paying, they went everywhere—Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Britain (to meet her parents), America (to meet his), Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, India, and back to Ethiopia.
By the time they returned, she was already pregnant. They had 2 boys in rapid succession; the first born in hospital in Addis, the second born at home in the high green hills of the Gondor region, which are now part of Eritrea. They traversed the entire coast of Africa, went round the whole continent on a tramp steamer because it was cheaper, and spent much of the trip successfully preventing my brothers from falling through the railing into the water far below.
My mother’s health was suffering though, so the family decided to return to the West. They lived in England for 4 years before the traveling bug bit again, and they moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Again, my dad taught English, but this time my mother stayed home with the boys. In her mid-40s by this point, she found herself expecting again. I was born in
Beirut. It was the late 60s by this point, and war was looming. Before I was even 1, the family was evacuated.
For various reasons, they decided not to return. Initially we lived with my grandparents in Swansea, but my dad decided to further his education, so we ended up in Oregon by the time I was 3. We moved quite a few times, including up to Canada at one point, so that I have childhood memories of cycling home to avoid thunderstorms, prairie sunsets, summer camping in the Rockies near Banff.
Although she was of course older than most of my friends’ parents, she always seemed young for her age. People never guessed her age right. She said I kept her young, and there was truth in that—seeing me, they’d take 10 years off her age. I remember when I was 5 or so, I asked how old she was. Knowing I was certain to share with the world her answer (I was always rather vocal), she told me, “29.” I believed her—why would my own mother lie to me?!—and on her next birthday, I assumed she was 30.
She also messed with my budding theological knowledge. I begged and begged for a baby sister. “Why don’t you pray and ask Jesus?” she told me, declining to mention that she’d had a hysterectomy by that point. When as a young adult I confronted her with this, she giggled guiltily. And now, I do the same thing to my daughter, telling her if God wants her to have a sister he’ll give her one, not mentioning the birth control.
When I was eight, her mother had a stroke, and Mum and I went to Wales to nurse her. We were gone nearly 3 months. I went to the local school, suffered the humiliation of those curious underpants they called gym uniform, ate tasteless-but-hot school dinners, learned Welsh phrases in Welsh class. I still remember what the Welsh teacher looked like. They didn’t make me buy the uniform since I was only temporary, but secretly I longed to wear the grey-and-burgundy school tie. I thought it was cool.
My father died suddenly when I was 15, and my mother had to be both parents to me, the only child left at home. My brothers were both finished with college by that point. One of them moved back home (Seattle at that point) to help look after us. Over the next few years, we had more than our share of fights—she wanted to keep me home more; I was ready to move on. But she was always a huge presence in my life.
When my kids were born, she was living in Portland and helped out a lot. When Elliot was a baby, I had a job that required me to go into the office one day a week. It was great—I just dropped him off at Grandma’s, where he was thoroughly spoiled. When the twins came along, I quit my job and went freelance, and Mum came over every day to hold a baby, distract a toddler, fold laundry, and generally help. She was in her 70s at this point, but always seemed younger—full of energy, looking in her early 60s, etc.
In the fall of 2000, she visited her brother in Wales. He’s a doctor. He called my brother in Seattle to tell him that he suspected she had Parkinson’s. It wasn’t a huge shock—we’d already begun to notice some shakiness. My brothers and I debated back and forth over whether he should tell her then—advantages: in person, disadvantages: she could obsess about it during the whole long, lone plane ride—or wait till she was home. We finally told him to wait. He called her during Thanksgiving, when we were all with her. She talked to him, hung up the phone, and didn’t tell mention it to any of us.
She was officially diagnosed just before we left for Mauritania. By the time we came home for our first visit, my brothers had already moved her into assisted living. That was 2 years ago.
I saw her last week for the first time since we came home this time, and was shocked at how much ground she had lost in the last 2 years. She can’t get out of chairs on her own anymore; needs a cane for steadiness; tires easily. When we visit together, instead of both chatting non-stop, we just sit there, stare out of windows.
I help her take a shower, and remember that time when she nursed her own mother. I wonder if she’s thinking about it, if at that time she imagined this, and of course I think of my own daughter and wonder if, someday, she will need to help me like this. “I never thought I’d be so helpless,” my mother says to me, a little shakily. “You’re not helpless, you just need some help,” I tell her. I’m angry that she doesn’t fight the disease harder—I suspect she spends a lot of time just sitting in her room, watching TV. On the other hand, her family is far-flung now—one brother moved to Iowa, me in
Africa. I think she’s depressed, but I don’t know how to help in the long run.
We go back in September. I love her. Already, I miss her.