There’s no breeze to move the curtains, only a heat that sits heavy and still. The curtains were my first sewing project in junior high: highly polished white cotton with gold, ball-fringe along the bottom edge. Because I ignored my mother when she said I had to pre-shrink the fabric – after all, “What did she know?” – they hang about two inches short of the windowsill. At dawn, as the sun rises above the houses across the street, a blinding light comes blasting into the bedroom, squeezing between the curtains and the sill, and burns a blazing strip across the opposite wall.
I can’t believe I’m sleeping here again, in the “front bedroom”, with all the same furniture, even the bed. I don’t just mean the same bed frame; I mean the exact same mattress and box springs that I slept on throughout my entire childhood. The bed is draped with a bedspread originally from my parents’ bed; gold with large white flowers outlined in rough brush strokes of black. Now that dementia is beginning to creep slowly into my father’s life, and with my mother gone, he doesn’t have the patience or, at 116 pounds, the strength to fuss with a bedspread.
Awakening to the tender, hauntingly familiar song of the mourning doves, at age 50 I am overflowing out the windows; windows which I have to leave open at night even though it is Los Angeles – a place that does its best to instill fear in its residents. Most everyone shuts and locks their windows at night even when it’s still in the 90’s. I cannot. I can’t breathe because I’m a giant now; an adult who’s trying to cram herself back into a tiny little room that once contained her in childhood. I’m too big. It’s too hot.
I made the decision to move back home in the midst of an illness. Something a friend said sparked a heart-breaking-open kind of heartbreak. I heard more than thought that I must go home. A conflict raged, like the wildfires that marked every summer of my youth. My mind shouted at the top of its lungs, “Are you crazy? Move BACK to Los Angeles? You barely escaped the first time. NO! No way! You’ll be crushed.” No matter how loudly my mind raged, my heart simply stood by quietly, calmly, pointing the way: the way home.
Well, I did go. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. EVER. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’d been helping out folks who were the age of my parents for years; maybe it was time to help out my own parents. It sounded like a great idea, except – I didn’t tell my parents. Oh I told them I was moving back down to L.A, and they were thrilled; I just didn’t say anything about helping them.
When I finally arrived, they made it clear with my first helping gesture that at 81 and 87 they were just fine; they didn’t need any help from me. Translation: “Butt out!” Some force, larger than all three of our stubborn, afraid-of-intimacy selves, quickly took over.
One month into our experiment of living close by to each other, my father had a minor stroke. When he had to have an MRI, it was decided between the three of us, in our unspoken way, that I, not mom, would take dad and stand by as he surrendered all his ferocious invincibility to a giant gleaming beast. I watched him slide slowly into the gaping maw of an enormous and deafening machine, only to emerge on the other side as a frightened old man. I was there to help him find his way…out of the office, into the elevator, through the dark parking garage, into the car that he no longer was able to drive, to the safety of his home. Inside the glare of that machine, somehow a part of him was defeated in a way that would never be reclaimed.
A few months later my mother fell, ending up with a large gash on her head. Miraculously she didn’t break any bones…but after a seven-hour marathon at an unbelievably overcrowded and understaffed local hospital, we three arrived at a profound and deeply vulnerable new dynamic, a place we could never have imagined, let alone approached, ever before: from time to time, it would be me, their middle child, and from my father’s perspective, not even a son, but a daughter…who would now make some of their most crucial decisions.
Who could have known what would become of my move back home? What did occur was grander than my wildest dreams. My mother and I tenderly broke through a barrier of intimacy that had been sterile for so long, it had almost dried up and completely blown away. While she lay on her side on a hospital bed, waiting for her head to be stitched up after she fell, I shyly slid my hand over to hers and she shyly took hold of it. We held each other’s hand – for a very long time. Whatever had caused us to be so afraid of reaching out for each other for what seemed like forever, was dissolving.
On the evening before I drove away from Los Angeles, away from my father who by now had been widowed for a year and a half, he and I shared one last dinner at his favorite restaurant. A rare autumn mist had moved in while we ate this last meal together. Afterwards, we sat in the car, staring straight ahead through the windshield, as droplets formed and rolled down the glass. We were both heartbroken – I was leaving. We knew it was time for me to go. My father took my hand. Tears rolled down my face. I can’t say for sure, but maybe even his old, nearly blind eyes filled to overflowing with some of the same salty water. Out of a dense silence, he said tenderly, “Thank you.”
If you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy reading What More Could I Ask For?, a longer treatment, (see Sidebar entitled Essays About My Elders) which was written in May of this year.