I spent Memorial Day weekend on Cape Cod for two reasons. It’s always a kick to hang out with my brother’s family in their nice lakeside home in Orleans. Making it better, the radiant blonde niece was flying in from Sun Valley and would stoke the shenanigans of her on-site vaudevillian brother.
And it was my mother’s 102nd birthday.
Ordinarily, on the Cape we go boating, but it was too windy and cool. I recently broke a toe (don’t ask) so the usual walks were off the table. This simply meant that my brother and I would start our beer-drinking earlier in the day to lubricate our discussions of matters of immense importance, none of which come immediately to mind.
On Sunday, because I blurted out about it out at Saturday dinner, I got the cooking duty for the scallops I requested. I do a provençale preparation, which means a lot of slicing and dicing of garlic and plum tomatoes. I made a fake big deal out of it, assigning the blonde radiant one to man the pasta pot and the vaudevillian to grill the littlenecks. My brother, with no prompting whatsoever, had already been mixing Manhattans like a mad chemist and the kitchen was coming to life.
“Hand me your best knife!” I bellowed. “A slotted spoon!” I wailed.
We had expertly chosen to have vintage Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Brown as our background music and for a critical span of minutes our camaraderie far exceeded the kitchen scene in “The Big Chill.” I bought three dozen littlenecks and ate maybe four, which strongly suggests the clam griller took unfair advantage of his unsupervised station on the deck.
My mother spent 10 years in a Southern California condo after my father died. Then it was time to bring her east. We considered New York, but Cape Cod, with my brother, his son and their wives nearby, was always the natural choice. We found her a perfect spot in Chatham, where she could walk to the post office and drug store and to a park that had a grove of ginkgo trees she became fond of.
One of the places we looked at was a long rectangular building. One half was independent living apartments, at the other end was the nursing home. That is where my mother now resides. We almost lost her about a year ago, but now she has a sunny, pleasant room with furniture, photos and knickknacks from California.
There is nothing wrong with her, except great weariness, and the last thing she wanted was another birthday. She says she wants to go, but she, better than anyone, knows that the odds are against her. Her mother died at 106.
The Orleans contingent gallantly visits her daily and with my arrival and the blonde radiant one, she had a steady flow of one-on-one visitors. One-on-one works better, we’ve learned.
On Monday, I pulled the morning shift. As I entered the lobby I was surprised to see my mother in her ever-present wheelchair in the common room. A musical event was upcoming. A silver-haired soprano and her piano sidekick were going to perform patriotic songs.
The room filled with wheelchairs and their vacant-faced occupants. It was a scene from a Robert Altman film you never wanted to see. Although probably the oldest, my mother was the best-dressed and most alert of the bunch.
She gamely accepted a small American flag to wave but it mostly stayed still.
There were some touching moments. Across the room was a man so bereft of emotion that his head sagged with despair. Then a woman with a golden retriever showed up, apparently a frequent visitor to the home. At random the dog poked his nose in the guy’s lap and he instantly sprang to life, beaming, roughing the dog’s head.
Late in the performance a woman was wheeled in when the singer was running through the various anthems of the military branches. She began the Air Force anthem and the woman started quietly crying with a tissue to her mouth. She was looking right at me. Maybe she had a spouse in the Air Force. But I think it was just general sadness.
My mother wasn’t very talkative that day. Although I’m told she enjoys some of the musical events, this was not one of them. About half-way through, she leaned over and said, “I’m glad you’re here to hear how bad this stuff is.”
She hates being in the nursing home although understands that she is in a good situation. She solemnly advised me to die via accident, rather than wind up like her. I told her I would do my best.
She knew that this was my last visit. I was heading back on Tuesday. We said our goodbyes and then she took my hand and said, humorously — I desperately want to believe — “You’re excused.”
And then some tears came.