It’s February but when I woke this morning and parted the drapes in my darling room at the Motel 6 on Gosling Road in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (for I am visiting my childhood from L.A.), I thought of one of my father’s favorite poems: “Snowbound,” by John Greenleaf Whittier.
“The sun that bleak December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray”…
I am loving being in New Hampshire: the ground blanketed with snow, the leafless birches and maples veiled ever-so-faintly with the pale yellows and deep reds that herald spring, the Isles of Shoals shimmering mirage-like, as they always have, ten miles off the coast.To me, “home” always means hours of introspective pondering over my past, present, and future: mulling over my history, discovering new clues to my psyche.
Apropos of which yesterday afternoon, I went to visit my mother at the Wentworth Home, the assisted living facility in Dover where she lives.
Not having seen her in a year and a half; and in light of the fact that, what with her Alzheimer’s, I wasn’t sure she’d know who I was; and more to the point because I am simply a terrible, terrible sap, I was a bit teary-eyed walking into her room.She was sitting quietly in a chair.”Mom, it’s me! It’s Heather. Your oldest child!”
Talking to Mom these days is like talking to someone who was in a blackout the night before and doesn’t want to be caught out, so her responses tend to be extremely broad. “What did you have for lunch, Mom?” “Food.” “Who’s picking you up for Thanksgiving dinner, Mom?” “Uh…yeah.” I’d called her from L.A. several times to tell her I was coming, but L.A. doesn’t mean much, and though she has a vague idea of how many children she has, she’s far past remembering our names.Her room is really pretty lovely and has two large windows, one with a view of the Wentworth-Douglass Hospital to the south and one that faces Central Avenue to the west and through which she can watch the sun set.
And what ensued, I realized later, was the exact same conversation we’ve been having our whole lives, or rather the conversation we’ve never–in spite of my best efforts–ever had. We talked about my trip, the weather, our plans the next day for lunch. And then I launched in–to really, the only question that truly interests me about anyone.
“What do you think about, Mom?” I asked eagerly. “What goes through your head when you look out the window?”
“I don’t know,” she replied modestly. “I suppose they keep us so busy (Doing what? I wanted to ask, but whatever) I don’t have much time to think.”
Tremulously: “Do you think about Daddy?”
“Oh yes, from time to time. You never forget.”
Suddenly I was overcome by a huge rush of emotion: the pent-up emotion, in a way, of a lifetime. Everything I had ever thought about, felt, longed for with all my heart myself…my desire to “know” my mother, and to have her know, see, understand me…my deepest concerns from my earliest memories: the passion to belong, to connect, to bring our own family and the whole human family around one huge banquet table and be happy as we (or more accurately, I) had never had been in real life.
“Mom,” I blurted, “do you think after we die that we’re reunited with the people we love? Do you think afterward we’re all together?”
“No,” she replied shortly. “I think when you go you just go. I think we have what we have and then that’s it. I just try to enjoy each day as it comes.”
My mind raced. Mom was Protestant, Mom believed in God: what about the Resurrection? What about the seed falling to the ground and dying and bearing much fruit? What about Jesus appearing to the disciples after the third day?
“Really?” I said. “You don’t think there’s anything afterward at all?”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” she waved me off. “That will take care of itself. Let someone else worry for a change.”
“I’m not worried, I’m just wondering.”
“We all go someday,” she said firmly, as if I’d disputed the fact.
From there, I segued into a somewhat overwrought diatribe about how grateful I was for all she had given me. “Your love of nature, you’re kind of inward, Mom, quiet, you always loved to read…you gave me all that! Your mother was inward, too, and I inherited that! And then, that was so great that you and Daddy gave us all music lessons, even though you didn’t have much money. I didn’t know then how much music would sustain and comfort me, what a joy it would be as I grew older. I still have a piano, Mom, out in L.A. I still play my Mozart sonatas…”
“Oh,” she said. “I guess I never thought about it much like that. You just saw to it that your kids had music lessons. That was what you did.”
All right, then. We talked some more about her days, interests, and life, and then she asked politely:”So what do you do?”
“Well, I’m a writer, Mom!” (again, on the verge of tears). “You remember how I always loved to read, and getting there took me a long time, and lots of wrong turns, but now I get to write, Mom! The only thing I ever wanted to do. The only thing, really, I’m fit to do…” I clasped my hands over my heart. “I just feel so lucky, so mysteriously blessed….”
“That’s wonderful,” she said matter-of-factly. “That desk you’re leaning on, boy, is that handy. I put the…the stuff on the outside…”
“The finish?” I supplied.
“Yes, I finished it myself.”
“Beautiful, Mom! Nice job.”
I opened the drawers, one by one, and looked at the pencils, the envelopes, the magnifying glass, the rubber bands, all neatly, orderly arranged.
My own drawers at home are a pleasant jumble and I suddenly, finally saw My mother is a completely different person than me. She does not see like me, feel like me, experience the world like me–and she doesn’t have to.
Most people, I do understand, come to this realization at about the age of 5 but really, better late than never.
I looked across at that dear, simple, intelligent, common-sense face, and felt a deep, deep sense of peace, and more gratitude and love than ever. I must have driven her crazy with my head always halfway in the clouds. My way of being must have been just as foreign to her as hers had always been to me. One wasn’t better or worse than the other: they were just different. She was right about so much: Enjoy each day as it comes. Let someone else worry for a change. Everything was all right the way it has. Everything had always been all right.
We made plans for lunch today and I took my leave. But driving the back roads home, through the salt marshes, the old farms, the setting sun, a single child-like image rose stubbornly to mind. No-one, not even Mom, can convince me we’re not going to all be together after we die.