Monday, November 13, 2006

Homeward bound

She sits on her bed in a room empty of all else save a modest suitcase and a wicker nightstand with a note taped to it that reads, "Give to Paula the hairdresser." The bed's going to Pam, one of her caregivers.

In the closet rests a single pair of empty sneakers, for tomorrow; a few stark wire hangers dangle above. The living room holds another suitcase, larger, next to a wheelchair and two walkers instead of the usual sofa. Otherwise, just an expanse of wall-to-wall beige carpet, holes in the walls where the pictures used to hang, and the large windows that gave her a view of the trees in all seasons.

My mother's going home. What can "home" mean, at the age of nearly nine-three?

Not the home where she grew up as the only child surrounded by four adults, the large Victorian by the harbor with the rose garden that her grandfather lovingly tended. They dressed every evening for dinner there; he wore spats on his shoes and a carnation in his buttonhole.

Not the home she lived in for forty years while she raised her children and had parties where thirty sharply-dressed couples danced in the basement, and where she was widowed still young enough to be vigorous and healthy.

Not the apartment where she lived for eight happy years with my stepfather, whom she'd met when she was eighty and he eighty-five. He'd taken one look at her at a Florida get-together and said, "That's for me," and they were together till shortly before he died a few weeks after 9/11.

Nor is it the home she's lived in for the last five years, an independent living facility for the elderly in this northern New England town where I reside. It's far away from the New York City borough where her family settled a hundred and sixty years ago, and where she'd lived her whole life prior to coming here. No, this place has never been--could never be--home to her, despite its familiarity and elegant comfort.

This town isn't even home to me, although I thought it might become one when I moved here six years ago during one of those "times of transition" (translated: upheaval and heartbreak) in life. I thought it would most likely be a resting place for some small time before I'd move on. But instead my stepfather died, my mother couldn't live alone, and there was no place that suited her needs close to home.

So she came here, and I became the person who saw to it that things went relatively smoothly; who found the doctors for her (although she kept switching them without telling me), who took her out for dinner every Sunday night (her residence didn't serve dinner on Sundays), who raced over in a crisis and tried to make things better.

A year and a half ago my mother had a stroke, a crisis beyond my power to soothe. And though she's made all sorts of "progress" since then, she's reached a shaky equilibrium where she still needs a certain amount of help, and still has a great deal of fear.

Two months ago a friend of hers from New York told her that an assisted living facility was being built in the community where my mother had lived most of her life. My mother made inquiries, my brother visited the model room and talked to the management, and a few weeks later she announced that in early November, when the place opened, she was moving.

And now that day has come, and my nephew is driving her down to her new room in a new building filled (or soon to be filled) with new people. She's anxious; that much is clear. But a powerful urge to go home is driving her, as well.

At ninety-two, even though she once knew thousands of people, a far greater number of them are now dead than are alive. But since she knew so very many, there's still a surprising number left. They're not necessarily the people she would have chosen if she'd had her pick; but she didn't, and none of us do. The survivors are a random bunch, but they call her on the phone and they swear they'll come visit her now that she'll be nearby. I hope they remember their promises.

I place her pills in plastic compartments as I talk to her. I could almost do this in my sleep by now: the beta blockers in the ones marked "morning" and "evening," the coated aspirin in the "lunch" slots, the vitamins everywhere, the Lipitor and the this and the that in their allotted places. I've got enough containers for one month's worth; after that a nurse or nurse's aide will be doing this.

She already relies on the kindness (and competence) of strangers. In her new place there'll be a new bunch of strangers who will become, if not friends, at least trusted and familiar helpers. She's said goodbye to the crew who've been taking care of her for the past year and a half, wonderful women all. She's said goodbye to her fellow residents, too, but she never made good friends here and is focused on the ones to whom she'll soon be saying hello.

And I? It may be time for me to move on, as well. If she hadn't been here, tying me to this place, I might have moved years ago. Probably to a larger city, one with more action and more choices--or the illusion of more action and more choices. Soon I'll be writing more about this, and maybe have some sort of contest, with a list of desired characteristics: choose the perfect city for neo.

But that's another post for another time. Right now I'm thinking about my mother, hoping she finds what she's looking for in her new place--if she doesn't, I imagine I'll hear about it soon enough.

But in one way she's blessed: she knows where home is. How many of us can say that, any more?

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