I had planned to savor this bittersweet leave-taking. Michael is ready and, frankly, so am I. We'll be staying again with our friends Arlene and Dave. They'll collect us and all our gear from the Baltimore airport. And early tomorrow, we'll cram their van with boxes and bags and bulging suitcases and head for College Park.
I have a confession to make. I'm not completely in this moment. I left part of me back on the ground in Chicago. Rather than hanging out with Mick last night, I was rushing to the Emergency Room. My mother had another stroke.
Heading downtown with Ariella around nine, I was grateful that I had already taken care of packing. Who knew when we would finally get home and what kind of shape I'd be in when we got there.
At the hospital, we crowded around my mother's bed: my daughters Yael and Ariella, Adie, my mother's caretaker, and me. My mother's first stroke, some years back, made her legally blind. This one struck again where she is most vulnerable, rendering her completely blind. And yet, as we sat there, my mother wasn't flipped out. She was calm and extremely lucid. We talked and joked around. She even made a pretty sophisticated pun I'm too exhausted to recall. Doctors came in periodically, making her repeat routine tests involving her eyes, arms and legs. In response, she'd vigorously push and flex. Would you expect any less from a former All-Chicago field hockey star? Only her eyes stubbornly refused to rise to the challenge.
Over the years, I've occasionally found myself in the Emergency Room with parent or spouse, completely on my own. It's pretty horrible, frankly. And although this time was completely different in that regard, being back at the hospital nevertheless triggered all those unpleasant memories.
Cruising down Lake Shore Drive after midnight on our way home, Ariella initiated the Blessings Game. I wasn't really in the mood but was too tired to resist. We began enumerating all the things we were grateful for. Amidst my grief and exhaustion, I realized that I am indeed blessed. The reason I am able to be on this plane at all, just a few hours later, is that my daughters have picked up the baton from me. I am confident that they will keep a close eye on my mother. My brother, John, is curtailing his business trip to Kalamazoo and will be home later today. It takes a village, not just to raise a child, even more so to care for our elders. I've never felt it more.
A few weeks ago, I suffered a milder case of this juggle-itis. Mick had surgery and needed major TLC during his recuperation. At the same time, the system we had in place for my mother's care started coming apart at the seams. Numerous increasingly frantic phone calls and emails ensued. We scheduled interviews as various options were discussed. Finally, a workable system was put in place. But until we figured it all out, I was constantly shuttling between family obligations. We completed the conversion from daytime care to full time, 24/7 care before my mother's stroke last night. All I can say is, thank God.
It's natural to turn inward in times of crisis. But I am fully aware that I'm not the only juggler out there. At this very moment, I'm sitting next to a woman from Minneapolis. I assumed she was flying for some happy occasion. Hardly; her daughter is in the hospital. She was hit by a car while bicycling. This woman was supposed to be moving her son into the University of Minnesota next week. And, because she will spending two weeks nursing her daughter back to health, she will be unable to accompany her husband to Mayo Clinic this week for the check-up he's had every year since his kidney transplant. I stop myself from asking for this woman's email. I want to know how everything turns out. But I worry she might find me ghoulish or insensitive. When I later tell Mick about the woman, he shakes his head. "How do you find these stories?" The truth is that they're everywhere, but most of the time we're just not paying attention.
When my kids were little, we had an oversized, inflatable rubber toy with a weight in the bottom. You'd whack away at it, trying to knock it over. It would flop over for a second before bouncing right back. If we're lucky and resilient, we're like those inflatable toys. Along the way, we accumulate bruises and scars, but our experiences also mellow us, making us wiser, more thoughtful. That's good because my fellow Baby Boomers and I need it all as we juggle the demands of all who depend on us.
For the next forty-eight hours, I'll be suspended in a bubble, immersed in getting Mick settled at school. We'll shlep back and forth across the campus in the 90 degree heat. I'll be shvitzing* and complaining. But I will also secretly savor every minute, mindful of how very different this is from what awaits me at home.
Over the coming days, weeks and months, we will deal with the new challenges my mother faces. Do I take comfort that this scenario or something similar is being reenacted across the country in millions of families? I think I do. Growing old and dealing with elderly parents is no walk in the park. But, if we share our stories, we may be able to pull out common threads and see our way to some solutions. And, if solutions elude us, feeling less alone is still a whole lot better than the alternative.
*Yiddish for perspiring