My mother celebrated her 92nd birthday in a folding lawn chair on the edge of a sandy beach, her gnarled toes splashing in the clear blue waters of her beloved Mediterranean. I had helped her make her way to the sea's edge, guiding her among rocks and pebbles, and cans and cigarette butts that littered the popular resort. I held the chair so she could sit down without tipping it over--she had become (when? how?) so frail that a fall, even on the moist sand, could break a bone and start her down the road that would take her away from us forever.
"The water's cold," she told me, as she wiggled her feet. I nodded. There was no need to mention that the hot sun had baked the shallow beach and that my perspiration would have welcomed a rinse in cooler waters.
"It'll feel warmer soon," I encouraged, comforted by her smile. A glance at her eyes told me she no longer cared--her far off gaze signaled her mental flight to the fond memories of her hardy youth
Once satisfied that she was safely anchored beyond the grip of the gentle waves, I ventured into the water step by step, my eyes still glued to hers. Was it really almost a half a century ago that she had watched me wade into the blue seas, just as tentatively? Only then I had been worried about myself, and not her. She had been an invulnerable boulder that would never be washed away by the angry surf of life. Now, I was her arms and legs, swimming in her waters that she could only taste with her toes because of the ravages of age. She waved to me, grinning, and I waved back. Ruefully: When had I become the parent to her child?
We stayed at the beach for a few hours, long after I would typically have gone home. I, of course, had the option of returning another day, or another year. The 15-hour flight to her native country was unlikely to be manageable again in the future--this trip was going to be her farewell to her living relatives and to her long-buried memories. "I had the dream again," she whispered. The dream, equal parts terror and joy, were the visions of her family members passed, greeting her and welcoming her with open arms. She brushed the sand off one foot with the other, adding, "I don't want to go. I like it here."
I nodded again, aware that she wasn't just referring to the shore. "Oh, don't worry," I lied with enthusiasm, "you're still young."
"I feel that way," she insisted. "I haven't changed. There's so much I enjoy, so much I want to do."
"You will," I sighed, patting her hand and thinking of my own list of books I've yet to write, and places I've yet to visit. My mother's life had been full and rewarding--and blessed with luck after an impoverished start. How surprising to see her spirit unquenched despite her years, still wanting more, still fearing less. Somehow, in some way, the child in me had hoped that she might experience some wisdom, some revelation, that could help me help her, as well as myself, as we both moved towards the inexorable finish line. How human to hear her express that, like most of us, she just wanted to continue to "be".
My father-in-law, a teacher and writer, had passed away less than a year before, succumbing to cancer in a few days after believing he had beaten the disease. He died just after his 83rd birthday, grateful that a 25-year remission had allowed him to see his children grow up and to get to know his grandchildren. Though he would have welcomed a few more years on Earth, his last conversation with my mother-in-law was filled with gratitude for a happy, productive, and successful life, and for the blessings he'd felt he'd received. "He was ready to go, and felt he'd had a good life," she told me after the funeral. Would that my own family had such talents for closure instead of 'rage, rage"'
No, my mother, over 90, and my father, almost 90, God bless 'em, both shake their fists at their reflections in the mirror. My own less acute vision "photoshops" the wrinkles out of my image in the looking-glass, so, like my parents, I can still feel '35' without draping velvet over my reflection. Sitting on the beach last month, I realized that my parents, too, felt no closure, no obligation or duty to write the last chapter just because their birthdays dictated their end of days. Their life, just like mine, existed in the moment of their current experience, the past a movie filmed; the future, a script yet to be written. But the now, the now is simply "on". And very, very few of us truly want it to go "off".
As a teen, I'd plotted out a science fiction story about a protagonist who 'awakens' to see that he is tied to tubes and living a virtual life, along with his fellow humans. (And to think I could've written the script for 'the Matrix' thirty years earlier") Questioning my religious education, I wondered if a virtual life, a film stored in a heavenly vault, was more plausible, especially to my pseudoscientific, computer punch-card-loving young ears. Watching my parents, I've realized the answer is 'no'. Our lives are not films, DVD's, or books, linear stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They are digits, "one" and "zero". I'll let the pro-choice and anti-abortion teams argue when the switch is flipped on from 0 to 1. As a doctor, I've seen the digital fibrillation of critically ill patients '0101010"' resuscitated on the cusp of death. But, like my parents, I cannot, nor do I wish to envision, in my human narcissism, the "now" after my switch is flipped back to zero. To a "now" that is "nothing". A me that is "off".