So this happened.
For the first time since March 10, when her assisted living community went on COVID lockdown, Mom and I got to see each other face-to-face last week. OK, so there was a big piece of glass separating us and, sure, there have been three other times when Mom and I have been close enough to make something resembling direct eye contact: Once when we switched out her winter sweaters for her spring linen and twice when I delivered Dr. Pepper shakes from Whataburger. But the other day was different. More than a hand-off, this was a chance for Mom and me to sit down not even one foot apart, so close that our hands could touch (albeit through glass), and just be together.
It was a big improvement from our new normal routine of Mom standing in her second story window at Sunrise of Plano and me standing in the grass below, talking through our phones. And it happened not a moment too soon for either of us. I was growing weary of talking with Mom while standing in the convection oven that is summer in Texas like some damned roast chicken. The week before Mom’s visit, Dallas had its first big heatwave of the summer. Standing outside her window as the heat index registered 114 degrees, I could literally feel my shorts burn into my skin. “Well, this will be something,” I thought, “It’s so damned hot out here, I’m going to spontaneously combust right in front of my mother.”
For Mom, it wasn’t the heat as much as it was everything else. Five, now almost six, months in, Mom was losing patience with confinement. She wanted to get her hair done. She wanted Tex-Mex. She wanted to see her granddog and give her son a hug. By the way, I’m not sure how Mom would rank these things.
I’m not sure I want to ask.
By early August, Mom’s frustration had reached the point that she openly talked about making a break for it. “I was thinking,” she said to me two weeks ago, “Do you think I could drive Sunrise’s shuttle bus?”
“Mom, why are you asking me this?” I said from the oven.
“Well, they’re saying we could be locked up in here until next year. And there’s no way I’m doing that. So, I’m just starting to think through alternatives.”
“Mother,” I said, using the word middle-aged kids everywhere use when we want our Moms to know we’re serious, “You are not stealing a vehicle.”
“Oh, I’m just kidding you,” she said with a laugh and tone that told me she was.
Just as I was starting to prepare myself for a breaking news alert that said an elderly Plano, TX woman had carjacked a shuttle bus, I got news from Sunrise that families could start visiting their loved ones. Behind glass, yes. But just a foot apart.
“Now I like that idea,” Mom said when I told her the good news. And, just like that, talk of joyriding shuttle buses was gone. Instead, Mom and I started a countdown til we could be close to each other. At the beginning and end (and sometimes middle) of each conversation, Mom would ask, “Which day is it that we get to see each other?”
“Tuesday, Mom,” I’d say.
“OK and today is Friday (then Saturday, Sunday, Monday)” she’d say. “It’s almost here.”
When Tuesday came, I found myself strangely nervous. I didn’t know what to wear, I worried about running out of things to say (the visit was scheduled to last thirty minutes, which was ten to fifteen minutes longer than any visit we’d had in five months). I wondered how Mom would look. “Good lord,” I told myself, pull it together. “You’re going to see your mother, not go on a blind date.”
When I got to Sunrise, a staff member came outside to check my temperature and then escort me to a seat outside of a big French door. I was too nervous, too excited, to sit down. Especially as I saw my tiny but determined Mom walk towards me, using her hot pink cane to steady herself. She was wearing the sunflower shirt that Sister gave her for Mother’s Day. We put our hands up against each other on the glass and said, “I love you.” It was the closest contact we’ve had since hugging each other good night outside Mom’s assisted living unit on March 9. How many times, I’ve replayed that hug; wishing I had hugged Mom just one more time or just a few seconds longer.
We both just stood there facing each other for a minute or two. Just before things became a bit too serious or, worse, maudlin, Mom pointed down to the french door handle and said,”You know if I just turned this handle a little, I could sneak outside and….”
“Mother,” I interrupted. “No.”
For the first time in my entire life, I instead suggested that we follow the rules. And so, Mom and I sat down in our respective chairs and talked. About all the things we talk about. The family, her granddog, the clouds, the bunnies, politics, what I had written that day and the never-ending trauma she is experiencing from eating out of styrofoam containers.
I leaned forward, taking in each and every one of Mom’s words, admittedly listening a lot more intently than pre-COVID days. Yet, as I listened, I also saw all the moms that Mom had been over my life. The mom who got up in the middle of almost every night when I was so sick as a boy. The mom who watched with a mix of pride and relief as I graduated high school and college and then full-on love as I married the man I loved. The mom who broke a little bit when her mother died and a little more when her husband did. And the mom who, literally rose up, to recover from having her entire spine fused and, following that, walked into a new life in assisted living with zero drama and abundant grace.
I wish I could tell you how it felt, sitting there, watching and listening to my mom.
No really, I do.
I’ve spent the last week trying to find just the right words to describe the experience. To give it some really amazing frame or ascribe some deeper meaning. To try to use my words to speak for what my guess is a lot of us middle-aged kids are feeling right now. I’ve read passages, looked up quotes and asked the ancestors for guidance.
Then this morning, I remembered that great line: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
There’s some question over who actually said it (Freud? Groucho Marx? Lincoln?), but the source isn’t relevant here. The words are. Because I could use this space to talk about how the Dalai Lama says it is our mother who teaches us the true meaning of compassion. I could talk about how each of our mothers embodies the greatest Mother of all (that would be Earth). I could connect my visit with Mom to some great parable. I could talk about a lot of things. Most of them might be relevant, some might even be interesting.
But there’s no need for that. Not when it comes to describing what it was like to sit with Mom last week, so close that our breaths could have fogged the glass between us. If we hadn’t been wearing masks.
Instead, I just need to say, “Sometimes a mom is just a mom.”
And I got to be with mine last week.