Saturday morning I got a text message from my sister: “Call me when you get this.”
My first instinct is to worry. Messages like this can only signal a death in the family.
However, ever since my grandmother died, and my sister’s and parents’ dogs, there has been nobody in the family who is both a candidate for dying soon, and a close enough to me to justify me calling home ahead of schedule.
So I told myself that probably the message didn’t sound so ominous when she sent it. Probably she wanted to know how to fix her computer, or what we should get our parents for Christmas.
I poured myself a coffee and called her. We talked for about a half hour, and when we hung up I bought plane tickets to go home.
Nobody died, thank goodness, but it wasn’t clear at the time. My mother was in the hospital, and we wouldn’t really know anything for a few more hours.
The next flight out of Kampala was leaving very soon, and I wouldn’t have enough time to pack, make arrangements for my things to be cared for, and get myself to Entebbe. The regular evening flight through Amsterdam was almost sold out, and every time I tried to buy that last available ticket I got a message warning me that the price had just gone up and I would have to verify the new price before hitting “Purchase.” I re-entered my information, and when I was done I received the same message: in those two minutes the price had gone up again, first from $1400 to $1800, then to $2400, then to $3700. I am pretty sure the system had me bidding against myself. Eventually the website told me to call the airline office, which was still closed for another three hours.
I checked out Sunday’s fares. The Amsterdam flight was still unable to sell me a ticket (at one point going up to $8000-something and a change), but the morning flight through Addis Ababa still had seats available.
I did some quick calculations and figured that the fastest way to get home would be to fly through Addis and Dublin to Washington and then drive the last six hours to North Carolina. Which was some kind of madness, I suppose, but I would be home by Monday afternoon.
So I packed, made a few phone calls, and waited. It was middle of the night on the East Coast but my dad and sister were wide awake. They gave me the blow by blow. By the time I got in the taxi to go to the airport, it seemed that everything would be fine.
Well, maybe not fine necessarily, but better than the worst.
I’m an adult now—like a real, honest-to-goodness grown-up, who has a job and pays taxes and dispenses candy and unsolicited advice to young people whose music I don’t understand and whose life plans I worry about.
I have been this way for a long time, but whenever I do adult things I get impressed anyway. I know which suitcases I’ll travel with. I know what to pack, how I’ll load them on the plane, and what I’ll need to buy on the way home. I wear pants that don’t need a belt, and shoes that slip off so I can get through security easily. The bag that goes under my seat has the books I will read on the plane, and my music and headphones, and a travel toothbrush. The rest goes into the overhead. I won’t need to stand up every five minutes to get one more thing out of the overhead, like some other people on the plane.
I have my passport and my yellow fever certificate, and I even bring my own pen so I can fill out the customs form on the plane instead of making everyone wait while I do it in the line.
As I get to the security line I take my phone and passport out of my pocket and slip them into the front pocket of my small bag so I don’t have to put it in the cubby and risk losing them.
None of this makes my check-in any faster, because all the people in front of me in the security line are wearing tons of jewelry, have on elaborate belts, forgot where they put their passports, didn’t know they needed to bring their yellow fever certificates, object to taking off their shoes because they don’t have good socks on, want to bring their water bottles in past security, etc. It’s as if nobody has ever done this before.
Not me, though. The x-ray lady almost forgets to scan me, because my arrival to the scanner is not foretold by a ton of drama. I just step onto the yellow footprints and put my hands over my head, and after a second she realizes that I am there and pushes the button. I come out, reached around a few families and businesspeople for my shoes and two bags, and walk away.
It’s all so seamless. I land in Washington, breeze through all the people in customs who aren’t sure what they are supposed to declare, shoot past all the people looking up at the signs and trying to figure out where the bathrooms/shuttles/exits are. I go into a bathroom and change into winter clothes. I brush my teeth and check to make sure I don’t smell bad. When I come out of the bathroom I’m dressed completely differently—I even swapped out my glasses for contacts—and a security guard notices and makes polite but probing conversation. I don’t even break stride as I answer all his questions before he can ask them. I go straight to the shuttles and to the rental car agency, where I pick up the car I’ve prepaid and take off down the highway.
There’s nobody to be impressed, so I have to note for myself that I can get into a strange new car and drive on the opposite side of the road without batting an eye. It only takes me a minute to make the necessary adjustments. Granted, getting it wrong means that I’ll be barreling down the highway into oncoming traffic, but I’m still an impressively quick study. I feel pleased. I turn on my navigator app and let it guide me, without question, to I-95. I’ve traveled halfway across the word in thirty-six hours. Now, four hours left.
I love the austere beauty of November. It isn’t the still wonderland of December or the vibrant chill of October. It isn’t winter yet but it isn’t really autumn anymore, either. The Halloween decorations are gone and everyone’s eager to set up Christmas ones but it feels indecent to do so before Thanksgiving. The trees are stripped bare and their branches scrape the sunlight. The sky and pavement are the same battleship gray. I like this inbetweentime, empty of weight and color but anticipating greatness all the same.
I make a quick stop at Target to buy pants, since I only have one pair and that probably won’t be enough. I also get a sandwich and a coffee from Starbucks and head back out. By now I know that everything is as good as it could be and that my mom will be released from the hospital that afternoon—my sister tells me to forget the hospital and just go straight home—but I drive without stopping anyway. The rental car has a feature that suggests you take a break after a couple of hours. The digital screen on the dashboard takes away the speedometer and replaces it with an animated picture of a coffee cup. I take my eyes off the road long enough to figure out how to go back to the speed. I want to get home as quickly as possible, but I don’t want to get stopped by the police. And I already had my coffee for the morning, thank you very much.
I have a warm relationship with both of parents and I adore them both equally, but there are differences. My father was always very attentive and involved and loving, but he was—is, I should say—a man of his generation, with all the issues that entails. I think he would have been happier had he been born thirty years later. He’s very sensitive, and would have made a great hipster.
My relationship with my mother, however, is completely uncomplicated. She’s relentlessly sweet and generous to a fault, and the only times we ever butted heads it was because I was a teenager and completely in the wrong but too headstrong and immature to know better. She still sends me care packages full of candy and things I don’t need, even though I make more money now than she’s ever seen.
In the back of my mind I’ve always understood that my parents will someday die, and I don’t think my father would be offended if I said that we all assumed that he would go first. My mother, then, would do what she always does: be sad at first, but eventually, inevitably, find her way back into the sunshine.
The idea that my father would be the one left alone in their big house wasn’t something I’d ever considered, and I realized that if she didn’t recover I would be in effect losing both parents at once.
As my father himself would say when I finally made it home, “She isn’t my better half. She’s my better three-quarters. Maybe more.”
In Virginia it’s a good idea to obey the speed limit, but in North Carolina somehow the laws don’t seem to matter on the highway. Or at least the prevailing attitude is “as long as no one gets hurt…” I let myself go ten miles over the speed limit while other cars fly past me, annoyed that I’m not trying for the speed of light.
I’m home by around three-thirty. My dad is in the garage, because he suddenly needs to reorganize his tools. My mother is in the hospital with my sister, but because they expect her to be discharged soon and because I don’t have a house key, dad came home first. He gives me a hug. He’s clearly exhausted, and his eyes have a dreamy quality I’ve never seen in him. He talks about what happened, but also about how the town’s recycling system changed five years ago, and how the bird feeders have been attracting a lot of cardinals lately, and wonders aloud if he should put his old handyman magazines on eBay now that he knows how to Google everything on his phone. He offers me a beer. It’s been a long time since sharing a drink with my dad has been a novelty; we’re just two adults having a beer now, as adults do. I take it and drink with him, even though it is chilly and I badly need to use the bathroom.
She had a massive heart attack. The doctors emphasized “massive.” They were supposed to go grocery shopping when she began to complain about heartburn. The pain grew worse every second, and when she started to turn purple he threw her in the car. Before they’d reached the end of the street she was unconscious, and he sped into a nearby fire department, jumped out of the car and shouted “Help!” The firefighters sprang out of the fire station with every possible piece of equipment, ready for anything from childbirth to gunshot wound. They took her form the car and threw her into an ambulance and sped away. One fireman stayed behind to apologize to my dad for not having asked permission, but the situation was dire and they needed her to go right now. He told my dad where they were taking her, and advised him to drive slowly. My dad said he drove slowly but didn’t breathe the entire time. By the time he reached the hospital she was in surgery; the firefighters that brought were all still standing around waiting for him.
He called my sister and she called me. “Why do I always have to give the bad news?”
“You’re older. And you live closer.”
The operation takes about twenty minutes, and the doctor is smiling when he gets to my dad. Later the nurses who have been chatting her up agree that she has a lot to live for and isn’t going to let heart get in the way. They remove her from intensive care the following day, while I’m somewhere over Europe, and discharge her from the hospital a few hours after I arrive. My mom and sister are both nurses, so the doctor has a relatively easy time explaining what the care regimen will be. She leaves with a sack full of pills and a cookbook that basically just says, “Don’t eat salt!”
When she gets home she actually looks away. I was home a few years ago when she got a cold, and she looked a hell of a lot worse. She comes in and starts asking me what I want to eat. “I’m fine, mom.” I remind her that I’m at least as good a cook she is, and would be happy to serve her.
She makes a joke: “I’m glad you came. My computer is acting up again.”
My sister brought her infant daughter, and the not-yet-toddler’s antics alternately distract us from the reason why we’re here, and help us focus on what matters. We have serious discussions about taking care of ourselves, changing our diets and getting more exercise. My father had been a career soldier and told us again the story about how he once helped a new recruit cope with the running. “It’s all about the breathing.” He demonstrated again, but I think this is the first time in twenty years any of us paid attention.
By the end of the evening my mother is in high spirits. She eats well, laughs at my jokes, watches a little TV, plays with the baby. She’s not allowed to pick up the baby—nothing over five pounds, the doctor said, and this baby is a chubby one.
In the morning I wake up first—jet lag—and she joins me a couple of hours later. We watch Spanish TV and talk about how cheesy it is. I make her a breakfast from her cookbook, and promise to go to the bookstore today to find a better one. For the rest of the day we all stand around busying ourselves and keeping her comfortable. By evening she’s talking seriously a taking a trip to Vegas for her birthday. This is my mom. This is what she does.
My sister will go back home today, and I’ll be alone with my parents. I’m going to get them groceries and find that better cookbook, but otherwise I’ll stay home. I don’t know what other value I can add but I’m here til Friday so I’ll figure it out.
Knowing that death is inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. Heaven/nirvana/eternal rest are hollow consolations no matter how much we try to say otherwise.
I hope that we can take this time to reflect and make sure that as we live out our days we do so purposefully, conscious of how much we do love ourselves and each other. I hope that we don’t let ourselves fall into ruts and let the time just slip away. When death comes I want to be at peace with it.
But all that is later. Today, I’m just happy to be home, and happy to that we are all still here, too.