We walk slowly, the three of us, through the Oakridge shopping mall, heading for the restaurant. It’s like floating. My dad uses a cane now everywhere he goes, so we keep to his pace, which means my mom and I slow right down. Mom smiles to show she doesn’t mind, that everything is just fine, even though my dad is obviously shaky and unsteady on his feet. When did my father become an elderly man? I did not see this coming.
When you walk slowly, or so I’ve heard, you are supposed to feel more relaxed. It’s our society’s perpetual rushing that makes us tense. But today, right now, it feels like we are hovering, going nowhere, and I am not relaxed. I am trying not to show that I want to cry like a baby.
My dad is eighty-seven and his arms are thinner than I remember; didn’t I just see him a couple of weeks ago? His balance is bad and since his last mishap when he careened over the pavement and hit his head, he tries to make sure it doesn’t happen again. He is an old man but his eyes are lively, his hair is white and thick, his skin tan, always has been. We used to kid him that he could go to Palm Springs and sit in the shade of a tree and get brown. The rest of us would bake in the sun until we were crispy and never be as tan as my dad. It’s his one beauty, his dark skin contrasting with bright blue, puppy-dog eyes. He can still drive.
Dad has driven my mom and me in his new car. I can’t tell you what it is—maybe a Buick? It’s nice and the upholstery smells good, but it feels odd to be fifty-three and sitting in the backseat with Mom and Dad in the front. Kind of like when my brother and I were kids, passing the hours all the way from Vancouver to California on family vacations. New cars are still important to my father and it appears that the decision to buy one is something he makes on his own. He’s still Dad. My mother doesn’t say much about it, nor does she worry … as long as it makes him happy. It’s his “little toy.”
We arrive, after our slow march through the mall, to the White Spot for dinner. They are taking me out. We slide into the cushiony, vinyl booth that sticks to the back of my legs and mom exclaims with one hand over her ear that everybody is talking too loud in the restaurant. Truth is, her hearing aids don’t work properly, but I smile and agree with her. When she walks through store entrances, the shoplifting sensors make her hearing aids buzz. My dad is used to not hearing, but my mom is new to this phenomenon. She has never been eighty-two before. And to make life even more inequitable, my dad and mum are getting deafer. Sometimes they sit together and their hearing aids will squeal at each other like they are communicating in some kind of otherworldly, alien love talk.
My mom is petite and pretty and looks fifteen years younger than she is. She gets her hair done every couple of weeks. She has had breast cancer and suffers from dry eyes that make her blink constantly, but she rarely complains about her ailments. She walks cautiously and sometimes forgets things, but she is still all there, still caring about people, still thinking. My mom and dad laugh easily and look at each other lovingly as they eat their turkey dinners side by side in the White Spot. I wish they wouldn’t do this. They are breaking my heart.
It’s not really about me, I know, but I can’t help but hold my air in when I am around them. I forget to breathe and I have to remind myself to let my lungs relax, myself relax. Other people deal with this kind of stuff, I am no different. But these are my parents. They are special.
For some reason, I can’t shake the feeling that I am a ten-year-old child whose parents are about to abandon her, and I am preoccupied with my own anxiety and dread at the prospect. It seems to me that true love should last forever but I remind myself that life is finite. I can’t take it in. Some truths are unfathomable. My mom fills in these blanks for me. She looks up at me and says, “You never know what will happen to your body when you get to our age.”
Ah. So she is detecting my worry, trying to make me feel better. Or is she warning me about the next stage of their life? The questions are circling in my head and I’m aware of my incessant need to control the future. I can’t calm the nagging fears. If my mom goes before my dad, will he eat properly by himself? He has diabetes. Who will cook nutritious meals for him? Nag him about desserts? Me? How will I ever be up to such a task? If my dad goes before my mom, will she die of loneliness? She is crazy about this man. He is her world.
We stroll back to the car after dinner, my dad looking as dignified as possible with his cane, my mom spritely and lovely and encouraging, cheerful. My father does possess dignity; it’s true. So does she. We get back to their apartment and a young woman from their building holds the heavy door open for them. They say, “Thank you,” in a way that is friendly and polite, and she says “You’re welcome,” in a way that is condescending, like they are stupid and she has to be patient with them even though she doesn’t want to be. They are old people, after all.
I want to kill her. How dare she be covertly rude to my parents? She should show more respect.
We take the elevator up to their apartment and I finally exhale. I don’t want to be there. I want to go home now. I want to leave and return to my carefree life, to my courageous, youthful, spunky husband, the man who can solve any problem. I want my sofa and TV and my electric blanket where I can huddle away and not think.
Then I look at my parents. And something happens in that moment as we are sitting together at their dining room table, drinking ginger ale. They are such beautiful people. Two sweet human beings. It’s a simple thing, really, but it becomes clear to me.
They are still here.
This is real beauty. This is a gorgeous truth. They are still here. Oh, yes. Why didn’t I get this? It’s true, one day they will be gone, but right now they are both living. One day I will wish for a moment like this, to sit with them and talk with them. I’ve been spending so much time worrying about their demise that I’ve forgotten to appreciate them. I need to drink in every lovely, frustrating moment of their existence. Love them and respect them and accept the gift they are to me. It is almost dreamlike, this realization. I have imagined them gone but now I look, really look, and they are still here. In the present.
Like ghosts out of the future.
Yes, they are still here with me and I am grateful.