In her dream, she is fourteen, rushing down the paved street on hazardous little heels, as molten metal plip-plops around her, dotting the cement with beautiful silver discs. Her mother is six feet behind her, following her movements and begging her to tread lightly.
A V2 rocket launches overhead, setting off her internal timer. She waits in the trademark silence for the rocket to reach its target as it careens across the night sky.
“One,” she exclaims, “two, three, four!”
“We’ve got plenty of time, Lizzy, lots of time.” Her mother is yelling over and over, not in panic, but in a calm, soothing tone.
It’s the same dream as before. Lizzy reaches behind her and grabs the older woman’s hand, dragging her onto the safety of their porch as the house across the street bursts into a mound of searing, blazing ruins.
My mother, Lizzy, is 97 years old, and I consider her a survivor. In terms of life and time. She had a mother, husband, sister, and two daughters not long ago. She now has me.
I enter the entrance to her residence twice a week and glance left, peeking through the curtained darkness, down the hall, and into her bedroom. She’s still sleeping, as far as I can tell. Her figure has shrunk and become feeble under the formless cover of blankets, despite the fact that her caregivers joke that she inhales each meal.
She is also said to be stubborn, but in a cute way. She has slipped through the unpleasant cantankerousness of old age and into the lovely humility of a fading intellect.
There isn’t enough time in the day, or so my secret narrative goes, inventing a life that is far more important, fascinating, and exasperatingly busy than it is.
“I’m so grateful you look after me, extremely grateful,” she says again. Even if remorse clashes with honesty and vibrates through my brain during sleepless midnights, I embrace her gratitude.
She is eighteen in her fantasy, with blonde permed hair and arched brows like a movie star. Her husband, the love of her life, George, is gone at war, and she believes he will never return. He writes occasionally, despite the fact that there are no mailboxes in the Pacific, and home is his final thought as suicide planes burn out of the sky.
On the smoldering deck, rows of blackened combat casualties lie beside him. She awakens screaming and terrified, and notices a photograph of a bride and groom on her bedside table. She is reassured as she recalls her sixty years of devoted life with him, recalls that they have plenty of time, and wishes for more.
I try to wake her up, but she is fast asleep. If she wakes up, I know what we talked about. I’ll inquire whether she’s eaten, and she’ll claim she’s not hungry. I’ll try to entice her outside into the warm sunlight, pressuring her to have tea and a discussion. She will say no. She’ll tell me she’s tired and delighted to be cuddled up in her warm bed. She will finally say that I should have expected this from someone who is 97 years old. It’s her truth, and I can’t argue with it, so I let her sleep peacefully.
In her dream, she is twenty-four years old and heavily pregnant, so close to labor that the aches are intense and intolerable. The midwife enters dressed to the nines, with a blue skirt, tie, and cape, nylons and sturdy black brogues, and a nurse’s crisp white cap on her head. Mabel is constrained to a home birth after being discharged from the hospital due to a severe bout of chickenpox. She is diseased and contagious, yet her baby isn’t bothered by blisters or disease. She is prepared to be.
“Should she exert more pressure?” George inquires.
“No. “We have plenty of time,” adds the midwife. It’s a comforting falsehood.
The baby’s head eventually crowns, but the midwife’s countenance is bleak as towel after towel is soaked in red, and Lizzy fades.
She wakes up with the sound of an ambulance siren still ringing in her head as she holds the greasy, writhing infant to her breast.
I’ve devised a strategy. I’ll call her at random and she’ll be whisked away to her favorite area near the ocean. She’ll take a chair, rugs, and pillows, and sit like an ancient empress, controlling the clouds over the cool Autumn sun. In the ozone-rich afternoon, trees will shade us, and steaming tea in a thermos will be drank from meticulously transported porcelain cups with matching saucers and silver spoons. Our picnic will be completed with fruit cake and a gentle stroll along the sand.
I knock again, key poised, ready to defy her rejection. Remembering her obstinate streak, the plan calls for myself and a Carer to get her up and out of bed. Lipstick and brows, washed and dressed She opens the door in pink striped flannel pajamas, her hair awry, and asks the silent question: “Who are you?” She holds solid, rebuffing my suggestion as she perilously shuffles to her room and climbs back into bed, pivoting on unstable legs with each step.
“No,” she answers, “I’m tired.”
I’m my mother’s daughter, and I recognize that tone. I let her sleep, and all my elaborate plans fell apart. As I walk away, the feeble prospect for a future picnic is mocked by laughing.
In her dream, she is 93 years old. People sit around her, people she recognizes but whose features have faded. They are somber and devoid of spirit, speaking with reverence for dying and death, informing her that her older daughter, Jane, has been diagnosed with cancer. Incapable, impossible, and fatal. An eerie howl from Lizzy’s throat and punches through the doorway. Nobody should ever be compelled to produce or hear this sound. A parent who has lost a kid. The ultimate life treachery.
Later in the dream, in a role reversal, the dying daughter cuddles her mother until she calms down and promises her everything will be fine.
“We’ve got plenty of time,” Jane responds.
Lizzy awakens, comforted, as her daughter’s shadow kisses her on the cheek and says goodbye.
I try yet again to plan a meal for Mum, but I fail. Fighting with the ancient is unethical. Allow her to be. She’s content in her house, in her bed, regardless of what you desire or think is best for her.
Words from other people flit around my head like wild birds in an aviary, flapping and squawking until I tame them.
Today, I’m going to sit beside her bed, hold her hand, and let her sleep. And if she wakes up, I’ll make her a cup of tea and inform her about what’s going on outside. How much I adore her. Until she falls asleep again.
So I’m here to memorialize the mother who gave birth to us; our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She is not fragile or elderly, with untidy white hair and paper thin skin. Her fingers aren’t bent like twisted twigs. They labor and produce while joyfully hugging and clapping. That woman is still there, beneath life’s most perilous veneer, and simply being with her is cause for joy.
In her dream, she is 97 years old, and her remaining daughter pays her daily visits. They smile and chuckle as they discuss the weather, the kids, and the trivialities of everyday life. Her daughter is busy, but she remains a little longer till she notices the time and prepares to leave.
My mum encourages the woman to stay and sit.
“We’ve got plenty of time.” She states.
“Yes.” “Plenty,” I say, smiling.