by Babette Levin
Hunched forward in her wheelchair, she was a shrunken woman, shorter than her original five feet and weighing less than 100 pounds. Her skin was mottled, thin, and loose, her hands gnarled, her feet swollen. One tooth was missing. Her short, white, thinning hair looked as if it had been chopped off rather than styled.
“Hello, Mom,” I said as we entered her Spartan two-room apartment. “Look who’s here.” I walked over and kissed her. My 48-year-old son David and his two boys—visiting from Spain—leaned over to kiss her as well. David hadn’t seen Nana Frieda, as he’d always called her, for nearly three years, since the time when she was still expressive, vocal and blonde. Well into her nineties, she’d visited the hairdresser every week, and taken pride in her neatly pressed skirts with matching sweaters. But now my 100-year-old mother had lost most of her memory and spoke primarily in monosyllables.
“Do you remember how much David enjoyed listening to Dad’s stories?” I settled myself into a seat next to her wheelchair. “Yeah,” she replied, looking straight ahead.
Nana Frieda was the grandmother of David’s childhood. For nearly three formative years we lived in Washington near her. And he’d been adored, her first grandchild. A happy child. Why did he turn so angry as a teenager? I ask myself once again. More than the first adolescent strivings for independence, I think, perhaps an intuition by a sensitive boy of disruption to come. When his parents separated his anger hardened. For years afterward I sometimes saw him smile, occasionally watched him laugh, but more often I saw him tight lipped, and heard his shouts. It seemed he’d locked up the softer emotions.
During the visit Nana Frieda sat facing the television, her back to the boys.
David sat down on Mom’s other side. Glancing at his handsome but almost impassive face, at the gray on his head and in his beard, I could only guess at his sadness. I was still adjusting to the idea I was old enough to have grey-haired sons. A lifelong mental image of time as a curving ladder streamed past my mind’s eye and reminded me of years wasted. Not for the first time, I felt my mortality.
As words flashed across the screen Mom would pronounce them without registering their meaning. “Senators Working. Family Circle. Cream cleanser. Car care center.” She sat perfectly still, spoke in a monotone and seemed unaware of us.
“Did you enjoy your lunch?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied, staring at the screen.
This image of my mother was heartbreaking, but, characteristically, David barely blinked. Yet I’m sure he knew he would never see her again. She was failing, and his annual visit would end the next day.
After about an hour, David and I signaled each other it was time to go. We stood, leaned over Mom’s chair again, hugged and kissed her and walked to the door. The boys said, “Goodbye, Nana” and kissed her. But for once Nana had turned away from the television, and twisted toward us. She stretched her arms out. I felt a hurting hollowness. Clearly she didn’t want us to leave. Again we said goodbye, and I threw her a kiss. Automatically I flicked on my denial instinct, so, as was often true, leaving her presence I felt nothing.
As a mother she’d been generous and intensely devoted—I was always on her mind—but also often jealous and quick-tempered. I’d been a “good-enough” daughter, but I owed her more patience and gratitude. I knew later I would miss her terribly. Did David inherit this restraint?
The boys and I left the room and stood in the hall. But as David lingered in the doorway, Mom beckoned him back, and he returned to her side. I couldn’t see his face. A couple of minutes later David came out and closed the apartment door behind him. This time I saw. His eyes brimmed, and his facial muscles struggled for control. He placed his hand on Gabi’s shoulder, and seconds later he was sobbing. I was startled. My heart tightened and then it relaxed. While I empathized with his discomfort, I silently rejoiced to glimpse the tenderness I knew lay under the surface. I hadn’t seen David cry since he was a child.
“What did she say?” I asked him later, once he seemed to feel in control again. His reply threatened to shake my reserve.
“She reached up to me and said, ‘Bring me.’”
A Princeton-based writer and psychotherapist, Babette Levin is a Vassar graduate and holds master’s degrees in English literature from NYU, in psychiatric social work from Virginia Commonwealth University, and in nonfiction writing (MFA) from Southern New Hampshire University.