July 8, 2016
What a strange, transient, ever-changing dream this life is. Tonight, when I went to check on my elderly parents, I found my dad sitting on my mother’s bed for the first time in many months. Until recently, they shared the same bed for 68 years. They were holding hands, my mom under the covers, in her white undershirt, my dad in his old flannel pajamas, with the tubes to the oxygen tank in his nose . . . two frail, skeletal elders, on the brink of death.
At first I hesitated to disturb their communion but they were happy to see me. My mom, who fades in and out of the present, said in a cheerful voice, “Wat gezellig. allemaal bei alkaar, ” (What a pleasure, all of us together.) She was so happy that her husband had come to see her, she kept kissing his hand.
As soon as I sat on the bed beside my dad, he indicated he wanted me to massage his back while he sat upright. I could feel every rib, every bone in his back. These past few months I’ve written many times that I don’t think he can get any thinner, yet now even his bones feel bonier. The same with my mother, who now hasn’t eaten in over a week.
The other day she looked me over and said, “Jei bent zo lekker vet, maar Paula is zo aakelek dun.” (You are so nice and fat but Paula is so painfully thin.)
My dad sat still, holding my mother’s hand, while my strong hands kneaded his shoulders. My mother, still speaking Dutch, said she wanted to go for a walk on the beach tomorrow, a long walk along the ocean, a place she called “de hoek van Holland.” She described children playing —it saddens my dad that her mind is gone, that she goes on and on saying things that make little sense to him. Every once in a while her far away mind comes back to the present, to tell me for the thousandth time how messy my hair is, how I must comb it to the side, and how important it is to look “netjles” (neat).
These last several months, not knowing whether one or both of my parents will slip away before my next visit, I’ve fallen into a routine. First, I fortify myself by wandering the river bottom with my dogs and granddaughter, Maggie, whose chubby seventeen-month-old legs are now sturdy enough to run up and down small hills.
When she falls or one of the exuberant dogs flying past her cause her to lose her footing, she may cry for a moment, but then she picks herself up, brushes the dirt off her legs, and goes back to the pure joyousness of being in a brand new young body.
Maggie and I are so perfectly matched—I pretend I’m the shaman- prankster grandmother—she’s my little apprentice. She calls me “mam” —same as my daughter does. We wander the dirt road or rocky riverbed with no agenda. If Maggie plops herself on the dusty ground to play with sticks and pebbles, I sit or squat nearby, drinking in this fleeting moment. We sing silly songs, we dance, whoop, and mimic animals (her favorite is when I pant like a dog, my tongue hanging out . . . ) After we whoop it up, we sink into silence, into bliss together. We listen for the subtle sounds of nature. Then, after I return Maggie to her mother’s breast (the matrix), I’m fortified to massage my dad and amuse my mother . . .