This is being written in the coffee shop of the Omaha, Neb., airport. From the window, I can see snow swirling around on the runway. Travelers are hurrying by and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is in the air.
I am sitting here with a cup of coffee, my writing pad and an attitude of gratitude. I don't know many people my age who still have both parents living. Most important, my Mom and Dad are together, in their own little nest, still functioning more or less independently.
Now that they are in their mid-80s, I try to return to my hometown at least twice a year. Each time I go, I am more aware of the aging process. Mother no longer sees, and my father has his share of painful arthritis. I am especially grateful (and so are they) that their minds and memories are as sharp as ever.
The past eight days have been filled with a flurry of activity, the kind of activity that goes on in a loving family when a prodigal child shows up from a faraway place.
Although I have brothers with their own families in Omaha, plus a few other relatives, my choice is always to stay with Mom and Dad. They love the frequent ringing of the phone, and people popping in to visit.
Three Bowls of Cereal
Each morning, as in the story of the three bears, Dad makes three bowls of cereal. The three of us often go out to lunch. My mother's blindness and frailty allow us to park in what they call "the weak, lame and lazy space." Dad still drives (daytime only), but I sense the day is coming when he will have to hang up the car keys and it hurts to think about it.
Independence is a priceless thing, and bit by bit these two formerly vital people are losing their independence.
They asked me to go with them to look at a "rest home." Although the place was clean and cheerful, it was difficult picturing what life would be like for them there. Afterward, I overheard them talking in their bedroom about the pros and cons of making such a decision. Mom said to Dad, "You know, honey, let's just keep praying that we can stay in our own little home . . . right up to the end."
The three of us usually take a drive, just so I can see how Omaha has grown since I left in 1954 to live in Los Angeles. Mom and Dad love to point out the tiny third-floor apartment they settled down in after their honeymoon 62 years ago. Our drive takes us past the big frame house my Swedish grandfather built, and where eight children were born. That big, old house eventually became my parents' home, where they raised my three brothers and me.
Mom and Dad always ask if I'd like to visit the cemetery. I say yes, simply because it doesn't feel right to say no. Many relatives are buried there, and like most cemeteries, one can walk around and feel the history of a whole family. Children who died too young, a cousin killed on his motorcycle, aunts and uncles, my oldest brother, Jim, and my grandparents.
Mom and Dad took care of their own arrangements a few years ago. They didn't want their kids making such heavy decisions when the time comes. Their marker is already in place.
The first time I read the inscription, it was impossible to hold back the tears. It simply says, "Together Forever," with their names, their birth dates and the two blank spaces for the final dates.
More Smiles Than Tears
Don't get me wrong. There were more smiles than tears during these eight days. My Dad and brothers love talking football . . . especially Nebraska football. The state's slogan is "Go Big Red." The state tree is a goal post. The state bird is a football, with wings. The third largest population in Nebraska is Lincoln Memorial Stadium on a Saturday afternoon.
On a clear, crisp Tuesday, Mom asked if just the two of us could go to lunch . . . a Mother-Daughter Day, she called it. I was shocked when she asked if we could have a glass of wine, as it is frowned upon in their church. With eyes that no longer see, she lifted her glass in the direction of mine and made a toast to life and love.
We spent two happy hours talking nonstop, like old friends. She surprised me by apologizing for never giving me an allowance. Then she handed over an envelope on which she had managed to scribble, "This is the allowance we could never afford to give you. Please buy a colorful windsock for your Oregon deck, and when it flies in the wind it'll remind you of your Mom and Dad."
Two days later, in honor of my visit, the whole family gathered for an early Thanksgiving, with everyone bringing all the traditional foods. After dinner, as is our family's custom, out came the guitars and harmonicas.
I watched Mom's gnarled fingers search carefully for the right buttons on her tape recorder. I listened to Dad play all the old songs on his harmonica. Children joined in, and the house was filled with laughter and music. I had trouble singing because of a large lump in my throat, especially after trying to get through a duet with my Mother and her favorite hymn, "In the Garden."
Now it's time to board the plane for the long trip back to the Oregon coast. I'm feeling torn, as there's a part of me that needs to be here. A family's love is a precious thing, and this is the time of year when people seem to focus more on things that are important.
During this holiday time, perhaps more than ever before, I am counting the blessing of a caring husband and family, wonderful friends left behind in California and new-found ones in Oregon. But most especially the blessing of knowing I can still pick up the phone and hear the voices of those two old people in Omaha, my Mom and Dad.