My Life in the Middle AgesA Survivor's Tale
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 James Atlas
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060955988
Mom and Dad
"Dad's in the hospital."
So it begins.
I'm in the kitchen of our summer house in Vermont when I get the call from my mother. It's a Saturday morning in early June, and birds are peeping in the tangle of greenery outside the window. I can hear the whine of my neighbor's Weed Eater as he trims underbrush across the road. "Dad" is my dad, not hers, but at this point, after sixty-four years of marriage, they've become so inextricable, bound together in so many complex ways, that the terms husband and wife no longer adequately describe their relationship. They are also each other's children, now that my brother and I have moved away; and parents, their own having been in the ground for decades. They are no longer, I assume, lovers, at least not in the technical sense: my father is eighty-seven, my mother eighty-three. But who knows? They're a family unto themselves — a family of two. Hence Dad. He in turn addresses her as Mother.
"What's the matter?"
She launches into a breathlessly detailed account (she jokingly refers to herself as "the long-winded lady," after the garrulous correspondent who filed occasional columns for The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" many years ago, when the section was still unsigned) of how he woke up the day before and couldn't move his arm, and the house doctor at Brookhaven, the assisted-living facility in Lexington, Massachusetts, to which they moved seven months ago, came to look at it and couldn't figure out what was going on and called an ambulance that took him to the emergency room of Beth Israel Hospital in Boston "where we had to wait seven hours for them to do a CAT scan of his brain ... "
"Why his brain?" I've only been half-listening up to this point, preoccupied watching a scarlet tanager hop back and forth on a branch. My father had a minor stroke a decade ago, which caused him to lose some movement in his right hand — no more playing the oboe or the piano, his favorite pastimes. Otherwise he'd been in perfect health. A small trim man, he had a light tan in all weather, and skin as smooth as a peach. He didn't have the dusty, crinkled look, the stooped gait and curved spine of what I thought of as the "old old." He'd only given up tennis a year or two ago — "picking up balls," he'd taken to calling it near the end. He never allowed himself to go around looking decrepit and had a walk-in closet stocked (mostly by his tireless shopper of a wife) with crisply ironed shirts, tweed jackets, soft leather lace-up shoes polished to a high sheen. In a hanging closet bag were linen suits from Bullocks Wilshire in La Jolla, California, where he and my mother had lived for thirty years after he retired from his medical practice in Chicago at the youthful age of fifty-seven.
His fitness didn't stop him from predicting his own imminent demise. He was surprisingly pessimistic about his chances in the death lottery, even after he'd outlived so many of his friends. My father's method of warding off senescence was to act as if it had already arrived. You can't fire me: I quit. "How many years have I got left?" he would say; or, "I won't be around much longer" — Meanwhile struggling to master the Internet as he sat crouched in front of his new iMac as intently as an air controller navigating traffic at LaGuardia. From a statistical and biological perspective, he was nearing the end of his span; his walk had slowed and he had trouble hearing. His eyesight was beginning to fail. "At our age, you can go down like this," he would say, plunging his liverspotted hands earthward in a dive-bomb gesture. But he could still get around on his own and joked in a good-natured way about the residents of Brookhaven, referring to them as "old people." Whenever he passed one of his neighbors shuffling down the corridor with a walker, he picked up his pace, eager to differentiate himself. Flattening himself against a wall as an elderly lady in a wide-brimmed hat whizzed by in a motorized cart, he joked, "It's like the Indianapolis Five Hundredaround here."
Their traveling days were over. In their seventies my parents had gone to Cambodia and China, to Europe and Israel. They always came east to visit us at Thanksgiving, braving the throngs in Times Square to take the grandchildren to a Broadway show. But they weren't entirely housebound even now. Three months after they sold their house and moved to the Boston suburbs to be near my brother, they had gone back to La Jolla for a month, arranging for a comfortable sublet with a view of the ocean. My persistent mother had wangled an upgrade of their frequent-flier miles. "I could get used to first class," she bragged. No, it wasn't time; it wasn't over. "I'm old, dear," she would remind me in a feeble, apologetic voice if I got short-tempered on the phone. ("No, Mom: we're picking him up at hockey camp, then we're dropping her off at riding camp."What are you, senile?) "I know you don't like to talk about this," she had told me firmly a few months before, describing her busy efforts to divest herself of possessions. She was sorting through the clumps of family photographs stuffed in drawers and pasting them in albums or tossing them out; she had located their life insurance policy; she had put up for sale at a local auction house the collection of ivory figurines collected over the years. What was their hurry?