It’s 8:30 p.m. on a chilly Monday evening and I’ve joined James and Mom on a little road trip. Mom is riding shotgun and I’m between them, or maybe all around them, floating on bluetooth air waves while speaking into my cell phone 400 miles away.
Mom and James had waited an hour and a half for the ambulance before taking matters into their own hands. Apparently, general transport takes a back seat to emergencies. The nurses didn’t think it was a good idea to remove Mom from the hospital before the ambulance arrived, but luckily an angel of a nurse’s aide named Mary stepped up and liberated Mom. Mary, a woman of German descent, rounded up a doctor who gave James permission to use his car as transport. “I tell you, sometimes the lowest on the totem pole are the best,” James observes.
We have a 30 minute drive from the hospital to Mom’s new bed at the rehab facility. John is at the other end, getting things set up for her arrival. Bob and I are just finishing up the dinner dishes when James calls. “I’m taking route 11 instead of 81 because I think its smoother,” he says, “Is it smooth, Mom?” Mom chirps a couple of syllables. James translates, “She says it’s real smooth.”
He tells me about the aide who helped engineer the getaway and how he was surprised to find out she was two years younger than him. James usually assumes the people he meets are older than he, a leftover from being the youngest of six. “It’s funny,” he says, “I was surprised when I realized that Christina (James’ step-daughter) is younger than Brandon (John’s youngest son). In my mind, Brandon is always the youngest.”
I’ve taken the call to the back bedroom, and when I hear that they are on a dark stretch of road, I switch off the light so I can sit in the dark, too. I look out the window for the moon, but it hasn’t come up yet. I picture James zipping down the yellow line with Mom at his side and say, “You’re having a Thelma and Louise moment.” Then, wondering why that popped into my mind, I recall that Mom and I share the same middle name: Louise. I picture James and Mom as clearly as if I really were in the car and not just a voice over a speaker.
“Did Bob come?” Mom asks, and James explains that I’m still in North Carolina, that I’m only a voice on the phone. “Bob and I are coming on Thursday”, I say. Mom’s answer is muffled but cheery, like music from a radio wrapped in cotton bunting.
Poor Mom. James tells me she’s been sitting up since dinner hours ago, and went for two long walks today. “You must be exhausted,” I say, and she chirps back. The three of us barrel down the smooth old highway in the dark, talking about Shippensburg things I can’t recall, about the grandkids and the nieces and the nephews.
We talk about what we had for dinner, I stir-fried onions and cabbage over noodles with fake chicken breasts, and James, the better half of a stale bagel and some apple cobbler with whipped cream; all he could round up in the hospital cafeteria before they closed for the evening. The salad, he says, was already getting crusty, on the verge of being put away or thrown out. And besides, he’d already eaten an expired salad for lunch and was regretting it. “Best by 3/2, it said, and it wasn’t good.”
And then there are lights. James names them all, the lights of the hotel that sits behind the little house where that guy (remember?) sold fish. When you walked in the door it would trip an alarm and he’d come downstairs to sell you whatever you wanted. Now it’s dwarfed by a giant building. We turn on to Conestoga drive and there are the lights of Lowe’s and then the Walmart. We’re almost there.
When James stops the car in front of the nursing home, I sense both of them leaning forward, peering over the dashboard. “I don’t see John,” he says, “Maybe he’s inside, getting things ready,” I say. “I think that’s his van,” he says, “Isn’t that his van, Mom?” and Mom chirps. She must be more than ready to be done with this day.
“I’m going to leave you and Mom in the car,” James says and goes into the building. I tell Mom about my chat with our friend Carolyn Lemon, and she responds with pleasure. “I mailed her a copy of Honey Sandwiches,” I say, and I can feel Mom’s smile in the dark.
Now there’s another voice, a woman’s. I can’t believe I’m still on the line. I feel like part of the car, I’m in the air, in the moment. It’s magic. I think about the times I’d be on the phone with Nana and she’d get up to let one of the dogs in or out and forget I was on the line, and how I’d be perfectly content to stay on the phone for another thirty minutes, listening to the rhythms of her house, the patter of the dogs, her muffled, motherly tones.
I’m flattered to tears that James brought me along for the ride, me the big sister who moved out when he was only seven. I hear the woman instructing Mom to swing her legs to the side. “Now give me a big hug,” she says, in a voice as calm and patient, as strong and capable as any voice I’ve ever heard. “Let’s stand up on three,” she says, “One, two, three…” and I practically stand up myself.
The voices drift away and I sit in the dark car for a few minutes, straining to follow their footsteps. I feel included and forgotten, loved and abandoned. This is how it will feel when we take Mom to her final home, I think. And I start to cry.