Leaving my grandfathers’ house after lunch, my mother was nearly out of the neighborhood when she braked suddenly in front of Sunshine Park, in which I had spent many hours as a child. She leaned forward, gazing into the rear view mirror and then out the passenger window.
“What is it mom?”
“That woman, she’s waving at us.”
I turned to look out the window and indeed a woman was jogging up the sidewalk, waving at us, though I didn’t recognize her. She was dressed in a faded peach, over-sized sweatshirt and in her puffy sleeves, cradled a small, anxious looking dog. A short man with graying hair stood next to her, wearing a fleece jacket and jeans that seemed several sizes too big. He pushed what seemed like a baby carriage until my mother had backed the car up considerably and I saw that it was, in fact, a dog carriage. Another small dog sat in the basket, peering out nervously from within the basket’s netted frame and as my mother parked, I rolled down the window to say hello to the strangers.
The woman was breathless, but held her dog firmly as she went around to my mother’s side. “I thought it was you!” She said, then, ducking down to peer into the window, saw me and her eyes grew wide.
“Is this Betty?”
“Yes,” my mother said.
“Goodness! The last time I saw you you were three or four!”
“Hello,” I said, then paused, knowing what was coming next.
“You look just like your mother!”
My mother smiled, then gave her usual spiel, “When she was younger, people said she took after her father, but now people are more likely to say she takes after me. I suppose it changes by age.”
“Speaking of age,” the woman said, still stooping into the window, “I’ve gotten so old you probably don’t even recognize me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t.”
Apparently her younger daughter and I used to play in the park as toddlers, but I had no recollection nor would, I’m sure, her daughter.
The woman sighed, “We’re all aging so fast.” She nodded in her husband’s direction and then down at the furry bundle in her arms, “Even our dogs.”
My mother raised her eyebrows as she looked down at the dog, but stood patiently to the side of the street as the woman commenced the long and complicated medical history of her aging fox terriers. Both dogs were seventeen years old, which in dog years is 119, and both were suffering from such a myriad of health problems that they could no longer walk but must be carried or carted. The dog the woman held in her arms was faring better than the one in the dog carriage, but both alternated between howling and whimpering at night so that the woman could only sleep for a few hours at a time.
“I have to get up every three hours to comfort them, stroke them, give them pain meds, walk them to their bathroom,” she said, stroking the dog softly on the head, “It pains me to hear their pain, and my husband, well, he gets up early so I have to let him sleep.”
She looked at my mother with a pained expression, “It’s no way to live, but when you love them, it’s what you do. They’ve been with us for seventeen years and gave us so much happiness. How can I not?”
My mother and I nodded sympathetically. They continued talking so I left the car and went to talk to the man, who until then had stood quietly to the side, one hand on the dog carriage.
“She doesn’t look so old,” I said, touching the dog softly on the head. It’s eyelids drooped as I did so and I noticed how feeble her front legs were, shaking under the perceived weight of my hand.
“She is,” the man pointed at the dog’s white head, “The fur on her head used to be brown, and now it’s white, just like the hair on my head.”
I smiled and turned to look at my mother, whose hand had come up above her eyes to shield the sun’s rays.
“…You haven’t changed at all,” I heard the woman say, “Still look as young as ever…”
“…No, you’re right about age…” returned my mother, “…no one escapes it…I’ve just come from lunch with my father. He’s home alone now because my mother’s in the hospital with lung problems…”
“Oh I’m sorry,” the woman said, “I did notice I haven’t seen them walking in the park for a while.”
I turned back to the dog, sitting serenely in her basket.
“She’s deaf and blind now too,” the man said. There was a scar above her left eyelid and the man said it was an old wart, the least of her problems now. The dog had long suffered from spinal problems which necessitated the daily administering of pain meds, which he said, his wife lovingly crushed into the dog’s food.
“It’s hard work like my wife said, but I’m nearing retirement and I can work from home more often now,” he said, “So today, I thought I’d stay home and take the dogs out. I don’t know how much longer they’ll be around.”
He was an engineer at Raytheon, formerly known as Hughes (“We make missiles,” the man said.) and described his position as “The highest ranking Asian man” in his department.
“Sounds like you like it a lot,” I said and he nodded, not without a hint of smugness.
“I have a lot of freedom now. They used to send me on a lot of business trips, but now I can pick and choose my trips. I was supposed to go to Florida today, but I choose not to, and next week I’m due in the Stanford area. I’ll visit my eldest daughter there as well. She’s doing a PhD in physics.”
I smiled, wondering what it was like to jet around the country and advise engineers on missiles and radar and other things I had no idea about, but before I could ask anymore questions my mother called and said it was time to go. I could tell by her expression that she was tired and that she had not intended to stop for so long to talk to these people and inquire after their dogs. The woman waved enthusiastically and the man wished me good luck on my own job hunt, “The times are different,” he advised me, “You won’t necessarily find a career like mine that you stick to for over thirty years.”
“They seem nice,” I said as my mother turned onto the main road.
“They are. They’re nice people. Smart. Engineering PhD’s, the both of them with two highly intelligent, successful daughters.”
“I know,” I said, “The eldest one is at Stanford doing a PhD in Physics.”
My mother nodded, but her lips were pursed and I could sense that for whatever reason, she was less happy than she’d been before we ran into them.
“What did that woman say to you?”
“What did you guys talk about?”
“Oh, her dogs, her younger daughter. Then she asked after grandma and grandpa.”
“Yes, and I asked after her parents.”
“Not doing so well either.”
“They’re sick too?”
“Yes. Her father passed away a while back. Her mother has Parkinson’s.”
My mother merged onto the freeway and I thought about the perpetually occupied rooms at the Alhambra Medical Center, where my grandmother currently stays, waiting to be discharged with an oxygen tank. Just two evenings ago, she was diagnosed with COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a progressive disease resulting from years of smoking in enclosed parlors while playing mahjong. She had snorted at my hopes that she wouldn’t need the oxygen tank. “I’ll carry the damn thing if I have to,” she said, “If I need it to breath then I need it to breath. I didn’t live so long to just drop dead now, not with half my grandkids still unwed!”
On the freeway, my mother told me that the woman’s mother was in a bad way. The woman felt powerless to help her mother.”
“That’s how everyone feels when someone is dying of any awful disease like that,” I said, “Did you tell her all she can do is just comfort and care for them? Like her dogs?”
Now it was my mother’s turn to snort. Her voice rose sharply, “Exactly! Like her dogs!” Then softening, she sighed, “I don’t know what some people are thinking when they lavish such care on their pets but neglect the human beings closest to them.”
The woman’s mother ails in Canada.
“Does she have siblings there to care for her?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my mother said, “I didn’t ask. But does it matter? Siblings or not, it’s her mother too. It’s not that she doesn’t have the money to go and see her.”
“Maybe she has to work.”
“She hasn’t worked since she got married twenty-some years ago. She has time. Her daughters are grown. Her husband is nearing retirement…” my mother’s voice trailed off, “But to each their own…”
My mother has a tendency, when she drives, to slow down when she speaks or is deep in thought. As cars filled with busy people on their ways whizzed past us, my thoughts returned to Grandma, who was no doubt taking another turn around the floor, peering with a combination of sadness and smugness into the rooms of other patients, few of whom had visitors as often as she did.
I admired her spirit, but I understood that our presence fueled that spirit. The continual flow of visitors confirmed to not only herself but to the nurses and the other patients that she had a family, that she had people who cared. She indulged in the attention showered upon her both by the nurses and by us, her children and grandchildren and despite her hacking cough, walked with her walker around her wing so often that the nurses have started to call her “Barbie.”
“She’s one of the most active elderly patients I’ve seen,” one nurse told me, “She doesn’t speak English, but she smiles. We all love her.”
As Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” On the whole, we consider ourselves a happy family – large in number and strong in its ideology: love your family – every single member, and try to see the good in each person. I will venture to say that other happy families do the same, regardless of what intermittent, minor unhappinesses fly their way. To each their own, yes – people have jobs, children, diseases of their own, and a week goes by when other people and events and occasion crowd their calendars so that they say, “I’ll visit mom next week,” or “I’ll call dad tomorrow,” or “I’ll plan that trip with them next month,” etc., etc., but the week turns into two then three then four and suddenly seventeen years have gone by and they haven’t seen their parents, only spoken to them over the phone, their elderly voices faint with yearning. Seventeen years seems like an exaggeration, especially in this day and age with technology and cheap(er) flights, but as she drove, my mother listed friends and acquaintances who had poor relationships with their parents or were simply too busy to visit or to be there or to care. One woman did indeed let seventeen years go by between visits so that when she finally saw her mother again, the expression on the old woman’s face rivaled that of someone who had just seen a ghost.
I wanted to say to my mother that I would never allow seventeen years to go by without seeing her, but I knew she wasn’t telling me as a warning of how not to be. What would my reassurance mean to her, at my age, anyhow? I am, it seems, always about to leave – for school, travel, whatever. I can say plenty of things right now, promise worlds and worlds of care and tenderness, closeness, but it will mean nothing until the day comes and I am there. Assurance, security, my barb-tongued father teaches me, does not come with words but with actions. My mother, my aunts and uncles drive hours to and from the hospital; they discuss diagnoses, medications, visits to the doctors and make sure my grandpa, home alone, is cared for. They don’t do it because they have to. They don’t do it because they feel obligated and because it’s better to feel obligated than to neglect those obligations and feel shame or guilt – no, they do it because they want to. It’s their mother. It’s their mother now, was and could be their father later, and perhaps in the future it’ll be a brother, sister, son or daughter. Regardless, it’s family. Life only gives you one.