The loudspeaker at JFK reminds us that "Delta Airlines flight 371, non-stop to Fort Lauderdale, is now boarding at Gate 19."
My mother looks up at me and starts to whimper, and I respond straight-faced. She sobs at things as trivial as a Mahler symphony, and then proceeds to hum it. "That's the way it goes ... right, Lloyd?" but doesn't wait for an answer. Her tears are guaranteed to flow at any mention of my father, her beloved husband Philip, who's been dead for seven years, as if it were a disgrace not to react that way. There has been crying at the right times, but there've been too many of the wrong times.
Her ability to cry, as if on cue, both angers and repulses me because I've often felt confused and manipulated. I would sometimes like to cry and often wonder why I can't let grief and sadness, or happiness and elation, flow as easily from me as it can from her. On rare occasions, like at the end of a movie when music wells up, tears might come to my eyes. I'd feel joyously human but also weak, thankful that I can react, but simultaneously ashamed that it was to an image projected on a screen, to the technique of a skillful film maker. Ultimately, she emotes for the two of us, and this had left little breathing room for both my father - who was also so outwardly impassive - and me.
Abruptly the tears stop. "Well, take care of yourself, will ya?" She cocks her head, dismisses me with "Have a good life" and tries to shove a five dollar bill "You shouldn't pay extra for parking" into my pocket.
"C'mon, Ma, huh." I resent sounding like a child. Every year, she showers us with gift checks, and now doesn't let me pay for parking. For the sake of peace, I say just "Okay, Ma. Thank you," and then hold my tongue.
Part of me is desperate to get the hell out of there but I know she's not yet ready to leave, nor am I ready to let her go. I hug her, tentatively at first - why can't we have more affection for each other during the brief annual visit? - but then for real. She feels so soft and receptive, but so flabby and needy.
Throughout the hug are these mental flashes: The invasion of my family's privacy and her upsetting of our daily schedule … the imposition of her negative, fault-finding, prejudiced opinions … her childish demands for our attention - she even interrupts the children when they're talking! … her "helpful" suggestions and her nagging and her not-so-hidden-messaged martyrisms - "I'll make use of the old cottage cheese" "Jesus Christ, Mom!" "It's okay ... I'll just scrape off the mold" … her tenderness and her ironic sense of humor, which helps to relieve the anxiety … her brightness and vivaciousness contrasted with her deceptions and obfuscations … her love for her children and my children, her tenuous link with the eternal. But always, her underlying fear of the inevitable. And mine, by proxy, as well.
The hug continues for another brief moment, but it lasts much longer. An impermeability of unasked but unanswerable questions has squeezed between us. She yearns for reassurance that she had done the right thing by emigrating to Florida and away from her sons and our families, and I'm disheartened at my holding back and my inability to utter comforting words. She needs my acceptance as much as I need her respect. She needs my love as much as I need to love her.
We separate, but not entirely. Her gnarled, wrinkled hands still grasp my upper arms. I gaze into her sun-etched, weathered face with sadness that accompanies loss, but also with the hope that this time, after her return to the condominium development that she calls "God's little waiting room," that she might use her agile mind, her inner drive and her independent spirit to live out her remaining days or decades with pleasure and fulfillment. So that, maybe, just maybe, she won't fade into oblivion like her mother did at 92, after a life of bitterness and hostility, filled with suspicion, fear and inner rage.
Finally she turns to go. There's so much that I want to say, have to say, couldn't say, should've said. I watch for more than a few moments as she walks unsteadily away from me, favoring the foot with the overlapping toe that she refuses to have surgically corrected … "It's okay, Lloydie, I get around all right" … shlepping the heavy tote bag that she wouldn't dare entrust to the porters … "I can manage it myself" … through the security checkpoint towards the jet-powered carrier that will transport her on this blustery early spring afternoon back to the warmth, safety, loneliness and isolation of sub-tropical Florida.
No tears will fall from my eyes. But my relief at her departure will once again fail to assuage my feelings of loss and emptiness.
January 7, 1985; Revised: June 4, 1985; June 9, 1998; October 7 & 23, December 4, 2008 Copyright © 1985, 1998, 2008 Lloyd B. Abrams