Her question didn’t seem so odd or out of context to me. But it set the other folks surrounding Mom’s hospital bed to second-guessing. You know, stealing side-glances at each other with that suspicious brusque insight. That perhaps my ailing and diminishing 94-and-a-half-year-old Mom’s mind was suddenly skiing recklessly downhill through a bumpy mogul field.
Then again, my older-brother-duh-renown-heart-doc, as well as a cabal of those overly-degreed family and friends, had always suspected that ‘my’ mind was more than a tad odd and bumpy. And undoubtedly to them I should have long been put in one of those places where they were now considering ‘might-be-best’ for Mother.
They obviously thought that several of my worst mistakes in life had been more than just some of my haircuts.
Hmm… It’s a good thing I know I am crazy. After all, it keeps me from going insane. I mean, I don’t answer the front door with only one slipper on, in a stained bathrobe that won’t stay closed. In other words I am not a mad man holding onto a trace of lucidity. I just have a habit of saying out loud what most folks only dare to think.
Which is sort of what my gray-haired and ashen-face Mom was asking out loud: “I don’t know why I am here,” she said rather straight forwardly. Then she smiled a little bewildered right at me like a nightclub singer lost in the blues, and wondered again: “Why am I here?”
And before my prominent brother-duh-doc could answer seriously about her serious case of pneumonia I replied: “You know, Mom, that’s the very same question most of us ask wearily every morning in front of the bathroom mirror: Why duh hell am I here?”
And almost immediately the switch in my big-breasted, ingenuous Mother’s mind — which admittedly has never been accused of being the brightest starlight in our planetarium — went on.
At that she released one of those glorious chuckles reserved for people who long ago discovered that laughter is, indeed, the best medicine – especially when they don’t care to know what the heck they are giggling about. Her glee just bounced off the shiny tiled floor of her two-bedded rehab room occupied with only one patient, but with enough laughter to fill a drunken nightclub.
And then I quickly noted: “Mom, you are here to be the dominatrix in a bordello. So get your whip cracking…”
My 6-foot-3-inch, slim and narrow brother, who went prematurely gray well before the mortgage on his grand house on the hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay was finally paid off, didn’t know whether to laugh in exasperation… or excoriate, yet again, his 5-foot-10-inch little brother.
It’s no family secret that his hard working, non-drinking, low-fat, over-exercising, assiduous tennis-playing life was forever sniffing down at the booze, broads and border-line depravity of my rather bodacious adventures about the globe.
And let’s not even mention my cigars!
“I don’t know how you can say those things to Mom,” he snorted, while grabbing at his furrowed forehead wrinkled above a reluctant grin.
And then, almost on cue, my Mom and I both responded simultaneously in a sort of duet: “Because it makes me/her laugh.”
But of course!
Naturally, I practically had to explain to my serious bigger brother — who, for some cryptic reason I love unconditionally — that people don’t stop laughing because they get old; they get old because they stop laughing.
“Happiness is like Viagra,” I said. “It keeps you up.”
“But everything is always a smart-ass joke to you,” intoned the solemn Dr. Brian L. Strunk. For some reason he didn’t sound like his usual judgmental self, but sort of curious. Like for once I wasn’t the butt of one of his cautionary admonishments to his children.
“Indeed,” I replied with edgy brotherly kindness. “Have you ever seen yourself play tennis? You should drink more.”
Hmm… It goes without saying that my brother got the brains and I got what was missing in the family DNA – athleticism. A separation of powers that has forever exacerbated the competitive contentiousness of a couple of siblings reared under the tough forehands and backhands of a successful, irascible, tyrannical father.
It’s astounding I turned out so absolutely well-rounded and mild mannered. Just ask any of my exes. My brother, on the other hand, has been married to the same wonderful woman for over 45 years. June’s a lawyer. And with my brother being a doc I always proclaimed it to be a marriage made in Jewish heaven.
And when I asked him once if he’s ever wandered off with one of his nurses into the linen closet, he peered down at me like the little scar on my forehead was from a major lobotomy.
“Are you crazy?” he stammered. “June controls the money.”
Hmm… No wonder I am broke.
Anyway, here we all were gathered around hearth of our wonderfully dysfunctional family – the mother hen. And although I speak to her about four times a week, I hadn’t seen Mom in many, many moons.
Don’t ask. It had something to do with the last future-ex-wife. You remember. The one who put me in the hospital for 5 weeks after she administered the poison. And eventually when the DA wanted to charge Stephanie I demurred. Said I was willing to forgive her – that is, as soon as I could dislodge her from the garbage disposal.
Whew! A bad mental fart down memory lane there.
And at the same time my brother contributed something that violated one of my rare ethics.
“Didn’t think you had any,” he said.
“Only when I’m sober.”
“And when is that?”
“You know, the worst thing about you is when I am always drunk you are always sober. How do you stand yourself at Christmas?”
“Christmas? What are you talking about? We’re Jewish.”
Hmm… Another sobering thought.
So we didn’t see each other for quite a few menstrual cycles. Although we conversed regularly. And then my hypochondriac brudder-duh-doc suggested strongly that I better get out there before it was too late.
And so I did. And here I am. Or was. Getting my mother robust again. When I first walked into the room she was sleeping with her mouth open. As usual, I thought, so she could get the first word in in the morning with Dad who was always getting in the last word. Morning, noon and night. It is amazing how we all survive the war of life – not to mention the war of marriage – the only war where you sleep with the enemy.
My mother’s first words upon opening her eyes and assessing me were “You haven’t changed.”
Hmm… “So I am still tall, dark and the illegitimate son of the milkman,” I burped.
To a mother a child never changes. And then I joked: “Well I guess I don’t have to be on my good behavior then, do I?”
Mother smiled the knowing, smoldering grin of the Mona Lisa and simply stated: “Why start now?”
And you wonder why I love her.
For the next few days I made her laugh. I made her eat. And I even held her and made her walk 25 feet. “It seems too far, so distant,” she said as we hobbled step by step.
Around her were other ancient mariners with trainers helping them use a hand pedal machine, or rotate their arms, or try whatever they needed to try to keep at bay what my brother – and I – exercise voraciously to keep from grinding us down. To keep the finish line over the next hill and around the farthest bend.
All my Mom kept repeating in her somewhat unsteady gait is that: “It seems so far. I don’t know if I can make it.”
Yet somehow, in one form or another, most of us do.
For some reason, at that point and time I got to thinking of the marathon walk I had taken a couple of days before. At the San Francisco Airport. From where I disembarked from my cross country flight. And made my way to pick up my small, red bag that I had wanted to carry-on, but because of my toiletry articles with plastic bottles with more than 3 ounces of aftershave, and toothpaste, and shampoo… my cigar lighter… and just about anything that keeps me sane.. I had to check the damn thing.
Beside me thru the airport walked the youthful Sreeja. She said to pronounce it like ‘hee-haw.’ She had sat beside me on the plane. She was initially from India, now with a Masters degree in Mathematics, ensconced with a Pakistani post-grad student of electrical engineering.
And when I teased her that: ‘Aren’t Pakistanis and Indians supposed to hate each other?’ her simple reply was: ‘We found a common denominator – the bedroom.’
And as we ambled along I wondered in our desultory and joking conversation if she was a vegan — and not just because all we got to eat on the 7-hour flight was processed junk food. She found the thought humorous. She laughed and pointed out that she was originally from southern India. And when the folks there see a cow, we go: ‘Dinner!’
At one point in our march thru the airport madness to gain our bags I wondered aloud if it was just me, being about the same 30 or so years older than ‘Hee-haw’ as my mother is to me, that this walk seemed so far.
And without pausing in thought Sreeja touched my shoulder and said without any pretense, in that Indian sing-songy manner: “When I first came here for school from India everything seemed so far to me. Now it doesn’t any longer. Time changes our perspective… the journey always gets shorter.”
Hmm… I knew that…
When I later related this perspective metaphor to my brother after helping my mother shuffle a far 25 feet, it didn’t seem to register.
But then the next day we, and a couple of my brother’s doc friends, spent the crisp sunny afternoon sailing in the Bay in one of their all white sailboats. Everyone, or at least thousands of folks there, seems to have a 31-foot sail boat that sleeps six or eight. And we all were drinking tasty bottles of red and white Napa wines. And naturally I was also consuming my non-drinking brother’s share.
And when we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge I looked up at all the folks gawking down at us from above. From where they stood, or thereabouts, last year 46 people committed suicide jumping off. And all in all more than 1600 people have leapt to their deaths since the bridge opened in 1937.
So recently they put netting up to help prevent this. Nevertheless, all I could shout up to them was to: ‘Jump! Jump! Before you grow too old.’
A couple of my brother’s doc friends laughed and even chimed in – even the doc who had finally left his wife, a while or so back, after sending her and one of her friends on a vacation… and then moved out all his stuff while she was gone.
Hmm… Like I said: Jump before you grow too old.
Finally I shouted up once again for all of them to: “Jump! It’s not as far as you think.”
My brother informed me: “Hey, it’s 200 feet.”
“So what,” I hooted. “200 feet. 500 feet. 1000 feet. It isn’t the distance that kills you. It’s the sudden stop. It’s like when you bang into that runner’s wall during a marathon. And your body just stops. And you realize that you’ve come so far only to forget why you are here… what you are supposed to be doing here… how did it ever get to this?.. Look at Mom…”
I think my brother-duh-doc who fights to save all his ailing heart patients, began to acknowledge my perspective. Or at least submit to my craziness. And he finally cracked a smile that parted his bearded face. Of course I imagine that if he could understand Morse code then all my mental tap dancing would drive him absolutely insane – or at least right into that empty bed next to Mom. After all, old age ain’t for sissies.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…