The morning phone call happens when I’m hurtling south on Highway 41 to get to work. After the scramble of checking that lunches made it into backpacks, tying my daughters’ shoes and hurriedly kissing my husband goodbye, I get in the car.
Headed downtown, I dial the same number I’ve been calling since moving to Fresno from San Diego 26 years ago.
“Hi, Daddy. How’s Mom?”
My mother has an aggressive form of dementia, worsened by a stroke. A brilliant nurse executive, she traveled the world with my Navy pilot dad, and lived life on her own fiercely independent terms.
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She now spends her days sitting silently in a wheelchair, declining rapidly.
My father has been a magnificent caregiver to her. Patient and sweet, he has selflessly honored every syllable of the wedding vows they made in a Southern courthouse 60 years ago. In the hospital after her stroke, I turned away when my dad kissed her on the lips and told her how beautiful she was, uncomfortable by the passion between my aging parents.
But I’m so grateful for his love for her. “She’ll always be my girl,” he says firmly, still seeing the statuesque, ginger-haired 19-year-old he married.
She is in a memory-care facility now. My dad lives in their house, alone, surrounded by the books she loved. My mom’s clothes are in their closet, and her toothbrush still sits in the bathroom next to his. Their lives, woven together as tightly as a tapestry, are unraveling, stitch by stitch.
From the other side of the Grapevine, five hours away, I’m sandwiched in this long goodbye, doing what I can to help my parents while raising my own children. The circle of life has unexpectedly twisted itself into a spiral and the responsibilities of family are coming from two directions.
My mom is the first curve, evaporating a little more each day. Everything she knew and did and that I wanted her to pass on to my girls has disappeared. A lifetime of stories: forgotten. Family recipes: vanished. Her opinions and ideas: absent. The memories of that blue-eyed military officer she loved, and my sister and I: going, going. Gone. All of her is lost to us, forever.
My daughters are the next rotation in this swirl of generations. Twirling out into the world, their lives are a dizzying, joyful spin of soccer games, basketball practice, spelling bees, First Communion, book reports, friends and birthday parties.
I am grateful for my father’s parting words when I flew back to Fresno after my mom’s stroke. “Go and take care of your family. That’s what your mom would want you to do.” So I try. Fumbling around, I attempt to simultaneously be here and there, present and accounted for as both ends of life spin faster and farther away from me.
My mom’s farewell stretches on, and I’m not ready for it to end. There is still so much of my life that I wish she could be part of. Pushed and pulled by past and future, I take some comfort that my girls are growing into young women that their Nana would be proud of, even if she no longer knows who they are.
Recently, I drove to Bakersfield, headed down the 99 on a perfect spring day. The west side of the freeway was lined with miles of orchards in bloom. Acres of healthy trees sprouted bright green leaves, while delirious bees frantically burrowed in their clouds of tender flowers.
In the late afternoon breeze, the blush, ivory and soft mauve blossoms drifted down, covering the ground below in petals. As far as I could see were endless rows of beautiful trees in the prime of youth and health, ready to bear the sweetest fruit.
Several hours later, driving back to Fresno at dusk, I winced at the depressing truth of what will happen when their final crop has been picked.
An orchard on the east side of the 99 by Traver has been unceremoniously yanked out of the ground. The old plants have been broken into heaps of rough, gray wood, piled up in the dirt. They are bare of leaves and flowers, with no memories of the fruit they once grew. A crow sat on the tip of a brittle branch that jutted up awkwardly into the darkening sky.
Speeding past the dusty, pink oleanders dividing Highway 99, I dial a familiar number. “Hi Daddy. How’s Mom?”
My dad reminds me, again, what my mom would want me to do: care for the tender, budding branches of my own family tree. Finishing the call with him, I accelerate and focus on the road in front of me, headed home to my husband and daughters.
Sandwiched in this long goodbye, I turn away from the remains of that old orchard. I don’t want to look at the sad leftovers from harvests long gone.
Dawn Golik lives in Fresno with her husband and two young daughters. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.