In 2011, on a brutally hot August morning, my eighty-seven-year-old mother and I arrived at Florida’s West Palm Beach airport for her final flight to New York. On arrival, two good-natured stewards seated mom in a wheelchair and escorted us into the terminal where we checked in and headed to security. As I pushed my bags onto the moving platform, I was abruptly shoved aside by a stern TSA agent. She took the handles of mom’s wheelchair and, without asking, wheeled her to the opposite side of the terminal.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, keeping up and holding tightly to the side of the wheelchair. “She’s eighty-seven. She’s no danger to anyone.”
“Listen lady, this is not optional,” the agent said, rolling the wheelchair to a small table behind a screen. “I need to examine her bottom. You want to get her up?”
“Fine,” I said.
It was not fine, but I was tired of arguing with someone who had concluded, against all reasonable odds, that my frail, severely demented mother was a threat. I put my arms around mom and lifted her from the wheelchair. She weighed slightly more than a teacup. The agent reached behind mom’s back, pulled down her pants and felt around her bottom. I waited a second to spring my surprise.
“You may want to be careful,” I said. “She’s wearing diapers.”
The agent lifted her head, pulled her hands off mom and wiped them down on a paper towel. She waved us around the screen and through the waiting lineup. I resisted the urge to stick out my tongue as I wheeled mom into the main terminal.
On the way to our departure gate, I stopped to pick up reinforcements; a cup of coffee, bottled water for the flight and my guilty pleasures; a Snickers bar, a bag of Doritos and a Coke. These added to the already awkward load that I was pushing; the wheelchair, mom’s emergency oxygen and our heavier than usual carry-on bags. Making matters worse, it was soon clear that our departing gate was the terminal’s most distant, located, I was convinced, very close to the Georgia line. I had broken a heavy sweat by the time we arrived and found a place to sit.
My warmup was fortuitous. Although it was ninety-five degrees outside, the indoor air conditioning was running at full speed. Within a few minutes, I couldn’t feel my fingers. My coffee was cold, the cream congealed before I took a sip. Our grey plastic seats were freezing and unforgiving. The terminal smelled like bleach with overtones of chocolate and oranges. The endless background music had a hard bass downbeat that repeated every twenty-two seconds. I dumped my coffee in the trash, ate my Snickers, opened a bottle of water and downed a migraine pill.
Unlike me, mom was holding up well, wrapped in a fuzzy, blue airline blanket and wearing her favorites; the red sweatshirt with the sequined Santa, dad’s Yankee cap, faux Uggs slippers and pink mittens. I was dressed for the occasion too; jeans that were two sizes too small and an ancient sweatshirt covered in white spots from the Ensure I had spilled in the taxi. Mom’s paisley shawl was keeping my head warm. It was not my finest fashion moment.
I kept myself entertained watching our fellow passengers arrive. For every mobile adult, there were three in wheelchairs assisted by caregivers marching in place to stay warm. When the gate opened, the terminal crew lined everyone up and handed out blankets and pillows wrapped in plastic. It resembled a war zone after the battle. As the flight crew marched in, it occurred to me that, if good looks could keep us safe, we were in capable hands.
The ground crew was last to arrive, guiding us to our place in the wheelchair brigade. When it was our turn to board, two familiar stewards met us at the gate.
“Here we go, sweetheart,” one said to mom as he lifted her from her wheelchair, carried her onto the plane, and strapped her into her seat.
“Thank you, honey,” mom blew him a kiss and turned to me. “Where am I?”
“We’re going on vacation,” I looked up from buckling myself in. “It will be fun. Try to relax.”
Mom smiled and looked out the window. The stewardess brought a fresh cup of coffee for me and ginger ale for mom. I reached over to help her take a sip.
“Oops,” she said, knocking the cup into her lap. “Did I pee?”
I dried her off with the stewardess’s help, borrowed an airline tee shirt, changed her sweatshirt and pants and wrapped her in a fresh blanket. The replacement ginger ale was served in a hard plastic cup with a tight black cover and a straw. When I got home, I planned to recommend hazard pay for the Florida to New York crew.
As the engines started and we headed to the runway, I took a sip of coffee and held mom’s hand. I was relieved that she was calm and closed my eyes for the takeoff. The roar of the engines almost overwhelmed mom’s soprano as she rolled brightly into one of her favorites.
“Come fly with me.” She sang with gusto, pitch perfect. “Come fly. Let’s fly away.” The other passengers clapped and we lifted off.
One year earlier, mom’s home health aide had found her lying on the bedroom floor. She was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of dizziness, confusion and pain. The doctors diagnosed an earlier stroke that had gone unnoticed for months. I signed her into a rehabilitation facility and hoped she would improve, but even after extensive efforts, she needed help to perform many of the activities of daily living. Our social worker recommended moving her to an assisted living residence, where she would have some measure of independence with access to medical and social services.
Once we made the decision, I planned to bring mom back to New York, but when she insisted on staying in Florida, I found an affordable facility, closed down her condo and organized a small studio apartment on the ground floor of the residence. I set up her care program and applied for dad’s Veterans benefits. She signed a durable power of attorney, a living will and a health care proxy. I brought in her favorite books and pictures and ordered telephone service, cable and the papers. When I left, mom promised to do her best. We both wept.
Two months later, I flew down for a visit. My first stop was in the Director’s office for mom’s report card. “We just love your mother,” Mrs. Roberts said, showing me a photo of mom sitting on a piano stool with a microphone in her hand. “She’s so lively and entertaining. We love her stories.”
In the picture, mom is wearing a slinky, black dress with spaghetti straps. She’s wrapped a rose colored chiffon scarf around her neck and topped the outfit off with a rhinestone necklace and full make up. She’s the dinner act, entertaining fellow residents with energetic performances of 1950s show tunes and stories from her past as a Catholic attorney and retired big band vocalist.
This was all news to me. Until then, I knew her as a suburban Jewish housewife. The highlight of mom’s resume was chairing the town’s library fund.
“Of course, we understand why she can’t continue,” Mrs. Roberts said. “After last week’s performance, your mother explained that, as a professional, she would need to be paid for all future performances. We just don’t have the budget.”
I returned to New York hopeful that mom would live out her days in safety and comfort. But one month later, an old cancer recurred and after surgery and chemotherapy, she was weak and confused, falling out of bed and refusing to eat or drink. A cat scan confirmed another stroke. I flew to Florida to put her in hospice.
Over the next few weeks, I made funeral arrangements, said my goodbyes and hoped that the end would be peaceful and pain free. But when she continued to surprise us and her condition improved, I called a meeting; two doctors, two social workers, three registered nurses, two medical administrators and me. Ten people to expedite the only thing that made any sense, moving mom back to New York.
As we approached the end of our journey home, I pulled out my iPad and attempted to entertain mom with family pictures and stories, but she was increasingly distracted and agitated. “Please,” I put my hand on hers. “Let’s rest for few minutes.”
“Who are you to give me orders?” She looked me in the eye. “Who are you, anyway?”
“I’m your daughter.”
I knew I should stop there, but I couldn’t resist. “Who do you think I am?”
“I have no idea.” She raised her voice. “I want my daughter. Where is my daughter?” The passengers in front of us turned around to see if everything was okay.
The social workers had taught me not to argue. “Your daughter’s on the plane. You’ll see her when we land.”
I had to ask. “Why can’t I be your daughter?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “My daughter is gorgeous and brilliant. And you? Look at you.”
I’m somewhere between tears and laughter. With all the preparation for the trip, I barely had time to shower, much less put on makeup. By now, my hair was an uncombed mess. My bunion was killing me, so I had taken off my shoes. I was operating on three hours sleep, and Mr. Migraine was in full force. But in her eyes, I saw the person mom was looking for, independent, energetic, resourceful, with memories yet to be made and everything still ahead. Over the years, as she faded away in Florida, my self-image shifted ever so gradually to the grandmother I’ve become. How lovely today, of all days, to discover my younger self alive and well in my mother’s eyes.
The flight arrived on time and an ambulette picked us up for the drive to the nursing home. Mom was quiet on the drive and, on arrival, accepted the staff’s attention without a fuss. While they settled her in, I went to take care of paperwork. Before leaving, I stopped by her room and found mom freshly bathed and dressed in a thin blue hospital gown, dad’s Yankee cap and the pink mittens.
“Where have you been?” She greeted me, sitting up in bed. “I have things to tell you.”
I walked over for a hug and asked. “Do you know who I am?”
“Of course,” she said. And her voice was strong as she kissed me on the cheek. “You are my daughter.”
Lou-Ellen Barkan lives close to family and friends in New York City. Her most recent gig, writing television comedy, follows earlier careers on Wall Street, in New York City government and not for profit. While she waits for the world to return to normal, she is writing for pleasure, her own and, hopefully, others.