On Friday we drove down to the Central Valley, about four hours south of here, to celebrate my mother’s 82nd birthday. My sister and her two adult children drove in from the Bay Area and we all had lunch at Mom and Dad’s on Saturday, followed by dinner out that night and then cake and gifts.
My sister announced that she did not bring a gift because Mom hates anything she gets and either returns it to the store or allows it to sit, abandoned and unused. While I don’t approve of the smarmy attitude, Sis has a point. Mom has often said that she doesn’t need anything because anytime there is something she wants, she just buys it. Now, my parents, while not wealthy by any means, live fairly modestly and have a comfortable retirement. They have always objected to consumerism and acquisitiveness in general. They say they’re doing fine because they never wasted money on frivolity. They taught me well, as I see most purchases for the inanimate objects that they are. Early on, I learned to value people rather than things.
Case in point: I own one pair of shoes, the ones that are currently on my feet. When they begin to wear out, I will buy another. Why do I need more than one? I find clothes pretty boring.
I am glad that my parents don’t require financial help from anyone, but they do need assistance in other regards. Over the weekend, Sis replaced the tricky overhead lighting in my parents’ kitchen while my nephew the engineer worked on getting their computer working again. Dad loves his computer, which allows him to spend hours each day browsing classic cars on eBay Motors.
When pressed, Mom finally admitted that she would like some dark chocolate. Sis and her kids made a Trader Joe’s run, netting Mom a couple of Big Blocks and other assorted fodder for her sweet tooth. As I am a bad son who never gives proper attention to these things, my wife had kindly found a book on nutrition (among Mom’s favorite subjects) during her shopping rounds last week.
I am pleased to report that the fighting and fussing that typically accompanies visits from my sister were largely absent this time. Well, except for her reference to the time Mom’s sister (long gone), who had begun losing her teeth, went running down the street, wrapped in a muumuu and yelling at the top of her lungs. But that was a minor glitch.
Mom wanted her birthday dinner to be at Cheesecake Factory, but the place was packed to within an inch of bursting (Fire code? What fire code?) with teeny-boppers who wouldn’t think of yielding a seat in the lobby to a senior citizen, and we ultimately decided not to wait an hour and a half for a table. We retrieved the cars and headed for Macaroni Grill, where we were seated immediately. That was a lot easier for me, as I’ve only dined at Cheesecake Factory once, prior to my vegan days. They serve a veggie burger (hold the cheese and mayo, please), but is it really free of dairy products? At Macaroni Grill I have a tried and true standby, pasta and mushrooms with garlic and oil instead of butter. Having a regular dish at certain restaurants may sound rather unimaginative to some, but animal products are everywhere, so the vegans among us will undoubtedly appreciate my point of view.
The moments that make me most uncomfortable during visits with my parents are the inevitable apocalyptic references. Those with aging parents know what I mean: The conversations about decline and death. We all want to believe that our parents will be healthy and happy forever. We want to remember younger versions of our parents, before surgeries and pill bottles and a litany of aches and pains.
My parents mentioned that they would leave their home to any of the grandkids who would live there. None of them will, of course. Mom and Dad live out on the rangeland, where fields of cattle much contentedly on the waving grass before being murdered and turned into steaks and Big Macs. The place has always reminded me a bit of the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska. They live less than a 30 minute drive from downtown Fresno, but the nonagricultural parts of the Central Valley economy, never all that robust in the first place, took a particularly hard hit ten years ago during the recession and have never really recovered. Mom acknowledges that living there would be difficult for people of working age due to the lack of well-paying, stable jobs.
Dad insists that he will be the first to go. While the idea of his demise is in itself distressing to me, the thought of having to deal with Mom (a very difficult person) afterward is downright scary. We live in a tiny mouse hole of a place and have no way to take her in, and we certainly aren’t able to move out to farm country. Even if we could afford a two-bedroom apartment (we can’t), Mom would be miserable without trees to plant and rose bushes and tomato plants to potchke with.
I am aware that Mom is already lonely. Her superannuated cat died just before Christmas and my father, whose hearing has become quite poor, likes to sit by himself and stare into space or sit in his darkened office, keeping company with the glow of his computer monitor. Despite the work involved, I could see how much she enjoyed our visit. Dad had even vacuumed the carpets throughout the house. Mom did a lot of shopping and cooking, sending me home with jars of my favorite homemade mushroom-barley soup.
I need to try to live in the present and not fret so much about the future. I should count my blessings. When I reminded my boss on Friday morning that I would be leaving at noon to travel to Mom’s, she shared that it was her father’s 91st birthday and that she would be heading to Stockton after work to visit him in a nursing home. He has recently suffered a pair of debilitating strokes. While I squirm like a bug thinking about what the next few years might bring, I realize that this is one of those times when I really do need to rely on my faith. Let go and let God, as they say.
Ultimately, I know that my very wise wife is correct: Whatever is supposed to happen is what will happen.