Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Migration, mother

"What took you so long." She looked up at me from her wheelchair, her arms hanging limply in her lap. She was positioned in the doorway of her rehab hospital room, her sneakered feet rocking the chair while she waited.

I had traveled for 18 and a half hours the day before, rising at 1:30 a.m.. I had perservered through eight hours in confining airplane seats being vibrated by the roar of jet engines. I had arrived in Florida in the dark, argued with the first rental car agency, driven the second rental car out of the airport with a GPS that still thought I was in Washington, arrived hungry at my brother's house after they had gone to bed. I had made myself get up early this morning so that I could stop at my mother's apartment to pick up some clean clothes and her mail on the way to the rehab center.

I leaned over to give her a kiss on the forehead. "Hi, Mom," I said.

My mother had been on my mind when I decided to move to Bellingham, as far away from her home in Florida as one could get within the lower 48 states. I intended to go visit her as often as I had when I lived in Kentucky. A year ago, my sister-in-law said to me, "Your Mommy needs to live nearer to a daughter," but I had cried when she had said it, cried about not wanting to be that daughter. For the last five years, my brother and sister-in-law have lived near our mother, providing a port in the storm for her as she aged. Even after my mother had burned her bridges with my sister-in-law, I've been counting on the combination of my brother's attention (now scaled-back) and the facility's professional care to be fill in the gaps, to notice what is going on, to offer assistance, to keep her company.

This summer she turned 95. This fall brought a concoction of bad luck: three unrelated hospital stays, my brother's new job with 10 hour shifts, and my mother's inevitable age related decline. The chemistry changed. I felt an urgency to fly to her side after one particularly confused telephone conversation, my mother chattering happily away about nonsensical events, unable to touch down from her dreams.

My personal heroes have been people who have migrated long distances against great odds. A young Jewish boy who walked over the Alps to Italy, a 19 year old woman who migrated from El Salvador to the US via Mexico in the hands of smugglers, early European Americans who walked across the deserts and mountains in search of a better life out west. My admiration for those who migrate at the end of their lives increased when we moved to Bellingham. Those journeys had plenty of outcomes, both tragedies and triumphs. I think of the strength and conviction that these journeys required, as well as the risks that the leaders took.

Leadership is the same, no matter what the journey--piping up with my vision, convincing my family to listen, and possibly to agree, getting a plan together, asking my sister to fly with her, asking another sister to help move her furniture out of the apartment, working on the details, envisioning it one way, modifying the vision, talking to administrators, hearing suggestions from my brother, changing the plan again, making a decision. I feel out in front on this one. I feel the burden of possibly making the wrong choice, of being criticized for advancing my plan. I'm not used to stepping out in this way, but I am acting out a conviction, a belief that it is right to ask our mother to move across the country in her 95th year, leaving behind her church and her community. I have sprung a maternal feeling towards my mother. I didn’t want to leave her so far away in Florida, and I want to shape her world and protect her as much as possible.

I broke some ice with my mother, some ice in me, to hug her and tell her that I wanted her to move to Bellingham to be near me. I had been by her side at important transitions in the last 20 years, but this experience is different.

Now she is my hero. When the elevator doors opened at SeaTac, there they were:  my sister pushing my mother in her wheelchair. I rushed to hug them and get out my line:  "Welcome to Washington."  She met me with a smile and stories about the flight. As we drove her through Seattle, she was excited to see hills (there are none in Florida), colorfully adorned big buses and tall buildings. Later, she marveled at the beauty as we twisted our way up and over the Chuckanut Mountains.

I never did get my Christmas cards out this year.  I love every card we received. I barely got the house cleaned and decorated before Christmas.  I bought few presents, but I've received a lot this year...My brother, Doug, who helped send her off at the airport with a new fluffy blanket from his wife, Mimi. The strong men who lifted my mother into her airplane seat.  My sister, Mari, and my niece, Anja, who re-scheduled their Christmas to fly with her from Florida to Washington.  The social worker who met us in the parking lot to welcome her to Mt. Baker Care Center.  Lynne, with energy for finding facilities and supporting me every step of the way. Friends who went to the Care Center to welcome my mother before they had even met her.  My siblings who encouraged her. My sister, Peg, who packed up her apartment. My mother who has flirted with the male social worker and made jokes with the therapists. My mother's spirit, 95 years young, unflagged, pushing on. An inspiration to me.

Sky, our mom Cooie, Mari
Merry Christmas to you.  I hope your gifts were priceless too.

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