Take the Call!
My mother is 90 years old and lives in upstate New York, near Hunter Mountain. Last year she hand-wrote four separate, identical books of her “life story” for each of her four granddaughters. She was guided in her writing by one of those wonderful “question and answer” formats that walk people through their lives, making it easy for them to document their life stories for their family.
Her answer to “Favorite Vacation” and “Favorite Place in the World” was the same: Long Beach Island. She has not traveled that much, but she has been to Ireland and loved it, and she has spent plenty of time in Florida. It is still special to me that LBI is her favorite place and vacation.
She stays with us twice a year, for a week in June and a week in October. We always get a beach wheelchair from Harvey Cedars Public Works, and we take her up to see the ocean and have a glorious stroll along the shore. When the weather cooperates, we stay on the beach for a while and she reads or does crossword puzzles. This past June, when Public Works mentioned, apologetically, that the beach wheelchair was in bad shape, the Harvey Cedars Taxpayers Association stepped up and sponsored a new one.
My mom probably will never use the new one, but I feel good knowing that children and other seniors will benefit from the taxpayers’ generosity.
Here’s what else she likes about LBI: She sits on our deck and waves to neighbors and strangers as they walk to and from the beach. They always wave back and shout a “hello.” My wife and I walk her around the neighborhood in her wheelchair and visit friends. When a fellow Irishman gave her a personal tour of his garden, and potato plants, she was so thrilled that she could not wait to get back and write a thank-you note.
She loves the local restaurants; she loves watching my wife and me play pickleball. We play Scrabble on the deck. No wonder LBI is her favorite place in the world. But I take her here only twice a year. Shame on me.
We visit her in New York often. She is a local celebrity in Hunter Mountain, where she has worked at the ski lodge every winter – yes, including this past winter. She works the ticket booth and is famous for sending people back to their car before selling them a ticket if they are not dressed properly: no hat, no ticket! I’ve been told that regulars to the mountain wait on the longer line so they can buy their ticket from her rather than the other attendant. And why not! At 90, she is more adorable than ever.
For those who wonder where I get my constant optimism from, it is her. She had breast cancer at 32, almost 60 years ago. She also got cancer when she was 70. She fought and survived both, making her joke that she is due to get cancer again at 112.
I am, I know, a good son. My mother believes I am a great son (she tells me all the time). But here’s my confession: Often, more often than not, when the phone rang at night and I could see it was her calling, I would not take the call. I would let it go to voice mail, listen, and then, if it was not “important,” return the call at my convenience, i.e., when my TV show was over or the next day when I was in the mood.
My mother does not call anymore. She can’t. A few months ago she was diagnosed with Bulbar ALS: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She no longer can eat or speak, but she sends me letters every few days and they usually start out with “This is my regular phone call ...” And then she says, every time, “Other than my current condition, I am doing OK.” In my mind, that tops Gehrig’s “luckiest man in the world” speech.
She has only a few months to live, and even her letter writing will probably be over any day now, but this is not meant to be a depressing essay. Quite the contrary: My mother is optimistic about the rest of her life, and so very appreciative of the life she has lived and the family she has.
She went through the death of my father 34 years ago and my brother five months ago, and has outlived her three sisters and most of her friends and contemporaries. As sad as every loss was, she always believed that they were in that proverbial “better place” and that she would be with them again. (I always tease her and tell her to make sure she gives my father a heads-up before she gets there! She knows what I mean and she laughs.)
She was ... is ... the epitome of love without judgment! So how am I supposed to feel when I read her letters and remember those calls that I did not take?
My mother plans on coming back to LBI this October. That is extremely doubtful, but I will not say that to her. And if I wanted to bring her sooner, she would not come, even if she were able. She thinks the summer should be for our guests who can really enjoy LBI at its best. And if we have no guests, she wants us to relax before the next crowd comes in.
No, she will wait for October and her wheelchair stroll on the beach, our games of Scrabble on the deck, smiling at neighbors who, while she cannot speak, will know just what she is trying to say.
She might know in her heart that it just is not going to happen, but she always taught me to believe anyhow. Her philosophy: You might as well feel good about what might be rather than be worried about what could be.
I hope she makes it back to her favorite place in the world: LBI. Until then, I’ll keep making my trips to New York to see her. But she certainly has made LBI even more special for me.
It is all good: the love, the memories, the life so well-lived. But I should have taken every one of those calls. Do not make the same mistake I did.
John M. Imperiale lives in Harvey Cedars and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.