It’s a sunny January day in the 80s in Santa Barbara, California. Though it is the rainy season in the Golden State, there has been little rain for months, really years. The hills and fields are parched and baked a dusty brown. The drought is epic and serious; the very modest silver lining is that conditions are ideal for hikers like Hannah and me.
After hiking the beach at high tide in Summerland ten miles to the south, Hannah and I are resting at our Quality Inn motel prior to an afternoon hike to Inspiration Point in the Front Range of the Santa Inez Mountains near Santa Barbara.
Then my sister Patty calls with news that Mom’s doctor has given her permission to stop eating and drinking; in addition to lung cancer, Mom’s body is no longer absorbing nutrients anyway. I learn that without food or water people can last one or two weeks, maybe more; especially someone as fit as Mom who was still going to the gym six days a week at the age of 92.
Now Mom is in northern New Jersey and I am some 3000 miles away on the coast of California. What is a good son to do?
My impulse is to return immediately to New Jersey on the next flight out of LAX, the Los Angeles airport some 70 miles to the south. The dramatic gesture!
Is it selfish for me to stay in California on a hiking vacation while her life is rapidly closing? I am unsure and unsteady. My core beliefs about meaningful relationships and friendships bang up against these first instincts.
For me, I believe that love is shown by a lifetime of moments together, breakfasts and dinners, road trips, and making soup and biscuits for another, not the showy once-a-year appearances, beautiful flowers, or expensive gifts. It’s listening when another’s heart is heavy. It’s going out for coffee to just talk. It’s playing Words With Friends on the computer on a daily basis to stay connected. It’s checking in regularly. It’s celebrating a small victory or large, be it making the team or having the girl of your dreams say “yes” to a first date. It’s the long line of moments that cement relationships and make them real.
For me, grand gestures of love are overrated. It’s the day-to-day, consistent interest and care for another that builds strong relationships. Mom and I have a 66 year backlog of such love, such regular times together.
Still, what does a good son do when his mother has chosen to take such a definitive final step on her life journey?
And then as the universe and God so often do, my sister’s husband Glenn provides the simple advice that parts the clouds and lets the sun stream through.
He says, Ask her what she wants you to do. Brilliant. Rather than tie myself in knots of duty, guilt, and misplaced obligation, I can ask her.
Still of very clear of mind, Mom responds to my question whether she would like Hannah and me to come back East to be with her now by emphatically saying, Absolutely not. That would be nonsense.
And that’s that. Hannah and I will continue as planned up the Pacific coast to hike the ocean bluffs near Pismo Beach, Santa Cruz, and Gualala, California for the coming week. I know there are no guarantees that Mom will be alive when we return. Yet I know I have had 66 bountiful years as her son.
I am at peace, for our relationship is strong. I respect her decision. I trust her. I don’t want to be so arrogant to think that I know better than she does whether I should return or not.
Each morning at 630A Pacific time I check in with her by phone, for she is up and about at 930A on the East coast. We talk and she still wonders what we are doing and where we are. I fill her on hikes at Montana De Oro State Park near of San Luis Obispo and the bluff trail at the Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz just south of San Francisco.
Each night I read to her over the phone from Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat, a book she loves as a lifelong Democrat herself. Mom lives what Democrats believe: promoting the common good, serving others, being generous of heart, being optimistic, and living with hope. We stay connected and she knows she is loved 3000 miles away.
As fate or the universe or God would have it, Mom is alive nine days later when I arrive in New Jersey at her senior living apartment. That first night her three children (my brother Richard, sister Patty, and I) sit with Mom as she lies in bed. We toast her life, tell her how beautiful she is and how much we love her, sing to her, and say good-bye to our mother. She believed in us throughout our lives and took control of her last days.
She passed peacefully three days later.