When my mother discovered that she had left her hearing aid back in her apartment, on the 28th floor of the Northshore Towers in Queens, N.Y., I thought for sure that meant we would miss the bus into Manhattan and, as a result, could forget about seeing "The Lion King."
"It doesn't matter," she said. But, of course, it did. She went back up the elevator, and that's when my panic began.
I had been on the edge throughout much of my week's visit to New York. Finally, I was seeing what before I could only imagine. Throughout the year, I visit my parents' progress via phone. Long-distance caring is difficult for both of us, but it has its advantages. For my parents, keeping their lives off limits means that they are still in charge. For me, it means that I'm still their child. But then when we're together in close-up, every concern is magnified.
Don't get me wrong. The recent weeks had been good; my mother was sleeping again, bowling, taking bridge lessons and exercising, after months of sleepless nights with confounding ailments. My father, prodded by doses of gingko biloba, is more than ever himself, with an extraordinary clarity of mind and spirit. They feel confident enough to plan a trip some time soon.
Nevertheless, having aging parents is hard no matter how healthy they may be. Hard, and scary. My brother and I stay up all night, talking about the practicalities -- insurance, long-term care, the will -- but, in truth, we're both beset by the twin fears of loneliness and responsibility. At this point in my life, there is no continent too far away, no psychological space too distant. My parents are in the center of my consciousness always, even though they're on their own.
Which is why this last trip was so good but also so tough. I am on notice that whatever comes next, it will not be in my control.
So, here we are in New York. Anne and Jack are independent, strong and competent, and relatively young. But I feel choked. How long until the next stage begins?
Thank goodness, they have each other and their own full lives. My mother told me a year ago what she thinks of my continual second-guessing of her doctors. And when I told my father that he was not alone, he said, "Very nice." They want to be looked in on periodically. I want to see them in action. But neither of us want to live next door.
Avoiding me is one reason they moved to Queens in the first place. When my parents first announced that they were moving from a spacious Long Island split-level home to a Queens high-rise, I was sure they were eternally doomed to the smell of fried fish wafting from their neighbors' kitchens. No matter how my parents emphasized the health club, the indoor and outdoor swimming pools, the tennis court, the movie theater and restaurant, all I could see was the loss of privacy, and how much like every other aging parent mine really are.
In the elevator last week, I saw fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, just like me and mine. One day, a man broke the news to his son (who was about my age) that his wife needed dialysis. From the 28th floor to the lobby, the two wept. Sure, there were others, the stockbrokers, the younger families, the hard-bodies with their gym bags, but the women in walkers who were still out getting their daily exercise impressed me. Their incapacity did not mean dependency.
As it turns out, life in the Northshore Towers has nothing to do with invasions of privacy, and no fried fish ever. It's about security and community, something most of us need.
Seeing my parents so competently ride the wave of aging provides some distance to my dread; it lets me go on pretending that we are as we've always been. Forever, my father will teach my daughter, Samantha, how to bowl. Forever, my mother and I will go shopping. Forever, we'll have our family night at the movies with a side trip to the Northshore Library.
"I think a lot about quality of life," my mother says one day, out of the blue. "What is perfect? This is pretty good."
Samantha and I are in the lobby, waiting for my mother to return. The minutes creep by. The bus will come any moment. I should have returned to the apartment for the hearing aid myself, I think nervously as I pace about the lobby. I start imagining all the things that could happen from the elevator to her apartment and back, distracting her along the way. The phone could ring, she could stop to make my father a sandwich, or she could cut up some extra fruit for the ride into the city. Where is she, already?
Finally, she's here. We easily catch the bus. Once in the city, we all come alive. My mother, who had hobbled around the Getty Museum only last spring, suddenly can walk New York with ease. "The Lion King" is great. We meander around the jewelry and diamond exchange like we own the place. We share a knish and a baked apple. I lose my anxiety in the here and now.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her class "Writing from Heart and Soul" begins on Sept. 12 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.