The members of my book group were downing the dregs of the Manchego and wine when N. cleared her throat: “This may sound like a weird question—but do I look okay?”
Surely that was a rhetorical question. “You look more than okay,” we hastened to reassure her. With her twinkling blue eyes and deep dimples, N., at 68, was still an undeniably attractive woman.
“Because as soon as I got on the subway,” N. continued, “a man, who couldn’t have been under 50, offered me his seat.”
A groan of recognition arose. It seemed that all of us recent Medicare recipients had been subjected to this particular brand of public transportation gallantry, and none of us appreciated it. Maybe we could no longer take the subway steps three at a time, but we went to the gym, chased after grandkids, and still worked. We were not about to throw ourselves under the train tracks for these unwanted acts of kindness, but we deemed them offensive.
J. was the most outraged. She had spent much time and money having the quotation mark between her eyebrows and other signs of age erased, but that didn’t stop a passenger from insisting she take her seat on the crosstown bus. Someone suggested: “Next time, just say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not pregnant.’”
I find myself thinking that the only time anyone should cede a seat is for a pregnant woman or any passenger, whether 19 or 90, with an obvious infirmity. Why shouldn’t an obviously still-mobile person of a certain age be allowed to remain standing?
I was on the bus with my husband when a not-so-young woman bolted up, begging him to take her seat. (He acquiesced reluctantly.) “This man plays eight hours of tennis a week,” I informed her, even though in truth it annoyed me how much time he spent on the courts.
For now, hoping to head off seat offers, I hide my under-eye pouches behind sunglasses. But I encounter other affronts: At doctors’ offices, I routinely am called “hon,” “sweetie,” and “dear.” Will the time come when I feel grateful for such endearments and those thoughtful riders willing to yield their seats? Will I ever reach the point where “pushing 70” doesn’t sound like it refers to my mother?
The next step is to accept my age. To accept the seat.
One Step Forward, One Step Back
One of the trickiest things in my 22-year journey of raising a child with special needs has been trying to anticipate potential roadblocks. Sometimes I’m blindsided by something that I never expected to be a big deal. Other times, just the opposite happens.
The first time my daughter went away to camp, I assumed it would take some persuading to get her ready for the bus since it was a new thing and getting up early has always been one of our biggest struggles. Nope, not that time. She was up early, packed, and ready to go.
When she was preparing her college applications, she floored me by announcing a week before the deadline that she was ready to send them off and needed our credit card.
I knew the job application process this past summer was going to be tough for her, but even so, I was blindsided by how tough. She’d already had a few jobs that friends helped her get, but now, with a couple of years of college behind her, it was time for her to find one on her own. Well, almost on her own.
I was the one who actually saw the job notice and forwarded it to her, telling her I thought she would be perfect. With each step in the application process, she checked in with me about what she should do, who to ask to be references, what to say to them.
I drove her to the interview site and showed her where the bus stop was so she’d know how to get there by herself. I thought I had everything covered. Oh happy day, they offered her the job! She only needed to reply to the email offering it to her. I thought this would be straightforward, just say yes! Apparently not. She asked me what she should say in reply.
The next step was a pre-employment interview. The day of the interview I woke her up before I left for work. Over an hour later, we began an increasingly dire exchange of text messages. She didn’t understand the forms; her pants were too tight; she was supposed to go to a different building instead of the main building; and finally, she had left the phone number of the person she was meeting at home and by then it was 90 minutes after her appointment. She was going back to her house.
I feared the job was lost and didn’t reply to the text. That was just as well, because on her own, she contacted the office to arrange another appointment. The only consequence was that the job started a week late. Getting to work the first day? Piece of cake. She completed the job and had a great experience.
Maybe next time I should step back.
Four a.m. Barreling along the freeway, heading home after a phenomenal date. Is this a next step or total folly?
My cellphone rings. I should ignore it, but I don’t. “Where are you?” my daughter asks. What are you doing? Why haven’t you returned my phone calls?” I ponder what I, the 61-year- old mother, should say to this grown daughter. She carries on: “I learn about your exciting date from your mother? Why didn’t you tell me? I’ve been beside myself with fear.”
I’m grateful that I am so cared about as to be tracked down in the wee hours, but I start to feel defensive. My report that everything is okay is landing on deaf ears. “This is crazy. You knew nothing at all about her,” she says. I attempt more delightful bits of information that fail to calm the worried child, who is as aware as I that we have somehow, unhappily, exchanged roles.
Thinking that a description of the drive my date and I had taken earlier that evening would impress this car-oriented child of mine, I begin to tell her about it, only to be hit with a volley of comments. “What? You got in her car? How could you tell if she is a safe driver? What if she needs glasses and doesn’t wear them?”
The subject of this discussion, my date, is being referred to by name. I had never mentioned it. Said daughter replied that she remembered what I had told her—the university she attended, her profession, her city—and she now had her name, address, telephone numbers, facebook, Linkedin, two websites. She is prepared for the missing mother search.
Oh, but there is no missing mother—simply a mother and the possibility of a next step.
We conclude the conversation with kind words of love and absolutely no acknowledgement that I, the mother, actually have better than decent judgment.
As I continue my drive home, I wonder what dating is about at this age. I’m not sure there is an appealing next step that doesn’t require new definitions and reworked expectations. The rules of yesterday feel inappropriate, almost trivial. Maybe on moonlit nights, the next step is a seemingly aberrant jump into a possibility too illogical to contemplate but one filled with hope and promise. My daughter would roll her eyes at this.
I contentedly sigh, finally able to reminisce for the rest of the drive home about a very, very delightful date.
It Calls To Me My Name
She has been waiting for you.”
(Women Who Run With the Wolves
by Clarissa Pinkola Estés)
It won’t be long now. And there is a house that waits somewhere, beneath a tree that shades the small brave house. I wish I knew the name of things that grow—annuals? bi-annuals?—of even the weeds that wait by the small brave house.
I want to move down in the world. Willingly I’d give up lights and running water, just for a sip of sweet solitude. I can live without air (I have done it before) conditioning. Windows still open, do they not? I have to believe that breezes still blow, kissing lace against weathered worn sills. I hope it’s an old house with an old door that creaks loud, heralding my entrance, whining out its warning whenever I leave.
The small brave house surely waits within the bending arm of a curving road’s caress, lest I miss it scurrying by on some self-righteous straight and narrow. Softly it calls to me my name, and in a twilight hush knows I will hear. I’ll recognize my small brave house like a long-neglected friend, and enter in . . .
I shall find the door unlocked, and find the kettle already sings. That the table is set— one saucer, one cup—and that the welcome smell of—is it perennials?—perfume the entire room from but a single vase.
Hop, Skip, Jump
By the time I was old enough to enter high school, I walked with a limp. I climbed the granite steps one by one while the other students raced up or down. Each time the bell rang, I cringed at the thought of getting to the next class before the second bell. By the third month of my freshman year, I could no longer endure the ankle pain. I made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon.
The doctor had sandy blonde hair, lake blue eyes, and the confident smile of a television actor. He glanced at my x-rays before asking the standard medical history questions. When I explained I had a bleeding disorder, he responded, “Do you have normal menstrual periods?”
“Yes,” I blushed.
“Then you don’t have a bleeding problem. I’ll operate on your ankle and you won’t hurt any more . . . otherwise you’ll be in a wheelchair before you turn twenty.” I thought I’d rather be in a wheelchair than bleed to death in surgery. No way was I letting him take a knife to me, even if he looked like Dr. Kildare.
In fact, I had a rare and serious bleeding disorder. Each time I sprained my ankle, damage was done by prolonged bleeding into the joint. It was why, at fourteen, the only option for my education was to be tutored at home six hours each week.
I knew my sporadic attendance in school left gaps in my education. Nonetheless, I had high grades and test scores. I began filling out application forms to colleges in my junior year. Each rejection letter explained that their campus was not accessible. In the library I found a directory, which listed Boston University as having accessible classrooms and dormitory facilities. I applied and received a letter of acceptance in an envelope bulging with forms and instructions.
Enclosed in the envelope was a note asking me to schedule a meeting with the housing office. By then, I had been fitted with a leg brace. The metal supports squeaked against my leather shoes when I sat down in front of the placement officer.
The woman’s eyes did not meet mine. She stared at the orthopedic shoes I was wearing and the aluminum brace. Not long into our conversation, she released a heavy sigh and said, “Well, you can come to this school, but I doubt anyone will want to be your roommate.”
Hiding tears of humiliation, I shrugged as if to say, “That’s your problem, isn’t it?”
As I left the administration building, shame turned into rage. In defiance I lifted up my clunky shoes off the pavement, hopping then skipping down Commonwealth Avenue.
Your picture hangs outside the bathroom. Another is at the stop of the stairs. There is one in the hallway to greet me when I come in, another in the room where I write. In almost every room in the house, I only have to glance up and there you are. My daughter. My eldest child.
As I go for a last pee before bed, I reach out and touch your cheek. It’s my way of saying good night. Just as when you were a little girl I’d always stop in your room to listen to your breathing and trace the sign of the cross on your forehead, as my mother did to me and her mother to her, way back through the generations.
When you died, at first I was numb, wrapped in greyness looking out at the world through a fog of unfeeling. Next, did I rage? Who knows. Was it unacknowledged fury that twisted my fingers into bent twigs, robbed me of my teeth, one by one? “Have you suffered a lot of stress recently?” the dentist asked, pliers poised.
When your father left I wept until my eyes were raw. When you died there was nothing. No healing tears. No wailing, no keening.
And now? I talk to you, sometimes aloud, sometimes in my head. I ask for your advice; you were an actress, I write plays, we shared so many interests. Sometimes when I’m down, I scold myself in your voice and encourage myself, too, for you were always so positive about my talents, so convinced of my achievements.
Is this the next step? Is this acceptance?
Joining the Dance
In the cluttered office of the wholesale florist, incongruously located in the basement beneath our local bowling alley, a cheery young woman pushed aside the invoices to show me how to make a bridal bouquet. Overhead came the muffled rumble of balls rolling like fate toward their end.
Hold the flowers loosely—let them fall into a spiral, the flower lady coached. My daughter, the bride, was still in Boston. No one around but me to learn to fashion a boutonnière, to order heaps of flowers. In just nine days we were going to wedge a hundred people and a cake into my modest house and garden. It was what my mom had done for me thirty years earlier—months of small steps to pull off a home-grown wedding. While I was away at grad school she’d made my wedding dress, ordered flowers, cleaned house, organized brigades of aunts to fill chafing dishes with little meatballs.
The flower lady held a swatch of blue silk up against the yellow tulips that sat atop the file cabinet. She looked to me for confirmation. Is that the look you want? My mom would know. Except that Mom had died that morning. She was lying on a slab in a funeral home in Denver.
There I sat, a thousand miles away, playing with flowers. It felt—unseemly. I should have been wearing black. Or should I have been tossing rose petals in the air? My own daughter, in chemotherapy just nine months earlier, was well and radiant and to be married in nine days.
What to do next? The florist, wrapping stems with green tape, had lost me. The balls rumbled overhead. My shoulds shattered on the concrete floor. Some stronger vessel was needed to contain all this feeling. All this reality. In Jewish law, my friend Anne had kindly told me that real unreal morning, a happy occasion takes precedence over a sad one. This was the ancient wisdom, the permission I needed to plan at the same time a wedding and an Irish wake. When I explained my distraction to the florist, she helped me make up the order and gave me an armload of wedding flowers—lilies and yellow tulips—to take on the plane to the funeral.
I was—we are—caught up in a primal dance, a common dance, so often a women’s dance: Join hands, take the next step and the next. Step back, feel the full weight, centered and steady. Then step out, shift all that feeling forward. Do it again. I am the dance, and the dance goes on . . .
No Next Step
I don’t believe I’m going to take the Next Step. I’ve already taken so many I’ve worn out more than six decades of shoes. I’ve stepped off ships and onto airplanes, up to signs written in languages I couldn’t understand and away from houses I couldn’t afford. I’ve stepped into places I didn’t recognize and places I wished I didn’t. I’ve stepped into and out of men’s hearts, women’s lives, and all over my children’s feelings. All that time I thought stepping somewhere was the answer to life’s problems. Now I wonder if all that stepping WAS the problem.
So at this moment I’m skipping the Next Step. I’m not putting one foot in front of the other. I’m brushing away no lint. Letting dust motes float about my head. Allowing an ant to take a shortcut across my toes. Smelling the wind without sniffing. Standing motionless as the commotion of life goes on around me.
The last time I stood this still I was playing Hide-And-Seek behind the neighbor’s camellias, my breath hissing like steam through the gap in my front teeth and my heart pumping so hard the leaves shook. The Next Step then was to run or stay. To win or lose.
Now, my breath whistles softly through my nose; my pulse taps two beats to the bar in the hollow of my throat; my knee squeaks; tinnitus sings in my ears. I am the symphony of existence.
So I’m not going to take the Next Step now. Not right this minute. Whatever it is.