She knew we would arrive at 2pm, but dates and times burst like soap bubbles for my 82-year-old mother, who opened her door to our knock in her most-beloved pajamas. Once pink and now the color of cow udders, so sheer that my husband and I shifted our gaze from her breasts to her smiling face and explosive gray hair jammed beneath a ball cap.
“What are you doing here?” she exclaimed.
The first time my mother opened her door to my husband-to-be, thirty-four years ago (another planned visit), she’d rocked a bikini. Her skin was slick with baby oil, and she clutched a tequila sunrise. He averted his eyes then too. But, come on, why shouldn’t she be in a bikini? She looked terrific for 47, or for any age. I’d hoot if it were someone else’s mother. But it was my mother whose wardrobe choice insisted, I’m still fuckable!
This time, my mother, who lives alone and divides her time between Anderson Cooper and baseball, pulled me close. For many reasons I fell in for a side hug. The first reason is COVID; my mother won’t get boosted. She grocery shops and hits her favorite bar for an afternoon tipple with a cock-eyed mask hovering ineffectually below her nose. It’s for both of us that I keep my distance. Reason number two, my mother no longer enjoys bathing. When I was a kid she was a top-tier bather, turning the hot water tap on and off with her foot. Give her a damp and swollen Sidney Sheldon paperback, a splash of Jean Naté, a glass of Lancer’s wine over ice, and she’d luxuriate. Sometimes she’d call me into the bathroom to sit on the toilet and play Would You Rather?, a values clarification game she’d made up before there was such a thing as values clarification.
She is determined to live as she wants. Baths be damned!
“Would you rather be stupid, thin, and rich—or—fat, smart, and poor?”
I knew what my scrappy, man-crazed, on-a-budget single mother considered the right answer. I planned on mixing and matching my future like I did my Garanimals, choosing the zebra tagged clothes to put together a groovy ensemble for fourth grade. Like Marcia Brady, my role model, I’d be smart, rich, and thin.
As a teenager I ignored her call to the bathroom to refill her wineglass, or bring her a washcloth, or snag her Summer’s Eve disposable douche from below the sink.
As a married adult woman standing beside my mom in her diaphanous pajamas, I felt petty for not greeting her the way we all want to be greeted, with adoration and exclamations of how much we’ve been missed. But I have an agenda, and she knows it. I want her to accept help in her home, or move to an independent living spot. She, however, will live as she wants. Baths be damned! Why bother with daytime clothes? Her love of area rugs—landmines for the aged—will not to be deterred! With her feet jammed into broken-heeled sneakers, she shuffled to her dining room table to sip her day-wine and strike a match. “I started smoking again,” she said.
At least she agreed to a doctor’s appointment.
The morning of said appointment, she was ready in a black sweatshirt resplendent with a neon butterfly atop camo leggings. In lieu of a ball cap she had on a visor, her hair aswirl. With time to kill, we stopped for coffee. This, my husband declared, was the fatal flaw. “Why’d you get her caffeinated? We had a goal.”
My mother needed to fail a cognitive assessment for the doctor to trigger her long-term care insurance to spring for in-home help. The doctor began with small talk, noticed it’d been two years since her last visit, and then asked, “How’s your hearing?”
“Why?” she asked
“I’ve had to repeat myself multiple times,” the doctor replied.
She failed drawing an analog clock. Okay, a problem, but who still has a clock?
“I have no problem being heard,” she retorted.
The doctor smiled, pulled up her audiology test, and turned the screen for us to see. My mother’s hearing was abysmal three years ago, as it is now.
“When I need it I’ll get a hearing aid,” she insisted.
The doctor let it go. “Stand please. Walk a straight line.”
My mother loves to tell the story of being pulled over for drunk driving in LA when she was 26, going the wrong way on a freeway off-ramp. When she was unable to walk a straight line she attracted a cheering crowd of passers-by and ended up in jail overnight. Today she had no trouble walking straight.
When asked to name president, vice president, and governor of California, she couldn’t. I rattled them off in my head, Biden, Harris, Newsom, and I cheered myself. The date my mom got within one day. I didn’t know it either, and felt a crumb of worry for my own fate.
She failed drawing an analog clock. Okay, a problem, but who still has a clock? She was told five words: church, red, velvet, face, daisy, which she was asked to remember and repeat. I chanted those damn words over and over, made up a story about a church with red velvet pews, a girl with a daisy face. I would not forget.
“Name as many animals, sea or land, as you can in one minute,” the doctor requested. Dear Reader, I won this one too—she didn’t even think of narwhal!
“Count backwards from one hundred by sevens.”
My heart raced. Math is not my skillset. My mother, however, was miraculous. So swift.
Time for the F-Words
“List as many words as you can that begin with F.”
I started right off: fuck, foot, fart…
The doctor held her pen aloft, ready to keep tally. My mother hesitated. Her eyes twinkled when she looked my way. Bitch was having fun! Fun! I added to my mental list.
My mother’s eyes twinkled when she looked my way. Bitch was having fun!
“Funicular. Fandango. Fanciful,” she paused. “Financier, fiesta, fiscal.” She grinned like crazy. We all did. “Far out—fantastic—foible—foe—folly.”
My mother wiped the floor with F-words. Then the doctor asked for the five words from before.
“You’ve got to be kidding? Some kind of fabric? A color? A flower?”
I made an involuntary, smug “hmmm” sound. The doctor looked at me, and I shrugged and looked behind me for whoever made the rude noise.
And then it was over. I passed. And so did she.
“I don’t need help,” she gloated, “I’m fine.”
The doctor agreed, she was fine enough. And me? I was proud and deflated. She did a great job. My mental capacity was okay too. But my mom would still be living alone a state away from me, with no one to help.
It wasn’t the coffee. My mother pulls it out when she needs to. Through repossessed cars, food stamps, evictions, second shifts, lost jobs, broken hearts, tumbles from trees high on LSD, my mom created and repaired chaos my entire life. So she sometimes forgets her medicine and has mystery meat in her fridge and doesn’t answer texts. So a raccoon fell into her kitchen through her skylight due to twenty years of roof neglect. She has the right to folly, one of her F-words. A right to silliness, recklessness, imprudence, and fun. Look at me with my boring F-words, making smug sounds in the doctor’s office. Look at her with a sparkle in her eyes, refusing to be sold short or pushed out, living on her own terms.
This piece was originally published in Oldster Magazine.
Natalie Serber is the author of Shout Her Lovely Name,a New York Times Notable Book, and Community Chest,a memoir of her experience with breast cancer. She’s currently working on a novel in stories, Must be Nice, and a memoir about growing up with a single mother in the 60s, Go Back to Sleep. Natalie also writes a newsletter: read.write.eat. in which she shares, writing prompts, reading suggestions and recipes—all things she loves.