Some time ago, on the last night of the year, I sat next to my mother as she lounged in her faded recliner, swaddled in the faux fur throw she was given for Christmas, gazing out the window at a sky bursting with pompoms. Although her eyes had exceeded their usefulness, she could still see color and light. Silhouetted in the low light of the room she sipped the pink champagne I’d poured for her. One of our dogs curled in her lap, quivering with each boom and crackle of my neighbors’ fireworks as they rang out on all sides of us. I looked at our little Tilly as she sought my mother’s comfort and thought of the many times I had too. “Ninety nine New Years!”my husband said to her as he loaded the fire with another log. She answered with a chuckle, with a surprise in her voice, “How about that?”
The fire was big and warm and bathed us all in an encouraging light. My husband rose slowly from the hearth, his eyes tired, his hand bracing his back on the way up. He’d just returned from his own mother. Over the drone of her oxygen tank, he’d drawn close to her to wish her a happy new year, then he put brightly colored roses in a vase next to where she too sat in her chair, propped like an astronaut, a pitiful scene I pictured as he told it to me. He then returned home to tend a fire for a roommate he hadn’t invited. In a moment of desperation I’d moved my mother in without really consulting him. It’s a foolproof way to kick the tires of a marriage.
Slurping from my own glass, looking for solace in the mesmerizing trace of bubbles, it seemed too much, and not what I’d vowed only the year before. That year at midnight I was dancing. The band at the bar overlooking the lake and the balmy jet sky with a slice of moon was not really playing my music. It was nineties tunes, I think. But letting loose on the dance floor, I appropriated them for a return in time to a hot pulsing night in 1977. In heels and tight pants I danced for hours. I danced like I was 22, with no expectations for what was to come, but with unbridled, if not drunken, joy for what was.
We didn’t usually go out for anything more than dinner on New Years, but I’d had so much fun that night I made a secret promise to myself to do it every year. Apparently, though, I hadn’t lived long enough to learn the futility in oaths. Because there I was, only one year into my pledge, sitting at home with my centenarian mother, an exhausted husband, and some freaked-out dogs.
But that’s what it’s like to be a boomer. We believe, in our unjustified feeling of specialness, that we should not be burdened, and we should dance. One day I’d whined this to a friend. “So you’re caring for a dying mother with others lined up behind her. There’s nothing exceptional about that,” she said. “We’re all doing it.” A kinder, less honest, friend comforted me with the observation that I was an angel. But I’d watched enough PBS specials and ascribed to the wisdom of enough spiritual teachers to recognize I was no angel. Angels don’t nurture the resentment I did and wonder why, when they were finally feeling newly balanced and keenly aware, they must now spend every moment caring for someone else. Hadn’t I already done that? Hadn’t I given up my selfish ways admirably for my own children?
There was something about sitting with my mother that night as she faced her hundredth year that disallowed my self-pitying heart to experience joy. In the months she’d been with us I’d come to view her as a ghost of Christmases future and past. She’d become an embodiment of time, hers and mine, as I watched up close how it had changed her, had changed what we were together. How we’d traded places in the trust challenge. It’s okay, Mom, fall back, I will now catch you.
In moments as I cared for her I would fast forward and see her end but also see myself in her frailty. A Dickenson kind of fear would overcome me as I revisited all my sins, my inability to fully mature, accept and give, finally catching up with me. The spirits reminding me of my stingy nature, and how, one day, I would pay up.
The next morning, the first of the new year, as I helped her shower, my mother became irritated as I reminded her to stand up straight. Each day she seemed to fold in on herself and I worried she might fall or lose the ability to stand or walk. But in truth it was also me fighting against her march in time, our march in time. “You don’t know what it’s like!” she said, in a rare bit of annoyance with me. Touché, Mom. Again, a glimpse of the future flashed before me, and in it I was naked, wet, and humiliated, served up the karma of my life.
After helping her dress I went for a run and felt my feet lift and my limbs stretch with a vengeance. In the fashion of my generation I would be strong, I would be defiant. I knew I could be struck down, I knew anything could find me. I ran as if I would outrun it all.
Some would say I should have seen that that New Year’s Eve with the fire, and the dogs, and the bright colored explosions would be my mother’s last. That I should have burrowed into those moments. Should have sat in quiet awe of her impressive journey. Should have cherished the gift of her for so long and not given one thought to loud, dirty bars with live music. But I’m telling you, in the strange condition I was in, I did not. That is the thing about life, most times we can’t bear the fullness of it as it rolls out. Then we are left with a memory, plying the sandy bottoms for the gold we let slip through. At least that is the way it is for some of us.
And this year, well, this year I will look on Instagram and see some friends dancing. But I’ve never been good at compartmentalizing. In 2020, instead of booming, some people I know are sick, some people have died, and I don’t feel like dancing.
Come to find out, all of us born of a certain time are indeed special. High risk, yes, but some also afflicted with something more insidious than a virus in that they won’t be burdened, with a mask, with staying away from TJ Maxx and PF Chang’s, with waiting politely in line at Trader Joe’s, with considering others as they might themselves. It’s too much and they are over the pandemic if they ever believed it to begin with.
There is also my husband who is coaxing a new hip. Add to that my knee that went out a couple of years ago. The bars are all closed, some for good. And it breaks my heart to think of all that silence out there. All this could point to Netflix instead of my iTunes playlist on New Year’s Eve. Yet I’ve come to understand there are no promises to be made for tomorrow. That if I feel the urge to sway and slide, to hustle and bump, to wobble, I better go ahead and do it.