My father has never seen where I live. I have been in the States for the past 18 years and, besides a few photographs I showed him, he has no idea of what my house looks like, or Los Angeles for that matter. I am not sure what he imagines but, whatever it is, it’s been pieced together with the bits of my unhelpful descriptions and what my sister might have told him. My dad had a stroke 14 years ago that left him weakened and unable to travel long-distance.
Last Summer, my mother came to visit me for a couple of months. I cherish her long stays: my house becomes immaculate, the ironing does not accumulate in the laundry room and, by the time she leaves, everyone in my circle is a few pounds heavier. I try to take her out to anything social she might enjoy, especially if it involves any Italian speaking friends and, one night, driving home along the Pacific Coast Highway, I could sense my mother stiffening in the seat next to me. Every few minutes she would admonish me to be careful, to slow down, to the point of intense annoyance: I wasn’t speeding, I was driving really carefully and I couldn’t see the reason for her anxiety. I finally told her, probably with a bit of tartness in my voice.
“I am sorry. I realize I have become very anxious in my old age” she admitted sheepishly, as if she just couldn’t control herself. This from a woman who, at 76, lives on her own, is in excellent shape and has a busier schedule than me.
Her apology filled me with tenderness and a pang of sadness at seeing my mother’s first sign of frailty. This is my rock, the person I want next to me at the first symptoms of a cold, the one who, when I wallow, tells me “to buck up and get on with it because the world had not come to an end”. Which is what she has always done.
As I talk to my closest friends, the bewilderment of watching our parents change is a common motif. It’s not as if it wasn’t to be expected or as if we were caught unaware – it’s a role reversal that creeps up on you and catches you by surprise because, chances are, you haven’t given it much thought until the time comes to think about it. All of a sudden, we are expected to shepherd our parents through old age when, at heart, we are still their children.
A few months ago, my father (my parents are divorced) threw what amounted to a temper tantrum, digging his heels like a four-year old would. I scolded him, I became my stern self and he finally backed down but the incident left me slightly ashamed at my reaction. I can’t argue with him as if he were a child, nor can I treat him as the vibrant man he used to be.
When emergencies occur, I step into the role of the caretaker very easily – I am good at it, at getting things organized, people in line, putting food on the table and just going through the motions of doing what needs to be done. I expect many women my age will recognize themselves – it gives us space to sort out our feelings and the time to absorb what is happening. But, when it comes to my parents, I can feel the need to take over, to do what needs to be done mixing with a slight resentment at their failing me. Failing to still be what I need them to be, even if they haven’t really taken physical or financial care of me in decades. I cling to images of my hand in my dad’s, walking through museums on Sunday mornings, at the memory of lively debates on opposing political views: neither would budge but I didn’t know yet those fights helped me articulate my views. And my mother’s steady hand and her unfailing optimism that saw me through the teenage hormones, countless break-ups, the death of closed ones or just culinary mishaps. I am not quite ready for the role reversal that I know is coming.
I am convinced transitions used to be smoother when families lived all under the same roof. Now we are scattered, with technology connecting us more than ever, but what e-mail and Skype and even phone calls don’t afford us are the minute details, the little changes that take place subtly and slowly. Until they are too big not to notice.
As I prepared to leave Rome with my mother, last Summer, and fly back to Los Angeles with her, we found ourselves at the airport hours before our flight was due to leave; I had indulged her pre-dawn wake up call, checked the luggage three times to make sure it was locked properly, in an effort to assuage her anxiety. Feeling the irritation mounting, I then chose to look at the bright side: there was no way I was going to miss that flight.