“Hold my hand,” Mom says as we cross the street. I am very young.
When she comes for a visit in September 2003, Mom is 83. I am 59. Mom loves going for rides and enjoys hiking in the woods. “How would you like to drive up to the Ancient Bristle Cone Pine Forest?” I ask.
“That would be lovely,” she says.
I pack a picnic lunch and we set off on the two-hour drive north on Highway 395. The day is sunny. The eastern Sierra sky is sapphire blue.
On arrival at the Visitor Center, we walk through the exhibits then go into a small auditorium for a short film about the Bristle Cone Pines. After the film I find a table in a picnic area. Mom sits on a bench across from me. I spread a tablecloth, lay out napkins, and unpack our lunch. Tuna sandwiches—Mom’s favorite—chunks of fresh cantaloupe and honey dew melon, and oatmeal raisin cookies with walnuts.
“There’s a trail that goes up the mountain where there are wonderful views and where we can see Bristle Cone Pines,” I say.
“Well, let’s go,” says Mom.
We start at a leisurely pace, the switchback trail zigzagging at a steep incline. “I need to sit down,” Mom says, about halfway up the mountain when she spots a bench at a turn in the trail. After a brief rest, Mom is ready to go again. We hike on.
The view from the top of the White Mountains steals my breath. Three or four large bristle cone pines stand, sentinel-like, on the moonscape terrain of the mountainside. For thousands of years these gnarled and dwarfed trees have stood silent witnesses to history. “It’s like being in church,” Mom says. We stand in silence.
The trail, a series of crude, uneven steps constructed of shards of talus covers the ground, leading down the mountainside to the parking lot below. Mom walks ahead of me, her step uncertain. “Why don’t you walk behind me,” I say. “Put your hands on my shoulders.” I lead off slowly.
“Well, that was just beautiful,” Mom says. As we drive out of the parking lot, my eye catches the elevation posting. Ten thousand feet. We hiked up another thousand feet from there. My mother is 83 years old. She has high blood pressure. What was I thinking?
Mom naps on the drive home. It’s dark when we arrive. We enjoy a cup of Bengal spice herbal tea in front of a crackling fire. Mom is agitated. “I’ve never felt this way before,” she says.
“How is that?” I ask.
I don’t feel like I can make a decision,” she says. I don’t know what to do.”
Unaware she is in an early stage of senile dementia, I humor her. “You need to remember all you’ve accomplished in your life,” I say. “A young widow with three small children to raise, a successful career.
I go into the kitchen to serve dinner. Mom sits on a stool at the counter. “I just don’t know what to do,” she says again.
Like watching a photograph come into focus in developing solution, her dilemma is clear. This is serious. I am looking at an old and frail woman, once young and powerful, who never met a challenge she wouldn’t face. I am shaken by an awareness I want to deny. But this is not the time. I need to be present for my mother.
“Remember,” I say, “how you told me about arguing with your mother?”
“Oh, yes,” she says. “I always told her ‘Well, when I’m the mother…’” She smiles.
“That’s sort of where we are now,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like I’m the parent now. Our roles are changing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When I was little, you always held my hand when we crossed the street.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, maybe it’s time for me to hold your hand.”
“Oh,” she says after a pause, “like today when we came down the mountain.”