My mom was getting divorced.
“You can come live with me,” I said.
“Really?” she said.
It all happened so fast.
I flew into Wisconsin on a cold and freezing morning in mid-December. I found my mom, in her kitchen, looking thin and gaunt, packing up the refrigerator. Her hands were shaking as she tried to make me a sandwich.
She is 72. This is her second divorce. The last relationship of many.
Movers were packing up her furniture, but we had to drive her car from Wisconsin to Virginia, roughly 900 miles and a 14 hour trip.
We sat around and waited all day for the movers to pack up her house. We talked. She told me all her troubles, every horrible thing that was happening to her: her husband, his alcoholism, the loss of her house, her friends, her job, her life. All her vast and myriad problems.
I knew them already but now I wondered, How am I supposed to handle this?
I thought, I don’t know if I can handle this. I have my kids, my husband, my job, my life that is overwhelming too. And now I was bringing her crisis into it.
We took a nap on the carpet in the guest room. We kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the movers to finish. Then the bed got stuck coming down the stairs and the lawyer showed up and the realtor too and I thought, We’re never getting out of here. I’m going to be trapped in my mother’s mess, forever.
The sky got darker. When it turned black, I said, “We’ve got to go.”
The movers put the last piece of furniture on the truck and we got in the car and left.
My mom got happier and happier the farther we got from her house. She stopped shaking. She stopped telling me every horrible thing that had happened to her in the past three months. We started talking about the future. Life, not death.
We drove all the way to Indiana and stopped at a Perkin’s when it started to snow. She ate an entire piece of chocolate silk pie before her dinner. She hadn’t been eating, she was so nervous, she’d lost so much weight, and now she was eating pie as an appetizer. She got a stomachache but still we were happy.
It was our one happy moment in a long painful trip.
When we got back to the hotel, her husband’s daughter called, upset, because she couldn’t find her dad. They were worried he was dead. My mother flew into a tizzy as she always did. I got into bed and pulled the covers up to my head.
“Enough!” I said.
Nineteen hours of flying and taxis and packing and waiting and driving and here is where it brought us:
On a cross country trip across the frozen tundra to a dumpy motel in Indiana and everything, her life, was still a mess. It hadn’t fixed anything.
We slogged through the rest of the trip, driving through Indiana, then Ohio, the hills of Pennsylvania, the slope of Maryland, down to D.C. and into Virginia. We kept driving.
“Don’t you think we should stop?” my mother kept asking.
“I just want to go home,” I said.
I wanted the trip to be over, as quickly as possible. Even though every muscle ached, even though I knew we should stop, I couldn’t bear to be in that moment, in that experience for one more minute. I just wanted it to be over.
And then we were home, finally.
Only it isn’t over. It’s just beginning.
I knew it was going to be hard.
I thought: The first year is going to be the hardest.
Each day is a crisis. She gets lost. She has nothing to do. She has no friends. She doesn’t have a job. She can’t do basic things like turn on the oven or find a doctor’s office.
Her anxiety is a palpable, living thing.
Anxiety is catching, like the flu. If someone has high anxiety, it spreads around like germs.
My husband says, “She can’t come in here and spread that around.”
He gets it, I get it, my son gets it: her anxiety. And then it becomes our anxiety.
But then I think, she’s my mother.
Two weeks after she moved here, her husband died. His body was found in his apartment on Christmas Eve. He fell and died from alcoholism. Just like she always worried he would.
And she is here.