Telling Time

“I have to say, you have made a completely wrong decision. You don’t do that very often, but you did today.”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“You made me go all the way back into the house to get this jacket, and I haven’t needed it at all.”

“Dad, we’ve only been driving twenty minutes. We’re going to be out in Montauk for five days. You may get chilly during one of them.”

From the back seat, my mother, weak but feisty, chimed in. “You’re always cold, Joe.”

Mostly deaf and therefore oblivious to her remark, my father continued with his point. “I had to unlock both doors. Then when I left, I had to lock both doors again.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“Well of course it does!” Mom again.

“And I haven’t worn this jacket in years.”

I didn’t bother reminding him that the one he wears every day was hanging on the back of the extra dining room chair. I figured he’d forgotten that, along with the many, many things he’s been forgetting lately.

“It was a bad decision, Lisa.”

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“What?”

“I’m . . .”

“She says she’s sorry,” Mom tried to shout.

“Who’s that talking?”

“That’s Mom.”

“What’s she saying?”

“She said that I said that I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“About the jacket.”

“I don’t even remember this jacket. You made a very incorrect decision.”

“I know, Dad. You’re right.”

And so another weekend began, driving my elderly parents out to our house in Montauk. Dad, older and physically healthier than Mom, is happy, but prone to bouts of suspicious paranoia. The week before I’d mentioned we ought to buy some more parmesan for their pasta.

“What do you mean we need more cheese?” he asked, “I just bought cheese yesterday. A big block! I think that repairman took the cheese.”

On a different evening he had trouble cutting through the steak on his plate. To him it was clearly a case of foul play. “This meat is horrible,” he complained. “I bought the good steaks and these are tough and chewy. The woman behind me in line must have switched her bad steaks for my good ones.”

My mother’s mind, on the other hand, is fine; it’s her body that doesn’t cooperate. She has myriad health issues that have nearly immobilized her, yet her spirit is intact. When given the option to sit on her walker and ride or to push it herself, she always responds as emphatically as her breath allows, “I want to walk.” And no matter what kind of day she’s having, when we ask her how she feels, she says, “I feel much better today.”

Every time.

The one change in her demeanor is that she’s apparently lost her filter. Phrases pertaining to subjects scatological and sexual seem to tumble from her mouth. I didn’t think she knew about some of these things.

I was wrong. She knows. Maybe it’s God’s way of adding a little levity to the sad business of aging.

Considering all of this, I headed into the weekend with some trepidation. I knew my parents love coming to Montauk—they get to see their grandchildren all day long, and they enjoy sitting on our porch swing in the morning. But the one activity I could never get them to do with me is walking the dog to our beach—Ditch Plains. I’m sure they would delight in Chusco splashing and chasing in the surf. Though I’ve offered to drive them to the entrance and set up beach chairs for them, they’ve always declined.

Perhaps I should have insisted, because now it’s too late. Two years ago my parents may have managed the strip of soft sand that leads to the ocean. Now they would struggle for purchase anywhere on the unstable beach, battered as it was by Superstorm Sandy’s rage, and they, battered by age.

Time has a way of making its impression upon us, on our surroundings and on the people we love. Sandy left Ditch stripped of sand—hardpan studded with stones stretching west, old construction debris lurking dangerously under the shallow waters. And since last summer, time has taken its toll on Mom’s health. Her chronic conditions have drained her, and a stroke left her unable to perform the simplest tasks without assistance. Dad spends all day and all evening, from morning until bedtime, sitting on the couch staring at his wife. It’s touching how much he loves her, but the inactivity has rendered him weak in the legs and decidedly unbalanced.

Nevertheless, we believe we can fight the power of time. A few weeks ago the town dumped tons of sand onto the shore to cover its wounds. It was nice to squish my toes into the fine grains and walk towards the cliffs without tripping on chunks of brick or planks of wood. At about the same time Mom seemed to rally, looking stronger and sleeping less. It was time to try another trip out east.

My brother and sister thought bringing them out to Montauk was risky. If something goes wrong you’ll be so far away, they said. I just saw it as a simple way to make our parents happy—I was driving out anyway. Besides, I reasoned, Mom can have a bad day there or at home; she may as well be in a place they both love.

Well, a bad day she had indeed.

Throughout the second night she was restless, kicking her legs and trying to get out of bed. In the morning she just stared, her blue eyes wide and milky.

Outside the birds chirped their morning songs and the porch swing creaked and swayed, empty, in the warm breeze.

“Millie,” my father asked, “what’s my name?”

Silence.

“Good morning, Mom, it’s Lisa,” I said.

And still she stared blankly. She didn’t even turn toward our voices, as if she were alone in an empty room, looking beyond its walls at something only she could see.

Veins pulsed a pattern across her forehead as she pulled shallow breaths from the air. We weren’t sure why she wasn’t quite conscious, but we knew the cause of her other symptoms was another bout of congestive heart failure. That’s when her weak heart struggles to beat under the weight of excess fluids. Blood pressure rises, veins swell, breath labors.

We did what we could. We propped her up on pillows. We crushed her blood pressure pills and stirred them into applesauce; we did the same with extra diuretics. We watched, and we watched over Dad too, who knew she was in distress.

It was like pouring sand over the scarred beach—we threw some remedies around and hoped for the best.

Twenty-four hours later Mom sat at the kitchen table over breakfast with Dad, trying to keep up with him as he sang “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” It’s a blessing in a way that his aging brain allows him to believe that singing means Mom is ok. He has unwittingly lowered the bar; walking and dressing herself, let alone going food shopping and cooking family dinners, are no longer necessary for him to believe she’s back to normal. All he needs is a smile and a fresh pair of pajamas.

That weekend that’s all I needed, too. I just wanted to get through one terrible day and night to find my mother breathing easily in her bed, sleeping, not staring. At 5 a.m. I stood outside her bedroom door and imagined what I would do if I found her still and cold. I had to force myself to go inside, where I found her sleeping an easy sleep.

When she woke up we got her teeth brushed and she wheeled into the kitchen—I want to walk, she’d said, of course. A good day, it was—much better than the day before.

Still, my we-can-have-a-bad-day-anywhere bravado had disappeared. We packed up and brought my parents home. Though she’s awake and aware again, Mom remembers nothing of her visit to Montauk that she had so looked forward to.

The next weekend, when I brought my dog to the beach for his morning romp, I found that the previous night’s rain had washed away the town’s new sand. The waves broke and rushed back through cracks and fissures in the shoreline. Chusco ran off but I just stood, letting the damp wind toss my hair and cover me with a fine mist. I couldn’t follow, could only breathe in and out and taste the salty air. All around me, the raw earth lay black and stark in the early morning sunlight, the stones under my feet telling time.