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Lions Roar : September 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2010 24 my mother was a generous woman, and she loved her children and grandchildren with unconditional love—almost. as the Zen teacher suzuki roshi said to his students as he was trying to ex- plain buddhanature: “You’re all perfect exactly as you are, and you could use a little improvement.” I renTed a Car for mY weeklong vIsIT so I could take my mother places. she had given up driving a couple of years before, after she drove into a parked car for no particular reason. not driving was hard for her. and she couldn’t walk far because of her bad back, so the bus stop two blocks away was beyond her reach. a van from the building took residents shopping, but she found that walking around the enormous supermarket, even with a shopping cart to lean on, was a strain. and she hated not being able to choose when to go. I did errands for her: I was glad to be able to take her to the eye doctor to get her cataracts looked at. doctors’ appointments were an emotional issue for her, and the older she got the more of them there were. In a phone conversation not long before my visit she had spoken to me enviously of a friend in her retirement building. “Janet’s daughter drives her to every doctor’s appointment. oh, I wish one of you lived in Chicago!” my siblings and I tried to coordinate our visits with her doctors’ appointments, but we all lived far away and couldn’t be counted on on a regular basis. she went to most of them by taxi, and it was a long wait for a taxi. one day that week I took her to an exhibit of Japanese prints at the art Institute and pushed her through the galleries in the folding wheelchair she used for such excursions. several times, when she wanted to look at a different picture than the one I was aiming for, she quite literally put her foot down, and suddenly the wheelchair wouldn’t go, like a locked shopping cart. It was annoy- ing until I looked at it from her point of view and realized it was her way of reclaiming a little control over her own experience. I tried to be helpful in other ways as well. my mother’s culi- nary needs were simple; the system in her building was that she ate her dinners downstairs in the community dining room and prepared her own breakfasts and lunches, which were minimal, in her tiny kitchen. so I cleaned out her refrigerator, bought cold cereals and little yogurts, and made a big pot of leek and potato soup and put some of it away in the freezer for future lunches. Then there was her computer. I showed her a couple of things she always forgot between visits: how to change the margins in her word-processing program and how to send an email. This was rewarding for me, because my mother was the only person in the world who considered me a computer expert. I admired my mother’s life. Chicago was her city; she had grown up there. she still had old friends whom she saw now and then, and she had a rich life in her building. This time I visited the weekly poetry class she had been leading there for many years. one of the residents, a descendant of the african ameri- can poet paul laurence dunbar, brought several editions of his books to the class, and the assembled group, a mix of whites and african americans, had a challenging discussion about writing in african american vernacular english. I was impressed. I could almost imagine myself in a group like this, but I would have hated to be as cooped up as my mother was. sometimes she didn’t leave the building for days and she only knew the temperature outside by how the people were dressed as they walked their dogs along the lakefront. she spent hours at her post by the window, swiveling her chair through the one hundred and eighty degrees of her view, looking through her binoculars at the ducks on the lake. I think she preferred to look at the weather—whatever it was—from her comfortable chair rather than to be out in it. I got restless in the small apartment, in spite of my years of Buddhist practice, but my mother, having to stay put, was getting good at staying still. The daY Before I wenT BaCk To CalIfornIa, it was snowing when I woke up. I slipped out of the apartment while my mother was still asleep. I took the pedestrian tunnel un- der the outer drive and walked in the little lakefront park right across from her building. There was no one else there; mine were the first footprints in the fresh snow. I could have been in the country, with the little white peaks on top of the fence posts, and the lake beside me that had no end because the falling snow blocked out the smokestacks of Indiana, and the squirrels drop- ping things from the branches. I could have been in the country except for the roar of traffic behind me. I thought: I’ll visit her when it’s spring, when the snow is gone and the sun is out, and I’ll push her in her wheelchair through the park so she’ll be able to hear the birds and smell the willows. I turned to walk back and saw my mother’s building on the other side of the river of cars. I counted up six floors to pick out her window in the brick façade, and waved, just in case she’d gotten up and happened to be looking out. That evening, my last, my mother had a party before dinner for a group of friends she called “the mothers of daughters.” all of the women had faraway daughters who visited them there— like me, from Berkeley. Before the party, I brushed my hair and clipped it back as neatly as I could. six women traveled by elevator to my mother’s apartment for wine and those little goldfish-shaped crackers. I didn’t have to take their coats when they arrived, because they had all come from inside the building, but I took two walkers and put them aside. my mother was happy to see them—she always said she liked to show off her children to her friends. They settled in a semicircle facing the big window. The day’s light was fading to gray over the lake, and the snow was already dirty at the edge of the road below. The only woman I hadn’t met before said, “You look just like your mother!” even in old age my mother was an attractive woman, but does any daughter want to be told she looks just