So Dad, I asked. Are you gonna trade Mom in for two forties?
I was already slapping my knee, cracking myself up. Dad smiled, his face open like a daisy.
What did you say, he asked?
I said, Are you going to trade Mom in for two forties, now that she’s eighty?
He chuckled with the hint of a smirk.
Nawww… I can’t afford what I’ve got!
HA! Remember when you told Granddaddy you were going to trade Mom in for two twenties on her fortieth birthday!
Tell Russ that story. What did Granddaddy say?
Awww, Dad tittered. He said, Dick… I don’t think you are wired for two twenties!
I imagined my father sitting across the kitchen table from his father-in-law, slapping his knee before the punchline dried, my grandfather deadpanned behind his black-rimmed glasses, lobbing that wisecrack right back with the barrel of a Louisville Slugger.
Last week, mom turned eighty. Russ and I left the house that morning at 4:30 am to catch our flight to Houston. We waited seventeen minutes for an Uber that cost three times the price than even two years ago. We made it to the airport with enough time to queue at Starbucks for another twenty minutes, following the twenty minute procession through the security check-point. Travel is an exercise in patience if nothing else.
We flew United and our seats were not together (#cheapseats). My seat next to the aisle was in the second to last row. For three hours the sweet rank of biocides permeated my face mask like a bottle of Boone’s Farm missing its screw-top and stashed in the broken refrigerator long forgotten.
As boarding was finishing, the plane close to capacity, a man tapped me on the shoulder to take his seat in the middle of the row. He immediately started coughing. For the next three hours he coughed more than he didn’t, at one point lowering his mask to wipe his nose on his sleeves. I peered sideways to see what the other passenger thought of our shared neighbour. The boy leaned into the hole of the window, his hoodie sweatshirt drop-clothed over his head and shoulders, concealing him. If it were possible to crawl into that hole like a baby rabbit hiding from a fox, I’m sure the boy would have.
The coughing tourist is the new nemesis of air travel, replacing the screaming child as the worst traveller to be wedged against in the age of COVID. That morning I drew the short straw in the Hunger Games of United Air. As soon as our wheels touched pavement, I powered on my phone and texted my doctor. What the fuck do I do now? I asked him. I didn’t use those exact words, but the sentiment was clear. My existential angst revelled in the dichotomy of the airline’s caste system (surely a microcosmic representation of human culture) and my privileged relationship with my concierge physician on speed dial. What a wonderfully wicked world in which we live.
Russ and I arrived with plenty of time to run errands and cook a nice dinner for my parents. I had writing class that evening, but right away requested to read my piece first so I could duck out. When I told them it was my mother’s eightieth birthday, the teacher asked, “Oh wow! That’s amazing! How is your mom doing? Does she still get around pretty well?”
I said, “Well…She still does yoga… and she still tutors English at the local community college…so yeah…I guess you could say she’s a little bit of a turbo actually!”
There was a collective “Wow!” from the group. They were super impressed. They hoped their own lives would be as full and productive at eighty as my mother’s is today. I couldn’t agree more.
The following evening, we celebrated Mom’s birthday with family and friends at a restaurant my parents had not visited in a long time, but patronised regularly many years ago: Chez Nous. It was a special evening to honour Mom’s past, and usher in the beginning of her ninth decade.
Russ returned home over the weekend, but I’m spending the week with my parents. COVID paved the silver lining of a flexible work schedule, allowing me to work from anywhere, some of the time. Dad turns eighty-six in a couple of days. I’m so grateful we can celebrate these milestones with each other in the flesh. The aughts are mighty, but so is each successive year, when you are mired in the winter season of your life. There is no place I’d rather be.
Last night was the final class of a short writing workshop I participated in with Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Our reading assignment was Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. I was not familiar with this story before taking this class, or with the author either, but I am so grateful to be introduced to these beautiful words, especially while visiting my parents in their home. The story was a great reminder of the pain and harshness humans sometimes inflict on one another, when our own struggles consume any empathy and grace dormant within us. We think we can fix it later or worry about it another day, but sometimes tomorrow is just too late. Today is all any of us have, merely moment by moment.
Make it count with the people you love.