Old Woman by Ed Yourdon, courtesy of Flickr
Another week, another long distance call. She’d already spoken to her sons, it was probably Emily.
“Hey, Mom! How’re you doing today?”
“Better. Only a three.”
“That’s good. Do anything special today?”
“Not really, took advantage of the fact that I was in less pain and went out to do some shopping.”
“Good. Did you see anyone? Reba? Trudy?”
“Not really. I haven’t seen much of them lately. They haven’t been feeling so good either. And the weather…” Phyllis sighed. “I did bump into Carol though. She’s walking with a cane now, can you believe it? I think she’s a good ten years younger than me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Emily paused for a moment, then added, “Mom, I’ve been thinking…”
“You sure you don’t want to move in with me or Chuck? I know how much you enjoy visiting with him.”
“Emily, I’ve told you. I do enjoy staying with him, once I make it up to his apartment. It’s beautiful and he has everything I could want. But there are few seniors in his neighborhood. Whom would I spend time with there?”
“We’d visit. And the grandchildren.”
“That’s all fine and good. And you probably would come, in the beginning. But you have your own lives. I don’t want to have to depend on you. I want my own peers.”
“Mom, what about that place we saw last time you were here, the assisted-living residence? I know that you weren’t ready to consider it then, but what about now?”
Phyllis closed her eyes. She could recall snippets of conversations with her sons about the senior residence. Her youngest had asked, amazed, “What? A senior residence? Why would you want to be with all those decrepit old people?”
Her Chuck had barely contained his rage. “Why would you want to leave your home of fifty years, your friends? Why would you want to throw out all that money? If you really want to leave the house, just move in with us.”
She had tried to explain that all those stairs were difficult for her, that she wanted a place of her own; but as usual, he’d preferred to dismiss what he couldn’t accept. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he’d said. “It’s not that bad. Everyone else seems to manage it. Even Sally’s grandmother used to walk up to our apartment at least once a week till she died. And she was well in her nineties then.”
“Mom, you there?”
Emily’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. “Sorry, I’m still here. Just thinking.”
“Mom, I know it’s a hard decision to make. But you don’t have to decide right now. Next time you come, try it out for a week or two. See if you’re happy. Then you have time to decide if it’s what you want to do. Or not.”
“Let me think about it. Your brothers…”
“Mom, it’s not about me or them. It’s time that you thought about you. What will be easiest for you. What will make you happy. We’re all adults. We’ll live, whatever you decide.”
“Can I think about it?”
“Of course you can think about it! Just don’t forget, they’ll only take you so long as you’re independent and relatively healthy. So, please, do think about it.” The timbre of Emily’s voice changed, brightened. “Want to hear the latest about the grandkids?”
Phyllis appreciated the change of subject and smiled at her daughter’s stories of her great-grandchildren, but they only served as background to her thoughts. After the phone call, Phyllis mulled over the idea: she couldn’t stop thinking about it. It tickled her brain all week long, and it was a long week too with snow and icy weather keeping them all indoors.
Wednesday, a sunny day and clear roads prompted one of the women in her ‘widow’s group’ to suggest meeting for lunch. There was a larger turnout than usual, and Phyllis found it hard to concentrate on the conversations running up and down the long table. Once again her thoughts strayed back to her conversation with Emily from the week before.
It was on the slow walk towards home that Reba turned to her.
“Nu, so what’s bothering you?” Reba broke into her thoughts.
She sighed. “It’s Emily again.”
“The old age home?”
“Senior residence,” Phyllis mechanically corrected.
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s so far away.”
“Not that I wouldn’t miss you, but at least you’d be near your children.”
“It will mean starting all over again, far from everything I’m used to. Finding new doctors, new friends, new routines. After the war, I said I’d never do it again.”
Reba lifted her shoulders philosophically. “And before the war, you thought you’d go through what you went through? Who ever knows what G-d has planned for us? Did you ever think when you were a girl that you’d end up here, in America?”
Phyllis’s eyes glittered. “Never in a million years.”
“If this feels right to you, then what you said more than half a century ago shouldn’t make a difference.”
“Oy, but packing up the whole house, dealing with everything that’s piled up over the years…” Phyllis grimaced. “I’ve always said I’d leave it for the kids to deal with once I’m gone.”
“So invite them to come help you deal with it while you’re still here.”
Reba made it sound so simple.
When she’d come to America, she’d arrived with not much more than the clothes on her back. She’d felt light and hopeful then. Was she letting her possessions weigh her down? Was her fear of change keeping her from making the most of whatever time she had left?
Her older sister surprised her with a call, she usually emailed. “What’s this Emily tells me? She’s been talking to you about moving here?”
“She’s mentioned it.”
“I’m thinking about it.”
“Thinking? What’s there to think about? You debating it because she suggested it and it wasn’t your idea?” she shrewdly added.
“Don’t Sarah me, Feige.”
Phyllis smiled sadly. Her sister was the only one left who still called her Feige. She settled in for a long harangue. Once Sarah hit her stride, there was no stopping her.
” I know you. And your Emily. Emily’s a smart girl, and she has a good heart. At your age, you should be near your daughter. Near all of us.”
“It’s not so simple,” Phyllis murmured.
“Simple? I’ll give you simple. That house is simple? Is it giving you love? You come here and join the family. You should have done it thirty years ago!”
“What but? Feige,” Sarah heaved a deep sigh and Phyllis could just picture her sister, shaking her head morosely at her,”since when are you such a dilly-dallier? Isn’t it time you enjoyed your old age? Do you like worrying about shoveling your snow and changing your light bulbs? Bisti meshigge?”
Phyllis smiled at the Yiddish. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am crazy.”
“No crazy genes in our family. Only stubborn genes.” And with that, Sarah hung up.
Was her sister right? Was she being stubborn? She couldn’t tell anymore. Stubborn, crazy scared.
Emily called a few hours later. Sarah was right, she was a good girl. She called almost every day.
“I hear Aunt Sarah called you. Did she give you a hard time?”
Phyllis bristled. “Of course not.”
“Yeah sure. That’ll be the day.”
Phyllis laughed despite herself. “She means well.”
“I know, Mom. And I love her for it. But don’t let me or Aunt Sarah, or anyone else force you into anything you don’t want to do. All I’m asking is that you listen to your heart, not your fears.”
“When did you become so wise?” Phyllis marveled.
“I had a good teacher, Mom.”
Phyllis slowly hung up the phone. But as much as she listened, all she could make out was the deafening silence, drowning out whatever her heart had to say.