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Observations: Life on thin ice

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image My Mom and my sister spending time together. The time was a gift — not for my Mom — but for me. Photo Mitch Traphagen

A trip to a nursing home runs down a one-way street.

By Mitch Traphagen

In New York City, beautiful people fluidly, elegantly step from surprisingly litter-free curbs to hail cabs.

In Jersey, beautiful or not, but mostly, like me, not, people step from litter-strewn sidewalks to hail buses. If you don’t, the buses probably won’t stop — something I found out the hard way.

I am flying to Minnesota for what could possibly be the second-to-last time. The next time, I may be carrying a suit and a heavy heart. My Mom is leaving this life. Her quality of life has diminished to near zero, and her body is shutting down. As I sit in an airplane high above the northern United States, I can only hope that we’ll be able to share a few words one last time. But I’m afraid that opportunity may have passed. My brother and sisters have kept me informed as to her condition, and how most of her time is spent sleeping with very little time talking. I am consoling myself by reminding my conscience that I have tried to make the most of each of many visits over the last two years.

As the crow flies, the airport is 17 miles from my home. It took three and a half hours from boarding the bus outside my apartment to arriving at my gate at JFK International Airport in New York. Time spent in traffic was almost evenly split with the time spent in the security line. Although there is subway access to the airport, the long ride on the bus across Manhattan and other boroughs had its merits. It may take longer, but the seats are comfortable and there are many wonderful sights along the way — from the Mount Zion Cemetery with more than 210,000 grave sites to the aging Jetsons-like towers that were built to represent an optimistic future but now only echo the past, still standing from the 1964 World’s Fair held in Queens. Both are vivid reminders that nothing, neither people nor ideas, will last forever.

But at least that also included the flight, which finally touched down in Minnesota. I grew up in that state, but there was no one at the airport to greet me other than a man behind a rental car counter.

Being on the plains of Minnesota is somewhat like being on top of the world. You are so far north that everything else seems to be below — that feeling is palpable. From that vantage point I could see my life and the larger picture of the journey I’ve taken. There are so many little, minute things that influenced the changes in life’s course over the years. At the time, many seemed as though they were messages from the prophets, but, in looking back, I have to wonder if I misinterpreted a mere breeze from a butterfly’s wings as a portent storm.

In rural Minnesota, like many places in America, there appears to be a life script to follow. People marry, begin a family and focus everything on that family, as they should. Then the kids grow up and leave home, and the parents find themselves comfortable and finally spend mad money on themselves, building an addition to the house, or, perhaps, buying a new, larger house. But time is relentless and it passes so quickly. Years pass, but when you look back, it seems as though it were mere minutes, and before long the new addition or new home is the home of a new family, someone who knows nothing of the joys and tears, birthdays, Christmases that happened only moments ago in that space. Perhaps the echoes are there, but the voices and the people are gone. Time has passed by them.

With an aging parent, it is hard to know what to wish for, you know? I can only wish that she could get up and hop on a flight to Paris or enjoy a weekend with her children and grandchildren at what was once her little house on Lakehill Drive. But those wishes won’t come true. No one working in a nursing home ever says “I have a good feeling she’s going to be the one that makes it. Don’t worry, she’ll get better.” A trip to a nursing home runs down a one-way street, and everyone knows it. Everyone, perhaps, except those living there. I don’t know what they think. I don’t know what my Mom thinks. But I wish I did. She doesn’t say much anymore, and if the reports are true, I should not expect to have another conversation with her. Like those many graves and the Jetsons-towers at the half-century-old World’s Fair site, those days are in the past.

Arriving from Minneapolis just after lunchtime, I walked into the nursing home that has been my Mom’s home for the past two years. I saw her sitting in her wheelchair in the hallway as the staff was busy putting residents to bed for their after-lunch nap. Her eyes were closed, and as I touched her hand I softly said, “It’s good to see you, Mom.”

Her eyes opened and she looked at me with some deeply held surprise and said, “Oh! It’s good to see you, too.”

And then she smiled.

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