SURREY, England — Those quizzes are captivating. Pick one word to describe…
As we said our goodbyes, I applied that to my Mum.
Maybe, once. But today my word is so obviously a lie.
For a lifetime sportswoman looking to downsize when macular degeneration robbed her of her sight, Mum’s move from a three-bedroom home to a miniscule apartment was a home run.
Never in three years had she lamented the loss of her two-story brick castle packed with 62 years of memories and an attic filled with every “handy” box the mailman delivered.
Besides, it is not home anymore. A charming young couple with a new baby and a Staffordshire bull terrier have knocked down the kitchen wall to make it open plan.
Instead, Mum thrived in assisted living, a studio apartment half the size of a volleyball court. It had everything a frail nonagenarian with bad eyesight needed, a sideboard bursting with birthday cards, inky pens and sticky address labels, a college-dorm sized fridge, and a shorter step from bed or chair to loo. Independence, but the daily company of like seniors at a hot communal lunch.
That came to a bumpy halt after Thanksgiving. Two night-time falls left blood on the soft red carpet. Two hospital stays concluded with an admonition: Two strikes and you’re out.
She could not return home.
Next is a residential care home on the leafy north end of the market town south of London where I grew up. It is across the street from the lawn bowls club which witnessed her final sporting triumphs.
Mum’s diminishing empire is one room on Dormouse wing. Home is tidy, functional and antiseptic. Every day, Zahid wheels his barrow past playful rodent silhouettes that adorn the wainscotting to wipe or vacuum every surface with zeal. Her world is condensed to a hospital-style mechanized bed, a recliner, a wardrobe of clothes she will never wear again, and that most necessary bathroom.
The $2,000 recliner is new, with a paisley motif and a giant black cord that snakes under the bed. Thankfully, it has just one button to recline and one to push the sitter up and out. The mechanism is getting a workout — the windowsill is scuffed where it has pushed back too far.
Yusuf arrives with a cup of tea, a mission he will repeat all day. His family fled violence in Sierra Leone to The Gambia, so we have much in common because my extended family lives in West Africa. In his culture, caring for the elderly is both duty and joy.
I visit every day for almost two weeks, running out of conversation, fleeing her room when visiting nurses with muscular arms arrive in their royal blue uniforms to change bandages on Mum’s swollen legs. Tennis elbow has robbed her of wrist strength and unmentionable “bad stuff in my innards” has slowed her greatly. Lost hearing is the biggest annoyance, however; she cannot see the tiny batteries to change them when the aids whistle.
It is time to leave. My last day features one final meeting with the attorney, the handing-over-the-keys ceremony at the old apartment, then early to bed before my flight to San Francisco.
Childlike cursive writing in her turquoise medical folder reveals she weighs 121 pounds and stands 4-11. Hug too hard and she will break in half.
Our touch is featherlight.
There is nothing left to say: No tears, no gushing speeches in this family.
“Thanks for everything, Pat.” she whispers. I have made a show of running hither and yonder, performing what the British call “admin,” ending her old lease. I am the family Radar O’Reilly.
I hover awkwardly while one wheel of her Zimmer frame squeaks a slow cadence toward the recreation room. The walk takes a full two minutes until she can join five other residents for the seated exercise class led by Linda, a ponytailed staffer with a flight-attendant smile. Mum lowers her bottom onto a high-backed chair, turns and faces her instructor.
Time to wave goodbye to the family sportswoman, pencil thin from age not exercise, whose adulthood of tennis, badminton and lawn bowls once filled a glass-fronted cabinet with trophies.
My family are all jocks. Dad’s sports were soccer, cricket, tennis and bowls. Mum’s brother was a champion rifle marksman who succumbed — at age 78 — during a bicycle endurance race. Her nephew, who is 62, and a granddaughter who is nearly 40, run marathons. Even I used to jog around soccer fields with a whistle, trying to look the part.
My last image is her tussle-haired, prune-wrinkled face and her salmon stretch-waist pants and cardigan that, incongruously, blend with the lounge furniture. She waves both arms, not quite in unison but with moderate vigor, pointing gnarled fingers that will never straighten again.
I wrote and memorized her 11-minute eulogy on the flight back from Dad’s funeral nine years ago. There will be little to add.
At the crematorium, no one will wear a dark tie. A sickly child, she attended an outdoor school for the undernourished, fed three meals a day. Mum joined the tide of 827,000 wartime kids evacuated from London when Hitler’s bombs rained down. It triggered rural adventures, unfamiliar chores, and a welcome taste of chocolate and real eggs. Back in the capital as a late teenager, wearing a Red Cross uniform, she bandaged air raid survivors’ wounds after the Luftflotten had done its dirty work. “You did what you had to,” is all she will ever comment.
She married her office boss, they honeymooned on a tandem bicycle, and she quit smoking Woodbines, the crane operator’s brand of choice, when her first son was born.
She had trained as a fine dressmaker, then, in one of life’s ironies, had no daughters. However, my brother and I wore “exclusive” hand-stitched clothes during the 1960s, mostly purple. It is the uniform tunic color worn by her care home staff.
She taught me to love to read. She taught me not to lie, cheat or steal. She was patient on the court, but adult racquet handles never fit my girlie hands.
In amateur competitive tennis without an umpire, if you or your opponent are in any doubt whether the ball has landed in or outside the white line you must play the point over. Mum and Dad insisted on it; it was the most assertive I ever saw them. It is a simple philosophy for sports, for life. Work hard, play hard. But play fair.
Every time Mum says she is “ready to go” I block my ears. But sometime soon, my brother will phone to signal game over.
This mummy’s boy will never be ready for that call, however gentle his tone.
Tom Brokaw was right to label them the “Greatest Generation.”
And in my family, my 93-year-old Mum is the last one standing, albeit on wobbly legs.
English-born Patrick Webb is the retired managing editor of The Daily Astorian. He lives on the Long Beach Peninsula.