My mother – a World War II surgeon, the permanent chairman of the family Politburo she had installed in our Leningrad kitchen, and a mirror image of my Soviet Motherland – was lying in Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, NJ, hooked to an IV and an oxygen tank. She had grown frail within a week or two prior to her scheduled departure for New Orleans for an annual three-month winter stay at my sister’s. The day before her flight she had difficulty breathing and could barely get out of bed. I was at work on the morning when I called her doctor, who told me to dial 911.
It was the last day of the semester; I had thirty students to advise and register. When I reached the hospital around 3 in the afternoon, my mother was just being admitted to the cardio unit. “Congestive heart failure and probably a touch of pneumonia,” said Dr. Sharma, a soft-spoken woman in her 30s, whose badge identified her as a hospitalist.
My mother smiled when she saw me, relieved. She looked small in the middle of the tangle of tubes, her gnarled fingers over the cover, like a small bird’s claws. When did this all happen? Did I miss the obvious signs of illness, the inevitable cues of aging? Did I ignore her complaints of dizziness, her frequent refrain that her legs refused to walk? Or was the deterioration so gradual, so insidiously slow that I simply did not notice it, like you don’t notice a rotting tooth until one day the pain stabs through your gum and the dentist tells you she has to pull the tooth because it is too late to save it.
Or maybe it was much more simple and ordinary. I lived my life – teaching ESL classes, making soups, checking my daughter’s homework, walking the dog – a life where my mother, living downstairs in the basement apartment of my house, was nothing but a parenthesis. In the morning I heard a vent go on in her bathroom; in the afternoon I heard a knife drumming on the cutting board as she chopped vegetables for salad. Her Russian TV programs used to boom all the way up to my kitchen, until we bought her a pair of headphones. Then I barely heard her at all. As years passed, I talked to her less and less frequently. Back in Leningrad, I used to have heated arguments with my mother, needing to defend my ground; here, with our roles reversed – with her living with me and not the other way around – I no longer had to assert myself. In essence, I stopped talking to her about anything but the most trivial things: dinners, television news, birthday cards from our Russian family.
I come back home from the hospital and go down to the basement where a packed suitcase is still sitting on her bed. What needs to happen to push us out of the rut, to break through our apathy? What is the final crisis that makes people take to the streets to protest as they recently did in Moscow? My mother, a mirror image of my far-away Motherland, makes me wonder if it is at all possible to slow down in order to notice important little things, if we are capable of gaining even a shred of insight into the fragility and impermanence of life.