Joanne Palmer's Life in the 'Boat column appears Wednesdays in the Steamboat Today. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Find more columns by Palmer here.
I am OK until I find the teeth.
A clear box, about the size of a thimble, nested among old bank statements in the back of her desk drawer holds an assortment of baby teeth.
That’s when the tears begin.
I have already found a box of our old report cards, a large file of psychological evaluations on my developmentally disabled brother and a notebook of cancelled alimony checks from my father.
But it’s the teeth that get to me.
I shake the box and the teeth rattle. Knowing my mother, I suspect she would have saved a representative sample from each of her three children: Laura, a writer living in New York City; Mark, living in a group home nearby in Libertyville, Ill.; and me, a columnist for this paper, a sales associate for MyWireless and the owner of a small property management company in Steamboat Springs.
And, knowing my mother, the loss of each baby tooth would have been celebrated and commemorated with great fanfare.
My mother never waited for or needed a milestone to throw a party. Once, she and my brother met me at the airport wearing oversized party hats and waving flags and “Welcome Home” banners. When I first left for college and was so homesick I didn’t think I could survive until Thanksgiving to come home, she had everyone I’d ever known mail me a note. My old babysitter, the neighbors, and a man who worked at the gas station all sent “Cheer up” cards. It helped.
My 89-year-old mother is in a nursing home in Lake Forest, Ill. A few months ago, she went for a walk on a beautiful spring day and fell as she was close to home. A traumatic brain injury unleashed dementia so profound that now, three months since my last visit, she is unable to recognize me.
“You look like someone in my family,” she says. “Who are you?”
She says this with the utmost love, tenderly holding my face between her age-spotted hands. For the first time in her life her hair is all white, but her eyes still sparkle, even without her eye makeup. My tears fall onto her wheelchair as I say, “It’s me. Annie.”
“Oh Annie,” she says, kissing my check. “Nice to know you.”
And now my siblings and I are cleaning out her closets, hauling bags to the church for the rummage sale and getting ready to put her condo up for sale to pay for her continuing “custodial care.” We sort and sift, pitch and pack. The baby teeth, report cards and hundreds of photographs are all reminders of the thousands of ways she loved us and the thousands of ways our hearts will break without her. Since her accident, the thought of losing her is like a splinter in my heart. It’s always there, always painful, impossible to remove.
It’s football season now in Evanston, and outside Mom’s condo the fire hydrants are painted purple in anticipation of the next Northwestern University game. This is the first season she will miss in decades. She and my brother were devoted fans; not only of the Northwestern Wildcats, but also of the Chicago Cubs. (Mom’s fantasy when she turned 80 was to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field.)
Life is lived in seasons or endless beginnings and endings. In recent years, I have listened to my friends talk about navigating the painful passages of their parents’ decline. I thought I knew what they were going through until it happened to me. I never knew pain could be so sharp and alive. I never knew I could be stranded between two worlds — wanting to live in the present but feeling overwhelmed by the gravity of my past.
In the next 24 hours I will awaken before dawn and fly home. I will make the three-hour drive from Denver to Steamboat, marveling at the buttery yellow of the aspens and nature’s effortless change of seasons, which feels so much more natural than the rhythms of my own life at the moment.
And yet, as I eagerly anticipate throwing my arms around my son, I think he will probably need a shower and will have to be reminded, maybe repeatedly, to do his homework. He will badger me for a ride to school, and this time I will immediately cave in, too aware of the fleetingness of time.
Someday when the seasons turn and it is his time to pitch and pack, he will find a small envelope in my desk with one of his baby teeth in it. I hope when he does, he will remember as I did through my tears this weekend, that of the nearly seven billion people on this planet, there was only one for whom nothing was too small and absolutely everything mattered.