There is a gigantic billboard on Highway 151 between Dubuque and Madison that kills me every time I see it. Its message is simple: “Call Your Parents.” My response, though unspoken, is always the same: Oh, how I wish I could.
I still remember the phone number. I’ve used it as my password on my phone at work, and oh, what a thrill it was to dial those numbers again. (I remember my childhood phone number, too, and it’s really cool to dial 324-5869, though it really should be dialed on a real dial phone, where the 9 takes much longer than the 3.) But no one would answer, or, if it’s been recycled after all these years, only a stranger would pick up.
If you’ve got parents, you should call them more often. You shouldn’t put it off. Even if they’re not that old, you never know how long you’re going to have them. I know a married couple who lost both of their fathers in 2010, and these people are kids compared to me.
I also have friends closer to my age whose parents are still around – some going strong, others hanging on by a thread in nursing homes. My hairdresser, who seems to be about my age, astonished me by saying she was going to a potluck, “and I asked my mom to make a cherry pie.” Your MOM? I wanted to yelp. Your mom is still alive? Alive and baking pies? I was floored, and more than a little envious.
It took me back to one of the last days I spent with my mom, whom I had brought to Dubuque by ambulance when she was felled by a broken shoulder and Alzheimer’s disease. She was comfortable enough at Stonehill, and very well cared for, although she asked repeatedly, “What am I doing in Dubuque?” The stock answer was “Because Pam is here,” an answer that neatly sidestepped her diminishing mental capacity.
When the weather allowed, I took her for walks outside. One day, we noticed that a small tree that had been covered in blooms in the spring was now hung with red fruits. She and I agreed they must be cherries, but when I asked if she thought they were sweet or sour, she wasn’t sure. So I walked over, plucked one off, and startled her (and me) by popping it into my mouth. “Sour!” I declared, spitting it out. Just right for a cherry pie, we agreed, the kind she used to make so expertly.
I’d made her laugh, so that was a good day. She wouldn’t remember, so it was bittersweet.
Despite the message of the billboard, we weren’t big on phone calls. It was letters that kept our family ties close. If I ever see a sign instructing “Write Your Mom,” well, I’m liable to lose it. For months after her death, I kept thinking of things I wanted to put in a letter to her. Any time I saw a new bird at the feeder, or one of my kids achieved something special at school, or my husband and I traveled somewhere new, I would think, I need to write about this to Mom. But I couldn’t.
She’s been gone over ten years, and I still feel that impulse. If you’re more used to calling, I’m sure you will find yourself picking up the phone and beginning to dial before you remember that the person you want to talk with is no longer there.
I’m not trying to make you feel bad. And I know it’s pointless to say to anyone whose parents are still alive, “Appreciate them!” although that’s what I hope you’ll do. I realize that if I could magically have mine back, or roll back the hands of time a decade or two, I’d still be annoyed with them over the same old things that always used to irk me, and there would still be times when we hardly spoke because we thought we had so little in common.
Sometimes I think it’s just as well that they’re gone now. They haven’t had to witness my descent into headache hell; they would have worried sick over my hospitalization in the Head Pain unit last year, eight hours away in Michigan. I’d have done my best to explain why I chose to go there, and it certainly would have given me someone else to write to about it. Someone who really cared, too. Because really, for unconditional love, you can’t top a mom and dad.
I do realize how easy it is to idealize one’s relationship with one’s parents, especially after they’re gone. But I’m not imagining things when I remember how my mom would cradle my forehead with her hand when the stomach flu had me doubled over the toilet. And I remember how my dad bought me a used car to drive the summer I ran away from my violent husband. Though it was hard for him to talk about my situation, he knew how to show his love.
The other night, I lay on the sofa with a ripping headache. Realizing I wasn’t up to it, I called out, “Would you please do the dishes?” But here’s the amazing thing: I was absolutely convinced that the person I was calling out to was not my husband, but my mother. It did not strike me as odd that she was in my kitchen. It was more a feeling of Well, of course she’s there. And how convenient! It left me feeling not sad, but comforted.
So, yeah. Call your parents. Write, visit, email, Skype. Raise your own kids so they know it’s important – nonnegotiable, really – to keep in touch, whether the news is big or nonexistent. And if you visit, do the dishes.