When I was in first grade, my mother walked me to school. Once I reached the age of seven, she decided that it was safe enough for me to make the half-mile trek all by myself. Many years later Mom confided that letting me go each morning wasn't easy and that for a while she secretly followed me, keeping a discreet distance.
Decades have passed, and Mom is 85 years old, small but sturdy. Deep lines circle her wide smile like the rings of a tree, marking a lifetime of joy, disappointment, and cigarette smoking. Now I'm the one following at a distance, afraid to reveal that I worry about her. When Dad passed away a year ago, Mom insisted on remaining alone in the only house they had ever owned, a three-hour drive away from me. These days I get uneasy if her phone rings a few times too many before she picks up.
Mom doesn't drive long distances anymore, so when I wanted to see her a few weeks ago, I embarked on the six-hour roundtrip to bring her to my home in Columbus, Ohio. On the way back, we traveled south in teeming rain, the world awash in gray that left the barest separation between sky and asphalt. Trucks pelted the passenger window with spray as they blew past us. Mom reflexively hunched toward the center console.
The rain washed out shopping and sight-seeing, so we stayed in, taking pleasure in mother-daughter confidences - about the men we married or didn't, the relatives we'll never figure out, and the parts of our bodies that are too big or too small. With Dad gone, no one is home to hear Mom's sentiments and opinions, to remind her every day how much she is loved, to watch over her. These days, the New York Times crossword puzzle sits on her kitchen table with more empty spaces; she knows world capitals, but Dad knew mountain ranges.
On Mom's last night in Columbus, she sat wrapped in a terrycloth robe that engulfed her five-foot frame. Looking up from her magazine, she announced: "I think I'll just take a bus home tomorrow. Will you look into the Greyhound schedule?"
I looked up, surprised. Mom and Dad never took the bus. Dad liked his Buick too much. I struggled to say something that wouldn't undermine her confidence. "Mom, I'm happy to drive," I told her. "It's no big deal."
My mother's sympathetic smile warned me that she was about to thwart my plan to spend another day together.
"Honey, you've done enough driving already. It's a long, boring trip, especially in the rain." As usual, her consideration for me left little room for argument. (My sister and I imagine that if Mom succumbed to a mortal illness, she would simply leave a note on the back door for us reading, "Died Wednesday. Was buried Saturday. Stopped the mail. Hope you're well. Love, Mom.")
I went upstairs to research Greyhound schedules on the computer. Methodically, I entered the required data, clicked the fare for "1," and paused, realizing that tomorrow would be my mother's first trip alone in 62 years. Then I selected a one-way, no-return ticket. Mom didn't want to be taken care of.
Before going to bed, I tapped the alarm clock until the glowing green numbers blinked 7:00 a.m. I got under the covers and watched the numbers dissolve, one into another, the minutes vanishing. These visits were no longer part of a limitless future together. They came with an expiration date. With a morbid compulsion I couldn't resist, I calculated the number of times I was likely to see Mom again.
"Are you sure about riding the bus?" I asked the next morning. "The roads are dry, it'll be fine to drive." In a last futile attempt to change her mind, I added, "And we'd have three more hours to talk."
Mom rose from the kitchen chair. "No, I've made up my mind," she said, matter-of-factly. "Are you ready to go?" She had donned her coat an hour before, and her suitcase stood at attention by her side. As we drove downtown, I couldn't help admiring her gumption.
I approached the entrance to the Greyhound depot and stepped into a 30-year-old memory. I was a college student again, standing in a dingy bus station in Akron as Mom and Dad hugged and kissed me goodbye before a visit to my sister. As the vision passed, I wanted to turn around and give Mom a hug. I smiled instead; I didn't want to make her look vulnerable in front of strangers. And I knew I would cry.
I held my breath as we walked through the door, fearing that Mom would be overwhelmed by the terminal's dirt and din. But instead of the grimy depot of my memory, I found spotless travertine floors and gleaming white walls.
Mom studied the brightly-lit terminal. "This reminds me of when we used to see you to the Greyhound station," she said.
At last we both smiled.
We took our place in the ticket line. I nudged her suitcase in front of us as we inched along between stanchions threaded with nylon rope.
After twenty minutes, it was our turn. Billfold in hand, Mom approached the agent accepting cash. I tagged her bag and stepped briskly aside.
"Howya' doin', Ma'am?" asked the agent in his best customer service voice. "Your name please?"
"What?" Mom cocked her head to one side and leaned closer to the counter that came nearly up to her collarbone.
I glanced behind us. The bus would depart in a few minutes and the line had grown deep; I fought the urge to interpose. The agent repeated his question with practiced, exaggerated solicitude. All he saw, I suppose, was gray hair, stooped shoulders. I thrust Mom's suitcase toward him and brought it down with a thud onto the baggage scale.
Mom straightened her head, raised her chin, and spelled out her name.
We joined the queue in front of Gate 6, Mom clutching her handbag and ticket close to her chest as if someone might snatch them. A voice that sounded as if it had been recorded through a down duvet announced the next departure.
"I can't hear that," she said, slightly exasperated. "That's why we quit flying. We were afraid were we going to miss something important."
For the fourth time, I reviewed the route printed on her schedule. The bus's final destination was Buffalo, New York; I warned her not to fall asleep or she'd end up in the Niagara River.
A middle-aged man in front of us turned and smiled. He must have heard the concern in my voice, the eagerness for everything to go smoothly. "I'm stopping in Akron myself. Don't worry, I'll make sure she gets off there," he said gently. With relief, I thanked him.
The queue of passengers had just begun boarding when a policeman maneuvered in front of us.
"You ladies, please step away from the bus," he commanded. "I have to remove a passenger, and there may be an altercation."
I barely had time to imagine a battle between good guy and bad guy, with Mom serving as the backstop for a bullet, when the passenger emerged, glassy-eyed, weaving his way down the steps. In one hand he carried a bottle in a brown bag, the paper bunched under his fist.
I exchanged looks with a man in his 20s, standing in line behind my mother, but couldn't tell if his expression meant "Don't worry, this sort of thing rarely happens," or "Fasten your seatbelt, the fun is just beginning."
Mom must have seen the drunk too, but neither of us said a word. I quickly scrutinized the waiting travelers, looking for assurances that my mother would be safe for the next three hours. I kissed Mom quickly as she moved forward in the wave of passengers. She boarded, and through the tinted glass I saw her shadow take a window seat.
With Mom's features obscured, I could only guess what she was thinking. Was my presence embarrassing her? As I hovered outside the gate waiting for the bus to back away, I wondered if I should have watched from inside the terminal.
Mom's vinyl suitcase flew from a worker's hand into the cavity of the luggage bay. The bus driver checked his mirrors and shifted into reverse. With a burst of diesel fumes, the vehicle pulled out and stopped, waiting to merge into traffic.
Compelled to keep Mom in sight, I hurried to get in my car before the driver sped away. When the road cleared, the bus entered Third Street heading toward Interstate 71. I followed it around the block. Hanging back a discreet distance, I watched as her bus turned north and disappeared from view.