I did not recognize my mother. In a hospital room she was tiny, propped up at an odd angle in a tall bed. And the lines on her face did not match the contours of my memory. Mom is always the same age in my mind, a time when I'd be playing on the beach and she was soaking up sun. Not at 76, paying for her luminous tan.
Dad gave us the green light for our weekend visit, but we were her first new visitors. She was finishing her lunch, or trying to. Her chicken soup was tasty days ago but a salty, unappealing broth now. Of course the menu had changed after surgery, but we needed a fixer. Mom called a nurse.
Nurses' watchful eyes and comforting words were much appreciated in her first unsteady attempts out of bed. One nurse lowered her guard with Mom as well. She had a 90-minute commute home when she finished her double shift and was trying to figure out what food she was going to get on the table when she got there. "I just want things to be perfect," she told Mom, crying.
"I don't know why she was telling me all this," Mom told us, choking up herself at the recollection. I changed the subject: A nurse at Rush had a similar long commute and crummy hours. She cared for my mothe-in-law when we had to add an emergency-room visit to her vacation itinerary.
Dad too has had enough hospital moments in the past year. He has spent most of this spring being probed in various places as a cancer patient. Most of the family visited soon after they got the news. I put off my visit till he was rested enough to travel the grocery, hear my Chicagoan's view on Barack Obama, and generally allow my distractions.
These visits have been full of the chatter we use to process big events. Mom got to hear about my birthday plans to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. She got to recall her 1970s trip to see Elvis in Las Vegas, and how the King had wandered offstage mid-performance. Preparing to take on Halloween alone, Dad got to review his trick-or-treat game plan before, with Mom growing tired, it was time for hugs and good-byes.
My parents now visit me at work, from a framed photo at my desk. I now recognize myself in the their portrait, much like used to see myself in their wedding picture. They're familiar in sickness and in health.
I'll see my parents again in person over Thanksgiving, no nearer perfection but making due with the small talk that nurses us to health.