Intimations of mortality are only skin-deep

It's a freak warm day in early spring, and the kids and I are at the beach. We build piles of shining rocks and shells on a bleached driftwood log. Everything here is glowing in the sun, polished by water and time.

It gets hotter, and we strip to our swimsuits. As I slather sunscreen on everyone's winter white limbs, I marvel at how tightly each kid's skin fits his frame. It makes a perfect seal, elastic and unscarred. There are no sags, no bags. These children are light and taut like raw new energy.

The contrast with my own skin is shocking. Mine's much loser on the bone, speckled and dabbled with the years. I rub the sunscreen into my arms and watch my skin pool at the wrist. My hands are becoming old-woman hands. Ben pulls at the veins and asks if I have swallowed worms.

Three weeks ago my mother had a stroke. This is the thing I cannot get out of my head, even here on this gorgeous day with the kids.

Three weeks ago I wrenched myself from my little family and took the night train to Virginia to sit with her in the hospital, and then back at her own house. I was gone for three days. Simon still blinks back tears at the memory of that parting.

My mom has recovered physically, but she's not the same. Our relationship, I think, may never be the same. My mom lost her sister this year, the person she talked to every night on the phone. I have always been a once-a-week caller, but I now call almost every day. I am taking nothing for granted.

My lovely, independent mother is diminished. Her body has betrayed her, and she is rightfully scared. She wishes I lived closer, and sometimes so do I.

I sense the shift beginning. I have always known it would come, and I'm in the middle of it now. My parents, always formidable and well in charge, are becoming less like parents, and I, less like a child. The roles are starting to rotate. I have taken a few warm-up swings of the bat and I feel myself stepping up to the plate.

My mother's body is dwindling. Parts are missing; organs are missing. The arms that held me will no longer carry a bag of groceries. This woman, a public health nurse who once knocked on doors in city slums, no longer trusts herself to drive.

I sit in the sand and watch my children splash and run in the freezing ocean water. I cannot keep my feet in there for more than a few seconds, but the cold does not touch them. They are invincible, these kids.

If all goes well, I too will grow old. My grown kids will call once a week and visit when they can. They will bring me stories and treasures from their far-flung lives.

And I hope they'll remember this shining day. Remember me as I once was.


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