The last day I saw my mother alive was June 21, 2004. She was seventy
years old with long, fading hair and sunken skin—skin wrapped around the frail
bones of her hand like the translucent membrane of a bat’s wing. On the third-
floor lobby of Atlanta’s venerable Buckhead NurseCare facility, she was folded
into a wheelchair: a closed umbrella sheathed in the exotic colors of her
Hawaiian muumuu as strings of quartz and turquoise looped heavily around her
My daughters Ann-Elise and Juliet, then six and three years old, recognized
their Swedish grandmother, Nana Diana, and yet hesitated. As did my wife
Billie and I. We knew about her declining health, and though it was two years
since we last saw her, she had aged exponentially. Less than 24 months ago
she walked on her own, slowly but deliberately shuffling on thin legs. On my
last visit, she still moved ably between computer stand and shelves, among the
tight corridors of her assisted-living unit, working late as she documented her
solo road trips of the last twenty years. Now she hardly moved at all.
Hers was not a disease of the body—cancer with its horrid growth, or the
body turning against itself as with lupus or MS. Hers was not even a disease of
the mind, though she was diagnosed in early adulthood with bipolar
depression. Instead, hers was a disease of the spirit. Confined to the cold
indifference of a wheelchair, constrained to a senior apartment she could no
longer maintain, and surrounded by lonely widows whose last ambition was to
save her soul for a pearly-gated heaven she had always rebuffed, Nana Diana
was simply ready to leave. Seeing her body failing around her—even as her
eyes glowed with the nautical fire of her native Baltic Sea—I believed I was
When my house was built in the year 2000 on the northern half of our
Tucson neighborhood, the desert was bladed and the umber earth raised six
feet. Yet there remains a traffic circle of original ground. Small homage, it
seems, to both topography and flora. At the circle’s center a massive, many-
armed saguaro rises forty feet or more above the pavement. Each morning, a
cacophony of sparrow songs explodes from the cactus, followed by birds
bickering their way into neighbors’ yards and the sky beyond. By evening, its
leathery skin, gray-green and toothy, darkens against the slow stain of dusk.
In between, an uneven wash whirls around the single sentinel: residents and
construction workers, delivery trucks and visitors.
Though technically a traffic circle, I prefer to think of the intersection as a
roundabout, the British term for a crossroads at which incoming traffic yields to
cars already in the loop. Modern roundabouts distinguish themselves from
traditional traffic circles, which were first called gyratories—one-way circulations
around central islands—by Paris city architect Eugene Henard in 1906.
Roundabouts cut accidents in half, decreasing congestion and emissions as the
traffic steadily moves.
Though ours is ringed by four stop signs, they are largely ignored, making
it “nonconforming.” But I prefer roundabout because of its double meaning: a
circular intersection, yet also a terminus arrived at in an indirect or circuitous
way, a journey that does not end from where it launches nor follow a directed
This morning, cool though it is mid-September, I walk west to the
roundabout where I dip beneath the railing and drop onto the desert floor to
explore the wildflowers. As a car rushes around my head, a sulfur-winged
butterfly alights on a desert marigold, and a nurse I will never meet finds my
mother limp and dehydrated, her spirit nearly flown.
Nana Diana still has an appetite, though she is feeble. I sign the paperwork
to check her out for lunch at the same time as Ann-Elise and Juliet squabble
over the right push the wheelchair into the elevator and out to the car. When
the doors slide open and a crowd of people dissolves into the hallway, I decide
to push. We arrive at the main lobby to the percussion of a Georgia
thunderstorm: relentless and beautiful.
As I pull around in my brother's Volvo, I’m drenched but relieved to be out
of the nursing home—happy to take my mother from that stale and sterile
place, if only for a short while. I help her into the front seat, Billie and the girls
pile into the back, and we drive up the steep incline of the exit as the wipers
work noisily to push away the rain. The air conditioner's blown fuse steams the
windshield as we make our way to Nana’s favorite restaurant, Joe’s Crab Shack,
ten long blocks away.
There is no foreshadowing that this is our last meal together. Perhaps my
mother knows, as she lunges into the cracked crab legs and fried shrimp as if
she hasn’t eaten a meal in months. And since it’s been almost that long since
she was outside, I recognize now that this is her first enjoyable food in weeks.
After the fractured conversation of lunch—when Ann-Elise and Juliet are too
distracted by the over-stimulating decorations to stay seated, when Billie is
mostly silent except as she implores the girls to behave, when I find the
growing heat of embarrassment for my mother who cannot help but draw
attention to her ridiculous dress and all-out consumption, when my heart
works its cold vise of concern into my throat, when the restaurant’s blaring
music drills beneath my skull, when God dammit why won’t that vacant waitress
refill my iced tea?—after that I am ashamed. I am my mother’s youngest son
and eating at me all this time is a broken promise I made nearly twenty years
ago. Even before moving a thousand miles west to college and leaving my
mother alone, I promised to take care of her, that no matter where I was or
how she was, she would live with me.
I know the statistics. 22 million households provide care for ailing parents
in the U.S., up 300 percent from just ten years ago. Family caregivers spend
more than $35 billion every year on parental health care. In all, a quarter of all
American adults aged forty to sixty live with and care for their parents. While
most caregivers feel appreciated and admit a positive sense of increased
responsibility, they are also frustrated and overwhelmed. And many—especially
children who provide care for parents from a distance, who cannot or will not
live with their parents—are burdened
Intentions have a roundabout way of eluding us. Billie and I transferred
from city to city before our children were born. We didn’t have room in our
small house; and did my mother really want to be confined to our tiny Colorado
home? Then Ann-Elise was born and she needed a nursery, her own room,
just her parents. My mother was a gypsy. After I left home, she'd loaded up
her Chevy Suburban and wandered the country to discover herself—moving
quickly and ecstatically from place to place on manic highs before crashing,
usually through the winters, in unbearable lows.
Sometimes she arrived unannounced at my brothers’ homes, staying too
long, working like a pneumatic hammer on the foundation of their marriages.
Once she knocked well past midnight on the hollow door of my college
apartment, her silver hair pulled back but frayed, her eyes cloudy from the
strain of driving under dim headlamps; the county highways tricking her, she
said, on every turn. She stayed over winter break while my roommates and I
traveled south. When we returned she was gone, the only sign of her visit an
iridescent sheen of oil in the closest parking space and a rolled bag of cigarette
butts folded into the trash.
Care for the elderly is no less a dilemma in Europe. In Germany, one in ten
women—the primary caregivers for aging parents—quits her job to care for her
parents. France recently passed a law requiring children to “honor and respect
their parents, pay them an allowance, and provide or fund a home for them,”
the French media reports, because elderly parents, largely ignored by a society
“obsessed with youth,” were committing suicide at a rate of more than sixty
per week. In my mother’s Sweden, responsibility for ailing parents has fallen to
the state, which provides for nearly all elder care through a mix of social and
health insurance and entitlement programs such as paid time off for family
caregivers. Even with state support, Sweden boasts one of Europe’s highest
percentages of parental assistance.
Adult children live closer to their parents in Sweden and throughout
Europe. In America—a nation of immigrants—children migrate. Caregiving is
therefore less an expenditure of time than money. Nana Diana lived in Georgia
but her children resided in Indiana, Arizona, and California. Only her oldest
son, Miles, was nearby. For years, my brothers and I sent money to our
mother. For years, Billie and I talked about how we could bring her out to live
with us. For years, we watched from a half-continent away as first her health
and then her spirit failed.
And now Billie, the girls, and I have driven down to be with Nana Diana, who
has been in the senior apartment for years and it really is best, isn’t it? We can’
t provide the kind of care she needs, the services; we don’t even live on a bus
route, and who takes the bus in Tucson with its Sonoran desert summers? .
At the morgue, after viewing her body—which in the end was not so
different from when I had seen her only months ago, though her eyes were
closed—I could not touch my mother. I didn’t know how to say good-bye, to
say anything at all. The attendant didn’t leave; I did not ask her to leave. But
there was absolute silence, and a pallid beauty, rising.
Ten years earlier, Billie and I attended our first family reunion together, at
my brother’s house in Indiana. As the youngest couple, we found ourselves
without a room, sleeping on a cardboard-thin mattress atop a sleeper sofa.
One evening, my sister’s voice rose from the basement like a swarm of angry
bees. There was no door to shut her out. She was yelling at our mother,
accusing her of denying us a proper Christmas as we grew up. It was a one-
sided argument. When we were young, my mother refused the Christmas
spirit because the season could never compare to the holidays she shared with
her grandmother in Allonö, a palace south of Stockholm at the end of a wide,
grassy roundabout near the sea. The holidays of her childhood meant horse-
drawn sleigh rides, live spruces hosting white candles that flickered like the
faraway windows of a hillside village, ornate holiday meals cooked by full-time
chefs, served by full-time stewards.
Scaling the concrete embankment of the traffic circle, Ann-Elise, Juliet, and I
explore the space beneath the lone saguaro. We find three other cacti: prickly
pear with its pancake-sized pads, a barrel cactus spun in rows of fishhook-
shaped spines, and a small grouping of pincushion, the undersized cactus with
the oversized blooms. Here we also find a young ocotillo, leafless, stalks the
shape and strength of rebar spreading vaselike from the gravel floor.
Fortunately we do not see any snakes, but Ann-Elise nearly catches a black-
collared lizard as Juliet watches a queen butterfly lope by just above her head.
Climbing out of the depressed circle is not as easy, we learn, as dropping
in. Eventually we manage it, but the process convinces Juliet she’ll stay at
street level next time. Street level is an important consideration for
roundabouts, whose recipe for success reads like the chant of a New Age traffic
engineer: yield, deflect, flare. Yield to traffic in the circle, deflect vehicles at the
entry, and flare from single to multiple lanes to increase capacity.
On September 15, 2004, I am at work when my brother Miles calls. Twelve
hours after our mother was admitted, he learned that she was in the hospital
again. “Hold tight,” he says, “and I’ll call you back with the details.” But it is
more serious, he warns, than her previous stays. For her children, our
mother's visits to the hospital were concerning but not uncommon. She had
artery problems that resulted in atrophy in one leg, bronchial problems because
she'd smoked since she was 14 years old, psychological problems as she
periodically threatened suicide. “More serious….” His voice hangs, perhaps
Thirty minutes later I book a flight to Atlanta, via Salt Lake City, that leaves
in four hours. It’s an all-nighter, getting me into Atlanta at five a.m. We are
not sure if she’ll make it through the night, and I don’t have many details. I
know she was admitted the previous day, after her nurse found her, the
bedsheets drenched in sweat and blood-laced vomit. She had a virus, the flu?
No: a bacterial infection. What does that mean?
Quickly, frantically now, I send out an email to my team at work: I will be out
for an unknown period of time, not checking email, not checking voice mail,
unavailable. As I rush down the hall, a coworker calls after me, “Is everything
alright?” The words lodged in my throat do not surface. In my bones, the
same long bones I share with my mother, I know she is dying.
On the cell phone headset, as I speed home to pack and say good-bye to
my girls, I talk with my brother David, who is driving down from Indiana that
evening. He’ll pick me up at a light rail station a half-dozen blocks from
Piedmont Hospital, the same hospital where he and Miles were born. When I
arrive home, Juliet has been crying; she’s only met Nana Diana twice but has a
powerful relationship with her—both are sensitive, psychic perhaps. I explain
that Nana is very sick, will probably die. Billie tells me to try to get an hour’s
sleep; I was up late the night before and likely won’t be able to sleep much on
the flights. In our room I block out the daylight and lie alone on the bed,
weeping. Then suddenly there is a calm: a knowing that I cannot explain but
fully understand. Yes, she will pass on tonight. She is telling me that, and I
am taken back to when I was six years old, living in Lexington, Kentucky, when
she used to call me home as I was out playing, call me home psychically; I could
hear that voice clearly, as if she was just feet away. So this is it. And she’s
I do not want to see or talk to anybody at the airport, on the airplane.
Though the seat next to me is empty on the first leg of the flight, I cannot read
the book I brought, nor the back-of-the-seat magazine I usually enjoy paging
through. Cannot listen to the flight attendant review emergency procedures in
the sharp light splitting the airplane’s windows, shattering the overhead
compartments and passenger seats with their distracting patterns of blue and
brown and red. Cannot shut my eyes, nor keep them open.
There is time in Salt Lake to grab a tasteless burger. It is dark beyond the
windows, and I am in the dark about my mother. How is she now? I call Miles.
He is the only one there. David has not yet arrived, won’t until early morning.
My sister, who is also named Diana, will not arrive until after me. Miles is
crying; he’s in the room with our mother and describes her body withdrawing
from itself, starting at her toes, as her feet and then legs grow cold and begin
to lose what remaining color they had. “She can only beat it,” the doctor told
him, “if she has the will to live.” We both know she doesn’t. And now I am in
tears again as he continues to describe the way a body shuts down, system by
system. Her eyes are closed and will never open, the breathing light and
almost nonexistent, heartbeat distant, slowing. I hang up and do not care that
people are staring at me, may or may not be concerned that a grown man is on
his knees heaving, as if retching, as if the dark cloak of the sky slipped through
the terminal windows and placed its unceasing chill on the arc of my back.
Yield. My mother was married to my father for ten years, but the man she
first loved, and loved most, was someone she met in Southern Rhodesia when
she was 19. They were passionate, committed, and then this Italian man
whose name I know only as Gerardo, whose story I can only tell from the
memory of my mother’s lament, broke. Whether he had dementia or the anti-
malarials scrambled his mind, something happened that made him unable to
remember her. Like that, their lives were separate.
Deflect. When my sister was only weeks old and in her bassinette in the
living room of the Miami house my mother and father built, her mother had a
strong urge to pick up her daughter quickly. She did. Seconds later, a section
of ceiling collapsed, crushing the bassinette.
Flare. My mother’s first loves were horses, and she was a leader in the field
of thoroughbred racehorse pedigrees. In Miami, though, she volunteered when
my sister and I were toddlers at a clinic for battered women, many of whom
were teenage mothers. By then the marriage with my father was all but over
and her dark blonde hair had gone to silver, even though she was not yet 35.
By then, with the grace and visage of a sage diva—gray-blue eyes set elegantly
among Scandinavian skin and that radiant hair—she had dedicated herself to
women who could not speak for themselves. She channeled her anger and
passion, and an eloquent pen, into visibility for the problem that led to funding
for the program.
My mother died, my brother David told me when I called him upon my arrival
in Atlanta, while I was somewhere over Texas. Or Arkansas perhaps. Only
Miles saw her before she passed, though she was not conscious. I was
relieved, not only because I knew that she could only be at peace, surely with
her grandmother who lived to be 92, but also because I was afraid to see her in
that pre-death state. We were all afraid. Her death was a heavy emptiness my
siblings and I held as we gathered together for the first time in many years.
Now we must let it go, even as we had all struggled, separately and together,
over her care; even as the guilt consumed us. Release it now, I am sure she
My mother’s wake was held at the communal house of B’hai friends, friends
who saw her alive in the hospital the evening before, who were astounded when
they learned she died. They had been talking lightly, even joking. After the
wake, and after we spent three tedious days cleaning out her apartment and
storage units, my brothers and sister and I had lunch at Joe’s Crab Shack. It
was not a celebration of her life, as the wake had been, but rather a recognition
of the roundabout way we exist, even among our own families. It was the
release of sadness and strength, a final parting and awkward grace both. We
ate our fill, cracked a crab leg on the empty place setting left for her.
The next day, David and I left early, his Jeep tugging a trailer packed full
with horse books for a farm library in Lexington. An hour north of Atlanta, we
stopped at an Indian burial mound site. We agreed that Nana Diana—who
called herself White Feather when she journeyed from reservation to
reservation as she made countless Native American “connections” on her manic
highs—would appreciate having her ashes strewn across a sacred mound. We
hoped, too, not to offend their legacy by doing so.
Our act of subversion was trickier than expected. Sticking to the dawn
shadows, we leapt the fence into the closed state park and jogged the half mile
to the closest mound. It was a large hill set evenly apart from two others on
wide lanes of clover and bluegrass, thick live oaks resting their heavy boughs all
around. We spoke a blessing and opened the small container to the wind,
which took the fine gray dust into itself. There was a quick movement along
the far hedgerow and I searched for some sign: a hawk or a fox, perhaps, its
auburn sheath weaving in and out of the trees. But there was only my brother
and me, grinning in the dawn light of the mound’s enduring roundabout.