Lately I’ve been too busy to write. My mother, a nurse who has saved hundreds of lives, chides me because we haven’t gotten together all winter and now it’s spring. For this, I feel bad. I deserve nothing but meals of hot dogs on Wonder bread and Bud Lite. They would complete the worst winter I can remember having—ongoing sore throats, long hours at work, indifferent co-workers, conflicting domestic schedules, snowstorms, plumbing repairs, everything.
And everything I allow to fill my days is embarrassing. What I complain about is hardly severe, not compared to other people around the planet. It’s not as if I have a tsunami to outrun or a revolution against a dictatorship to survive. I wonder if I have any of the stuff going on in my life that actually builds character.
While walking through a crowded St. Paul skyway, an older woman shuffles along, relying heavily on a cane. Like a slow-moving tractor on a highway, she is causing a major slow down for the rest of us. She presses her thick body onto an escalator and I am right behind her. I check my cell phone and hope my errand won’t take too long so I can get back to work before my lunch break is over.
A second later, I realize I know her from somewhere. She’s a college friend of my mother’s. She’s in a lot of the old photos from my parents’ parties—those great uproars. I can still hear the table-slapping laughter, the off-key singing, the jokes, the ice cubes in glasses. I see my parents and their friends, their faces glowing with youth and hope. Everyone has their arms around each other, smiling and gesturing through the blue smoke, caught mid-sentence or mid-laughter, frozen forever in the moment by the surprise flash. She is one of those faces.
I don’t see many of my parents’ friends anymore. That generation is almost gone. Tom Brokaw called them the “greatest generation”, the World-War II, hard-living, raised-in-the-Depression, anything-is-possible-so-let’s-go-to-the-moon generation. They are not the cautious low carb, fat-free, mandatory-helmet-wearing generation to which I belong.
I think of tapping her on the shoulder, but I tell myself she won’t even remember who I am. To her I am just one of the kids in pajamas saying good-night to the adults. I tap her on the shoulder anyway. She turns in my direction. The recognition comes and she says my name.
“How’re your mom and dad?” she asks. “We sure did have fun. And your mom? What a gal,” she says, shaking her head at the memories. “How’s she doing? You know, they found a lump in me too, but I think hers was worse.”
We shift our feet and I help her off the escalator. She continues. “Great lady, your mother. Yeah, probably the greatest lady I’ve ever known,” she says, looking at me straight to make sure I know she’s serious. “Say hello to your mom and dad for me.”
Once home, I phone my mother but she’s not there. She’s volunteering at the Alzheimer’s unit. “The greatest lady I’ve ever known.” Those words still echo in my head. On some future escalator no one will ever remember me for the meetings I attended or how many emails I got through in a day, but if some friend were to say these words about me to a child of mine, what a big, shiny success this brief time will have been.