Photo via Paxabay

By Nathan M. Greenfield

While I am thankful that WhatsApp allows me to virtually pass over the sealed Canadian/U.S. border and, thus, bridge the distance between my home in Ottawa and the retirement home on Staten Island, New York, where my 91-year-old mother lives, it is not an unalloyed blessing. As the one responsible for her care, seeing how she is faring in this time of COVID is necessary. As her only surviving child, watching her decline in real time is hard, very hard.

Strokes have left her mouth into a misshapen simulacrum of the one that for decades led classrooms of fifth graders and school assemblies in Brooklyn. The voice that delighted in telling and retelling family stories now chokes out bits of words and names. More and more frequently she confuses me with my father (who died last April), my late older brother, one of her departed brothers, or her uncles who died in the 1960s.

Even worse are those times when I wonder, “What if there is enough left of the mind that loved to read for her to realize that she knows she has mistaken me — and can’t correct herself?” These are moment of gothic horror.

Her eyes remain the light green indicated on her expired passport. But rarely do they show the light that shone when she took me to the ballet at Lincoln Center and Broadway shows. The eyes that watched over me and my long-gone childhood friend, Daniel, on the beaches of New York and which welcomed my junior high school friend, Jozef, into the orbit of the family seem never to have existed. The twinkle so obvious in museums, and when the four of us toured Mexico, London, Amsterdam and Italy, is but a memory of mine.

When my Mother cannot hear me, her wonderful aide, Chano, tells her what I’ve said. Because of the way Mom holds the phone, as Chano says, “He’s asking ‘did you enjoy going outside today’” or “Did you get the package of books he sent you?” I see Mom looking up toward her left at Chano, who is off camera. For several months, I likened Mom’s expression of absolute trust in Chano, upon whom so much depends, to one I see in a picture of my daughter, Pascale, and her son, Ezra, taken about eight weeks after he was born in August 2019. My grandson is in a snuggly. She’s looking down at him and he up, taking in his mother’s smiling face. His eyes show absolute faith that Pascale will take care of him.

Later, I realized that even though my mother’s and my grandson’s eyes bespeak trust, they could not be more different. In a picture taken when Ezra is about seven months old, he is on his back on the couch. From behind his head, he hears his father and, now able to command his neck, he cranes his head toward the right and looks up in the direction of Tyson’s voice. The smile the camera caught just after it spread across Ezra’s face is matched by his eyes. Open wide like saucers, they telegraph the joy he is already feeling, and will fully feel when, in but a moment, he sees his father.

It is wistful to think that the expression of unalloyed joy in Ezra’s eyes will be tempered by life. His is a journey but starting with adventures to come. But to look at these pictures or those of Pascale and my son, Nicolas, at the same age is to see what we hear in Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice when he sings of seeing “trees of green” and “the colors of the rainbow” in “What a Wonderful World.”

The trust I see in my mother’s eyes, her thankfulness for being well cared for is real; indeed, her need makes her thankfulness for Chano all the greater. This expression, which deepens each time she looks up toward Chano in an ever-more beseeching way, marks the distance from the petite woman who happily stood on lines to snag discount Broadway tickets, “a force of nature” Pascale once called her, and the stroke-weakened body in a wheelchair.

Where Ezra’s eyes see a world of wonders, just beyond Chano’s steadying hand, my mother’s see terror, the emotion the woman born in early January 1929 feared for as long as I can remember.

Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.