Perspectives: Face Time

A daughter shares details of FaceTime conversations with her ailing mother, realizing that any one of those calls could be the last.

My phone rings. It’s my mother, on FaceTime. This is a daily ritual. She’s across the state in assisted living, close to where she grew up. She can’t dress or bathe herself but has somehow held onto much of her mind. 

No matter what I’m doing, unless I’m in the classroom teaching, I pick up. I’m always afraid it could be the last call. If not the last call, then maybe the last call where she still makes sense. She has dementia, a word I refused to say aloud for a year after she was diagnosed. I’d prayed she’d get anything but that. Years ago, my old next door neighbor told me she had taken her mother to Eat’n Park on an ordinary sunny day, and her mother looked across the table and said, “Who are you?” 

If I’m driving and the phone rings, I pull over. If I’m walking down the hall at work, I duck into an alcove. If I’m walking up at the reservoir, I keep walking until I find a bench. No matter how I’m feeling, it’s the least I can do to infuse my hello with as much joy as I can muster. Like I haven’t heard from her in months.

How strange it is to live in an age where you can hold your mother in your hand like this.

She leans forward, her bright face filling the screen. It’s as if she might leap right out of the phone. “Did you sleep better last night?” she’ll say. “I’m praying for that.” Asks about my family, my in-laws, my friends and pets, as she does every day.

And then, “What do you want me to sing?”

We call her The Human Jukebox. Right now old songs — she knows hundreds by heart — are her main offerings; a great story-teller in her day, she still has the inclination, but  Parkinson’s makes it difficult to talk; songs are easier than stories. 

“Sing the theme from ‘Doctor Zhivago,’” I might say. I remember reading the book one snowy night as a kid, my mother in the next room watching “The Thorn Birds.”
She sings the whole song, then goes on to “To Each His Own” and “You’ll Never Know.”

Her voice rich, resonant, on key — changed recently. She sounds scratchy and has no volume control. I worry this will make her less popular there, but I don’t have the heart to tell her to quiet down. I hold the phone in my hand and watch her pouring herself into the performance as if I’m the most important audience in the world. 

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide,

My love for you….

I listen carefully. I don’t want her to die and think to myself, “How could I not have appreciated those calls? I’d do anything to get just one more.” I know I’ll feel grief no matter what I do, but I try to be present now and grateful for what is, even though it’s not at all what I’d have chosen for her. She stays cheerful, surrounded by people far less present; when I visit, one woman sits and chants, “I want to go home,” another clutches my arm and claims they are trying to murder her and her dog, another bangs her head on the table. 

One autumn evening my mother phones and I’m at the park, surrounded by brilliantly yellow trees, watching geese in the reservoir under the red evening sky. She’s got a song, of course.

See the pyramids along the Nile

Watch the sun rise on a tropic isle

Just remember, darling, all the while

You belong to me.

A song sung to a soldier in the 1940s, but now it seems, like so many songs, it was written for my mother to sing to me.

“I like that one, Mom.” 

“Where are you?” she says.

I hold the phone so she can see the brilliant red sky, the geese on the dark water.

“Are you on vacation?”

“No. Just up the street.”

Then, all of a sudden, she asks, “I’m not going to die here, am I?” Her eyes are wide and filled with fear. I realize she feels she is only temporarily housed in this place. That she’s waiting for the next stop along the way.

“Nobody knows the future, Mom.”

But of course I do, in this case.

Long, excruciating pause.

“That’s true,” she finally says. “OK, kid. So what do you want me to sing?”  

Jane McCafferty writes fiction, essays and poems. The award-winning author has published two novels and two collections of stories, and she teaches writing at Carnegie Mellon University and for Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic program. She is currently at work on a third story collection.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly, From the Magazine