Passing the International House of Pancakes located down the street from my parents’ old house brings me to tears. It isn’t the menu that makes me sad, but the memories of so many visits to my parents when my daughters were small, and my dad would say, “Who wants some pancakes?” The girls would squeal with delight, and we’d pile into a couple of cars and have a noisy and satisfying breakfast at IHOP, Grandpa’s treat. My dad would charm the waitress so that his coffee cup was always full, and my daughters would fight over who got to pour the cream from the little tin pitcher for him.
I can’t remember the last time I had pancakes there: my dad has been dead for six years, and my daughters are grown. But as I drove by, I pictured us in the parking lot, all hair ribbons and missing teeth and a pure joy in the day, and I cried. This neighborhood often reminds me of one of the Frank Sinatra songs on the record player when I was a kid: “I’ll be seeing you / In all the old familiar places. . .”
I don’t cry much anymore about the loss of my dad, since it’s been six years, but I’m feeling fragile after a two-day visit with my mother. My mother suffers from advanced Parkinson’s Disease, which is bad enough, but this was the first time her doctor used the “A” word: Alzheimer’s. My siblings and I have attributed her increasing dementia to the Parkinson’s, but somehow it seems worse with the new label. Not much is familiar to my mother these days, especially since she lives in a retirement facility with a full-time caregiver. At one point she thought my dad was at the door. “I want to go back,” she said to me. “I don’t know how I got here.” I explain for the thousandth time, about the Parkinson’s and the broken hip and her many physical incapabilities, but she waves me away, impatient with facts she doesn’t recognize as pertaining to her. She wants me to take her home, but her home has been sold. “I fell while I was Christmas shopping,” she insists. This isn’t true. “OK,” I say. What else can I do but stop talking and let her create her own history?
Sometimes I want to go back, too. We’d all like to cheat time’s passage—isn’t that why I use the expensive face cream that my daughter the esthetician recommended to make my neck smoother, and whose effects seem rather Faustian?—but all we have is today. This blessed day. My dad is gone, my mother’s mind and body are failing horribly, my husband and I say “What did you say?” to each other a lot, my children are adults, and this is all exactly as it should be. Still, a visit with my mother always feels unfinished and unsettling.
I pass the IHOP on my way to the cemetery before I head home. It’s Halloween, and I want to make the two-hour drive home before the trick-or-treaters come calling. I bring my dad a little bunch of orange marigolds and tidy up around his grave marker. A funeral is in progress just over the next rise of the cemetery, a hearse and a canopy and lots of people dressed in black. We all have our beloved dead. My dad’s photo takes center stage on the Dia de los Muertos altar at my house, although more faces are added each year. The melancholy song persists in my head: “And when the night is new / I’ll be looking at the moon / But I’ll be seeing you.” I blow my nose, get on the freeway, and drive away from all the old familiar places.
I wish I could find the words to bring peace and acceptance to my mother’s agitated heart. But I can’t. My attempts only upset her. “I try to make deals with God,” she tells me in a lucid moment, “but he isn’t having it.” This is the deal: God is with us, but God doesn’t send us back. We only make our way ever closer to our rest in the divine.