(The first in a series.)
Ladies and gentlemen! This afternoon in front of Unico Towers for Senior Residents here in Jersey City, New Jersey, in a raspberry scarf, blue jeans, and practical walking shoes, weighing in at 115 pounds, stands the indomitable, unfazed by bloodclots, kidney stones, stillbirth, miscarriages, MFA program maniacs, jealous bosses, backstabbing colleagues, or Puerto-Rican-hating sales clerks, the woman who never says never, whose fear of water or air travel or driving in traffic circles or through the streets of San Juan has never held her back, la boricuaza who always rises stronger … Welcome the one. The only. The legend. La campeona … La Nancy!
The taxi honked twice as it pulled up to the curb in front of Unico Towers. A-1 Taxi, five minutes ahead of the ETA the dispatcher had quoted on the phone. A good sign. The driver and I nodded at each other. Middle Eastern, middle-aged, Bluetooth earpiece to receive pick-up addresses from Central Command. Saggy yellow four-door to navigate the cratered Jersey City landscape.
I held Mami’s arm, helped her into the back seat, and climbed in after her. I told the driver we were going to the Medical Center, to take Jersey Avenue south to the end, just before Liberty State Park.
“The hospital or 377?”
Another good sign: He knew the difference between the hospital and the doctors’ suites building right behind. No confusion nor argument about where to go. This guy had transported other people to medical appointments. Not a job I’d want, especially if the pair in the back is an aging parent and adult child. The drama potential is too high: anxieties, resentments, role reversals. Central Command must keep a list of drivers willing to do medical appointment transports. Plexiglass alone can’t protect from what can erupt in the backseat. Maybe a boxing helmet … and a fire extinguisher in case the backseat becomes engulfed in flames. At least our driver knew where he was going, and Mami and I are of the silent-when-anxious type.
I told the driver that the dispatcher had quoted eight dollars as the fare from Mami’s address to 377 Jersey Avenue.
“Lady, if that’s what he say, that’s what it is. I don’t wanna fight.”
I sat back in the seat and exhaled. No fight about the address nor the fare nor the route. I was okay with that. I needed my energy for what was coming. I’m getting older and have been battered around. I feel the blows more, need more recovery time.
The first face-off of the day had been with Mami. I’d been on high alert when I reached the ninth floor of Unico Towers and approached my parents’ apartment. Papi had opened the door and hugged me a little longer than usual. Was it gratitude that I was accompanying Mami to her doctor’s appointment, the one she’d avoided for more than one year? Or was it for good luck or better-you-than-me? Who knows how Papi had managed to schedule the appointment and gotten Mami to agree to stick with it.
I had been surprised when I saw Mami waiting for me in the living room. She wasn’t in her battle gear: the flowered housedress that states clearly that she is dressed to stay home. She wore her windbreaker and slacks, and she was quiet—a little more so than usual. She wasn’t smiling, but she was ready.
Getting Mami to the doctor has always been a fight. She’s never had the flu shot, the last time she’s been seen by a gynecologist was when she had me, and she has torn up the prescriptions for recommended colonoscopies, bone density scans, and cough medications. She’d refused to see her doctor for more than one year, but she didn’t put up the fight on Friday. That meant it was serious. That scared me. I would have preferred to have found Mami in her house dress. I’m a champ in that fight. I can anticipate her every move and know how to respond. Friday was different.
Mami’s forgetfulness was increasing. It was becoming harder for her to brush it off as normal aging, her overstuffed mental files, Papi working her nerves, or her depression and anxiety. We all worried about it. I wanted to know what “it” was, if it was worrisome, and what kind of fight lay ahead. What could we do to prepare, to train, if at all.
I know from experience—both having observed Mami all my life and my own struggles—that depression shares and can mask the symptoms of dementia and age-related memory loss: the feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. The social withdrawal. The irritability and inability to sleep. Problems with concentration and memory. Throughout my life, there were instances when it was not unusual for Mami to forget to turn on the oven and let the frozen dinner rolls get soggy on the rack. On her black-cloud days, she just didn’t care. However, now Mami would wonder what was in the oven, where she’d put the dinner rolls, why the oven was on—and again, what was in the oven, where she’d put the dinner rolls, and why the oven was on.
Mami’s also high anxiety. I know how that grips the chest and makes the heart race and the mind fail. In the cab, she had asked if I remembered to bring her medical records. Then asked me again. Then asked again. I have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and on my Code-Red, high-panic days, I can’t remember if red traffic lights mean stop or go and I get lost in the hallways of my own building. I answered Mami each time she asked about the medical records as if it was the first.
Mami and I sat in the back of the A-1 Taxi that Friday afternoon. No fighting. Each with our own thoughts. Our knees touched and we looked out our separate windows as the cab drove south along Jersey Avenue toward 377.
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