This essay was first published in:
The Feathered Flounder – December 2012
On the Road Again
“What’s your blood type?” my daughter asks me.
“A-Positive I think. Why?” I reply. “Do you need some?”
“I’m buying you a Road ID,” Jennifer says. “For when you walk by yourself.”
I walk an average of five miles a day, five days a week. Sometimes I walk with friends, and I’ve done marathons and multi-day events with groups, but I prefer to walk alone. I’m fast, and few of my walking buddies can match my pace. I do it for my heart, my back and bones, my head. It’s my time to make plans and solve problems, dissect conversations, compose stories.
Road ID is a dog tag that you wear on your wrist, ankle or shoe. It has your name and address, medical alerts, emergency contact info. In case your incoherent form is found along the side of the road; in case you’ve lost your bearings or your memory.
Does my daughter think I’m getting too old to be let loose on my own?
Several years ago we were at a beach party celebrating her in-laws’ fiftieth anniversary. After a big spread of grilled meats, New Mexico chili and lots of salads and sides, cakes and cookies, most of the adults—those who weren’t watching small children—stretched out on grassy spots under trees and nodded off. I’m not a napper, so I seized the opportunity to walk off my lunch. I set out briskly along the bayside path. It was a gorgeous early-summer day, warm but with a light breeze off the water. Sailboats and catamarans bobbled in the bay, children splashed and played along the shore, aromas of woodsmoke and barbecue sauce swirled through the air.
When I returned an hour later, Jennifer stormed up to me, hands on her hips. It reminded me of my mother’s stance; was it mine too?
“Where have you been?” she yelled. “I’ve been frantic.” She sounded like my mother too, reprimanding me for childish misdeeds.
Did she think I’d been kidnapped, drowned, overtaken by amnesia? Heavens, I thought, was this the beginning of my dotage? Had we switched roles, come full circle; was she now my caretaker? I was still in my 50s, hardly decrepit, she in her mid-30s. I chuckled at her indignation and assured her of my well-being and sound mind.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m still able-bodied, and I still have all my marbles.”
That story is still good for a laugh, and I remind Jennifer of it now. “Is that what this Road ID thing is about?”
She assures me it isn’t. “I have one too,” she says; “so does everyone in my running group. It’s not about age, Mom. Anything can happen when you’re running or walking alone.” It’s no surprise that she worries about me, that she scrutinizes any evidence of my if-not-yet-than-looming decline. Her father died when she was four, and losing me has always been her greatest fear. Even now that she’s an adult, middle-aged herself, we have the same call and response: She says, “Promise me you won’t die? Ever?” And I respond, “Nope, never. Money-back guarantee.”
But things are different now, and I look back on that day as a turning point in my relationship with my daughter. From birth into adulthood, it had always been about her; her fretting about me was something new. I had been a self-absorbed kid too, oblivious of my mother as a person. Maybe we all are. Wasn’t her purpose in life to be there for me? To hear my triumphs and woes, to kiss my “owies” and make me lime Jello with grapes when I’m sick? I don’t remember when I turned the corner with my mother, but I didn’t have the luxury of being babied as an adult; her fragile health meant that she was the one who had to be sheltered. She died at 60 when I was 33.
In contrast, I’ve always been strong and healthy, answering to “Mo-o-om”—that’s with three syllables—for Jennifer since her earliest utterances. When she was grown and had launched out on her own I was still there for her: with a loan, a shoulder to cry on, a recipe for meat loaf, unwavering support.
I still am, but our interaction is more reciprocal now. Two adults who care about each other. I tell her about my aches and pains, financial setbacks, my literary and culinary successes
too. And she tells me everything, as she always has, perhaps with a little more whining than she might with her friends. After all, I’m still the mom. Role reversals between parents and adult children seem almost inevitable, though, and the time may come when I have to yield some of my stubborn independence and let her take charge. It won’t be easy on either of us.
I strap my stainless steel Road ID onto my left shoe, sealing its Velcro gripper. I tie the sturdy Asics that she bought me for my last birthday because she wanted me to have good walking shoes: “…properly fit, Mom, not whatever you find on the clearance rack at DSW.” I’m off on a solo five-mile power walk, secure in the knowledge that if I’m found sprawling and speechless, her number is the one they’ll call.