A Balancing Act by Joy Riggs

hands with signs of age resting on a cane

I sit in the parking lot outside my parents’ senior apartment building and hit the FaceTime button on my phone. It’s minus-20-something degrees outside, without considering the windchill, and I leave the car running.

My parents no longer have a landline, after too many scammers tried to entice my dad with opportunities requiring credit card numbers; a few years ago, one talked him out of about $2,000. He didn’t want me to know about that, but my mom told me anyway. Now when I visit, I call her cell phone so she can let me in through the secured back door.

“I’m here!” I say when Mom’s smiling face comes into view, her hazel eyes twinkling behind hot pink glasses. “I made good time.”

“We’ll be right down,” Mom says. “I just put on a pot of coffee.”

They meet me at the door several minutes later, and my dad insists on carrying my suitcase. I wince internally. I’ve packed lightly, for three days and two nights, but it’s an added load for him. I hand my mom the lightest bag, which contains a couple of presents, and I carry my laptop bag, my purse, and the most valuable cargo: a square, cardboard bakery box.

We make careful progress up the flight of steps from the entry to the elevator on the first floor. I push 2 and hold the door for my dad. When it reopens, we walk down a hallway, past a few doors decorated with snowmen and Christmas scenes, to my parents’ two-bedroom apartment. All the while, I fight the urge to walk at my normal speed and instead adopt a slow-motion pace, close enough to offer an elbow or a steadying hand if it becomes necessary.

The motion of my dad’s tennis shoes rubbing across carpet brings to mind my visit five months earlier, when my husband and I made the three-hour drive to my hometown in central Minnesota to see my dad play the trumpet in a local production about women’s suffrage. For me, the main drama came before the show: As Dad shuffled across the stage toward a semicircle of music stands, I sat on the edge of my cushioned seat in the auditorium and held my breath, releasing it only after he’d eased himself into a chair without toppling over.

Several weeks later — when I was too far away to do anything about it — he lost his balance while walking several blocks from home. He did a faceplant on the sidewalk, broke a couple of ribs, and narrowly missed hitting his head on the curb. That incident shook him up enough that, for a time, he used the walker the doctor prescribed as he went through weeks of physical therapy. Mom tells me he will sometimes still use a cane. But mostly, like on this day, he walks without assistance.

***

The temperature in my parents’ place feels tropical. Is it possible their thermostat is set at 80? I peel off my woolen stocking cap, my winter coat, and my N95 mask and hug them. I then excuse myself to use the guest bathroom, also known as my dad’s bathroom.

Affixed to an antique shaving mug on a shelf above the toilet is a peel-and-stick name tag. It says Wobbly, in my dad’s handwriting.

His self-deprecating humor makes me love him all the more, while also shaking my head at his stubbornness. He would be less wobbly if he would use a walker, or even a cane, to regain his strength and confidence. Unfortunately, the more my mom and I highly suggest such things, the more resistant he gets.

On this visit, though, I am not here to cajole my dad into anything. I’m here to celebrate his 83rd birthday, a few days late.

“Is anyone interested in cake?” I ask when I emerge from the bathroom.

I place the vanilla buttercream-slathered, three-tiered birthday cake in the hands of my dad, who is seated in the living room, and take a picture. The cake is sprinkled generously with silver, gold, black, and white confetti candy.

Dad smiles, and my mom’s eyes light up. Although the cake is for my dad, it’s also for her. I know how much she loves quality cake. And although she has type 2 diabetes, I feel no guilt about being her sugar and carb supplier for this special occasion. I don’t know how many more birthdays she and my dad have left.

***

When my dad was a kid, he never got to invite his friends over to celebrate his birthday. Because it came two days after Christmas Day, and his maternal grandmother’s birthday was sandwiched in between, he shared a family celebration with her. His presents — practical things like socks — were wrapped in leftover Christmas paper.

In the 58 years my parents have been married, my mom has always tried to make a big deal out of my dad’s birthday, and has never wrapped his presents in Christmas paper. Even though it is not her preferred flavor, she will often make him his favorite on his birthday, a “tomato soup cake” with cream cheese frosting, which is essentially like a carrot cake.

But when I called them this year on his birthday, Mom said she never got around to making or buying him a cake. Taking care of him was taking its toll on her. Don’t worry, I’d told her. I’ll bring cake.

***

I cut thick slices, place them on colorful square plates, and read the fine print on the packaging of the star-shaped sparkler candle I bought for the occasion. It says something like Danger; for outside use only. Oops. I should have noticed that sooner. Lighting my parents’ apartment on fire would not be a good gift on this arctic day, although it would be memorable. Mom digs around in the kitchen and finds a replacement: a chunky white candle left over from a past birthday that’s shaped like the number one. I light it, stick it in my dad’s piece of cake, and tell him, “You’re number one!” He lets the flame burn brightly for several minutes before blowing it out. Is he making a wish? If so, I wonder what it is, but I don’t ask. Instead, I set a mug of hot coffee on the table in front of him.

My dad has long had a habit of balancing his coffee cup on the arm of the oversized chair where he likes to sit. But lately, Mom says, he’s been accidentally knocking the cups over and spilling coffee on the floor. I note the splotches of brown against the beige carpet as I sit next to Mom on the leather couch. She’s already told me she’s scheduled a carpet cleaner to come in the next week.

Conversation stops temporarily as forks cut through three layers of icing and two layers of vanilla-almond sponge. The candies crunch pleasantly in my mouth, contrasting with the smooth frosting. My parents ooh and ahh over the flavor, the decoration. We savor the decadent treat and each other’s company.

***

Later, Mom and I go into the sunroom, just off the living room, to look at her dollhouse. It’s one of her latest obsessions. The 1940s vintage colonial dollhouse is identical to the one she got for Christmas when she was 6. She spotted this one in the window of a downtown antique store last summer, and when she mentioned it to my dad, he went out and bought it for her.

“It’s one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten her,” Dad says. “Your mom has more fun than anyone.”

Mom points out the gingham plaid couches and the white and blue tea set, which are new since my last visit. One of the miniature dogs I bought her for her birthday is in the kitchen, watching the pigtailed girl bake. The other dog is waiting patiently by the front door. When Mom leaves the sunroom, I place the dogs in the dollhouse bathtub for her to discover later. She loves dogs, but real dogs are not allowed in their apartment building.

I return to the living room and sit on the couch, and Dad says to me, “I’m wobbly.”

I nod in agreement. “I saw your nametag in the bathroom.”

For the next half hour, he tells me about his worries: about his lack of energy; about the health of my mom, who had a lumpectomy and radiation a year ago; about all his things in storage that he doesn’t want my brother and me to have to deal with when he’s gone. Because he does not wear the hearing aids we bought for him, much of our conversation is a monologue, and some topics are repeats from my last visit.

We eventually decide to get dinner from my parents’ favorite restaurant, a Chinese place in a strip mall that’s a five-minute drive from their building. Dining in is not a safe option because of COVID, so Mom calls in our order: pork egg foo young for my dad, cashew chicken for her, and shrimp and vegetables for me.

“It will be ready in 15 minutes,” Mom says when she puts down her phone.

“I’ll go get it,” Dad says.

I hesitate, picturing in my mind what could go wrong. It’s dark. He could take a wrong turn. He could slip in the parking lot. He could get in a car accident.

“That’s OK, Dad, I can go get it.”

He’s already standing up and looking for his shoes.

“I’ll be right back. You and your mom can have some time together,” he says.

After he leaves, Mom and I chat, and wait, and glance at the clock. I don’t fully breathe until 25 minutes later, when Dad enters the apartment, smelling of ginger and garlic, carrying a plastic bag filled with takeout containers.

“Dinner!” he announces.

***

The next morning, we have coffee and cake for breakfast because why not? “It doesn’t keep,” as my mom likes to say. She delivers a slice to their 92-year-old downstairs neighbor, Millie, who is newly widowed, and I help my mom with dishes. Dad seems surprised when Mom and I express no interest in going shopping that afternoon. It’s too cold, and we don’t need anything, we tell him. What I don’t mention is that I’d rather not leave him alone for too long.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asks during a lull in the conversation.

He asks me this every visit; in fact, he’s probably asked this during every visit we’ve had since I left home more than 30 years ago. I consider all the things he’s done for me over the years, things he can’t or doesn’t need to do for me anymore: help with yardwork, give me financial advice, babysit my three kids (who are now young adults).

What can I possibly say? “Yes, Dad, there’s something you can do for me. Don’t fall. Don’t … die.”

Instead, I say: “No, Dad, I can’t think of anything.”

At 5 o’clock, Mom prepares Moscow Mules for each of us in shiny copper mugs. It’s another new obsession of hers. Through the matching copper straws, we sip the concoctions made from ginger beer, fresh-squeezed lime juice, and Tito’s vodka — it has to be Tito’s, Mom insists — and she brings over the Christmas gift she received from my daughter and her girlfriend: a grandmother doll for the dollhouse and two doll-sized Moscow Mule mugs. She sets the grandma next to a regular sized Moscow Mule mug, takes a picture, and texts it to three of her best friends. The grandma doll face plants on the coffee table and Mom and I laugh hysterically, wiping tears from our eyes. We blame Tito.

“Your mom is the funniest person I know,” Dad says. “Do you see what I put up with?”

He smiles tenderly at her, showing the dimples in his cheeks.

Mom looks at me and says, “Can you come and live with us?”

She’s joking, but I know she would not object if I stayed another day, or two, or ten.

***

The next and last day of my visit, we polish off the cake and I throw the pink cardboard box in the trash. After one more cup of coffee for the road, I pack my things and hug and kiss my mom goodbye. Dad picks up my suitcase and walks me down to my car. Outside, the 20-degrees-above-zero air feels balmy compared to the day I arrived. Weather conditions, like health, can change fast.

Before I get into the car, I embrace him and kiss his whiskered cheek. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too,” he says. “Thanks so much for coming.”

For that minute, our arms wrapped around each other, he feels warm and steady and safe.

My tires crunch snow as I leave the parking lot and Dad stays outside, his body silhouetted against the brightly lit door. I command him, silently, Dad, go inside! But he keeps watching my car and I crane my neck to look back at him until the side of the building blocks my view. As I drive toward the freeway, I continue to see his silhouette in my mind and wonder: If he slipped on his way inside, or fell in the hallway, how long would it take my mom to find him? How long would it take her to call me?

My phone does not ring, but I worry, anyway, all the way home.

Meet the Contributor

Joy riggsJoy Riggs is the author of Crackerjack Bands and Hometown Boosters: The Story of a Minnesota Music Man (Nodin Press 2019), a book of memoir and biography about how music connects people across generations. Her essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Manifest-Station, the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, BLUNTmoms, and Topology Magazine. She writes about parenting, history, and travel from her home in Northfield, Minnesota.

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