My mommy is visiting for the holidays. I'm not so good remembering numbers so I always have to do a little math to figure her age. On my birth certificate it says she was 24 when I was born, in Charlottesville, Virginia, having been delivered by my father's professor of obstetrics—at the apple-polishing time of 5:36 p.m., giving the man plenty of cushion to make it home for dinner with his family, insuring my dad a decent grade in his class, or so the story goes.
That was 57 years ago. So my mom is 81. Hmm. That was my dad's age when he died. This is our third holiday season without Dr. Marvin Miles Sager. In San Diego this time of year it's generally sunny and warm during the day and a little chilly at night. The sunsets are clear and gorgeous. Marv loved sunsets. Shoved away in the high closet in his former home office are stacks of 35mm slide carousels stuffed with his photos of sunsets around the world, a different landmark or regional flora or fauna in every foreground. It's no wonder I ended up living here along the far left bank of the country. I think of him every time I see the sun nearing its bedtime. That the real show begins immediately after sunset is the something I've learned on my own.
The condo where my mom lives in suburban Baltimore used to be filled with couples—empty nesters and the newly retired. Now there are mostly widows. In America, women live an average of five years longer than men. Is it nature's reward for the burden of childbearing? For woman's role as the hub of humanity's wheel? Or is it because men get tired? All the striving, all the responsibility—if the woman is the hub and the children are the spokes, perhaps it could be said that man's domain is the rim and the tire, the parts that hit the road and move things along. The parts most subject to wear and tear, with ample opportunity for blowouts.
Near the end, as my dad's health was failing, my mom asked him to hold on for her sake. I don't remember the precise details of this scene, replayed for me by my bereaved mother. I suppose they were holding hands as they always did and looking into each other's eyes—their first date had been a fix-up for my mom's junior prom. Forged as a couple in the decades before women's rights, my mother cherished her role as Mrs. Dr. Marvin Miles Sager. It's who she was.
"I need you," she told him.
"No you don't. You'll be okay," he said wearily.
I can't imagine wanting to leave this life, but Marv was a doctor and his systems were breaking down and he was always such a perfectionist, a guy who dressed and shaved even on Sundays. I know it pained him to witness his own deterioration.
Now the women in the condo have each other. Some of them have boyfriends. It's weird that they even call them boyfriends. To hear my mom tell it, most of them should be called schleps. "Some women can't stand to be alone," my mother explains condescendingly. When she comes to visit several times a year, she still rents from the car company where "your daddy is a VIP member" and stays in the hotel where "we always stay." To her credit, she's also undertaken some new things. A current events class at the local college. A group trip to Cuba. More frequent Starbucks gatherings with the girls after aerobics—many them have been in the same class for more than 30 years. And there's her work on a charity campaign for esophageal cancer, which my dad survived 10 years before his death. (It's interesting that she chose the charity for the disease he beat, rather than the one that claimed him—heart disease, the symptoms of which Dr. Sager failed to mention to his doctors or his family.)
My sister is visiting, too. She also lives in downtown Baltimore. I'm not sure if this equation is exactly possible, but I think she sees our mom more often than me (dinner, museums, musical theater, day trips by bus to New York City) yet talks to her less often. Being the one who has flown the coop, I guess I'm the one who calls. But then again, I've always called my mom. Before the internet, when I only lived an hour away, I would call her regularly to ask how to spell something. This was while I was working as a staff reporter at the Washington Post. My mom can spell like crazy. Clearly I inherited her powers of observation—and that weird little extra nail on my pinky toe—but not her spelling ability. Now that I have spell-check, we have to think of other stuff to talk about.
I never know how old my sister is either. Because my birthday is in August and hers is in January, sometimes I'm three years older, and sometimes two.
My sister lives on the top floor of a converted former church building that overlooks the water and the football stadium—she is a diehard Ravens fan, as is my mother (because of my dad). One year the Ravens game wasn't being televised in San Diego—can you imagine?—but I was able to stream the audio commentary for them on my laptop. Mom and sis hung out in the dining room/kitchen, pacing and listening and looking terribly concerned. I guess it must have been like that back in the days of radio, when all of my relatives lived in tiny little Southern towns and sold merchandise of one sort or another to a somewhat backward clientele who didn't know better than to be bigoted.
Like my mom, my sis gets her own modest hotel room or rental place when she comes out to visit and sort of lives for a week or so as if she lives here for real, which means we hang out some and get lunches and dinners. Generally, though, I have no idea what she does. In fact, we don't talk much during the year by phone or e-mail, either. I told someone last holiday season that my sister and I are close, but we don't speak often. I accept that better than my mom does. She thinks it's something she did wrong. Maybe it is a little bit but not totally. My dad was a private person, too, never saying much. I think my sister inherited that from him.
As I did with my dad, I wonder all the time what's going on in her mind. I mean, she's my little sister and I've somehow made an avocation of being a gentle older brother to people, helping them through things, helping them get where they're going. With my sister, I know I'm loved, but she rarely consults me. There are things you can't know about people unless they tell you. And sometimes, I believe, there is great respect in not asking. When people want stuff from you they generally let it be known.
That's what I learned from my dad. He might not have talked much, but he hugged like nobody's business. He wasn't a big guy, but he had long, strong arms. He squeezed shoulders and patted backs and was quick to smile. You knew how he felt, even if he didn't always say so.
When we were growing up, our family tried to have dinner together, dad's schedule allowing. Afterward, the four members of our tidy nuclear family would migrate in separate directions, each to their own habitat, for the duration of the evening.
I'd go to my room, where I had a built-in desk and shelves and this mod, bubble-shaped black-and-white TV and a groovy pleather swivel chair. My sis would go to her room, similarly accoutered, minus the Jimi Hendrix posters and black light, more of a Jewish princess theme. After cleaning up from dinner and fixing the lunches in her turquoise Formica-topped kitchen, my mom would end up on the bed in the master bedroom, watching a favorite show. My dad would go to his office in the basement and smoke a cigar and read his medical journals.
Toward the end of every evening, as if called by a sacred gong, we'd all four Sagers gather together in the master bedroom, sprawled in various poses—on the marital bed, on the white-shag carpet, on the plush-round faux zebra fainting couch in the corner.
Warming ourselves by the twin fires of family and television, we would re-connect, as we do now for the holidays, one of us gone but always near. The fourth place on the big couch in my living room is filled by my son, home from his first semester at college. His name is Miles, after my dad. I guess that's what people mean by the circle of life—though for us Sagers these days, it's more of an L shape.
Photo by Purestock/Alamy