In my memory it was sunny. I was driving my mother-in-law’s Hyundai through morning traffic. Mary, my mother-in-law, was in the passenger seat.
I flipped on my left blinker and switched lanes.
“You’re changing lanes?” said Mary. “My God. Are you trying to get us killed?”
Mother Mary, one of the nation’s leading backseat drivers.
“Slow down! Crime in Italy, are you trying to wreck?”
We had left early that morning. I was carrying Mother Mary to her medical appointment in Pensacola. She had infusion therapy regularly, which took place in a sterile room with cushy recliners and patients with tubes in their arms. These were not joyous rooms. These were rooms that would break your heart.
Our long-standing tradition after these dreary appointments was to go out for barbecue.
When we arrived at the medical complex, I helped Mary out of the car and we shuffled across the parking lot, arm in arm. Me, a guy with clown-curly hair and lanky legs. Her, white-haired and arthritic, gripping me for support.
“Don’t walk so fast,” she said, squeezing my arm tighter. “Are you trying to drag me on the pavement?”
We passed through the automatic doors, and when we approached the receptionist Mary dinged the desk bell. We signed in and within moments Mary was seated in that big recliner with the depressing tube snaking from her arm.
Soon, she was reading one of her paperback romance novels with the bodice-ripping covers. She was playing it cool, but I think it was one of the first times I realized how truly frail this woman was becoming.
The nurses told me to get lost for a few hours.
“Don’t forget our barbecue date,” Mary called out before I left.
When I returned, I found Mary waiting in a wheelchair at the hospital’s double doors. Mary was depleted, eyes heavy, but she was putting on a great show for her small audience of nurses who obviously thought she was funnier than Zeppo Marx.
I helped her into the front seat and I could tell she was weakened.
“I suwannee,” she said, wheezing badly, “are you gonna hurry up and feed me barbecue, or are you gonna make me eat these twenty-year-old club crackers in my pocketbook?”
“Which restaurant, Miss Daisy?” I asked.
“Don’t care. Just feed me or I’m gonna turn into that girl from ‘The Exorcist.’”
“I’ve never seen that movie.”
“Well, get ready. You’re about to.”
We found ourselves at a barbecue joint. We walked through the front door and were immediately greeted with a huge lunch crowd. The single-file line was about 29 miles long and the hostess said it was an hour wait.
Mary leaned onto me for support. “Oh, no,” she said. “This’ll take all afternoon.”
I glanced at my watch. “Let’s go somewhere else, somewhere less crowded.”
But Mother Mary ignored me. Instead she started to speak in her loud stage voice. “Oh, but my knees hurt so bad. Oooh, they ache. We can’t leave, I was looking forward to delicious barbecue.”
“Why’re you talking so loud?” I said.
“Oh, the pain.”
“Pain? But you were fine a few seconds ago.”
“Oh, the humanity.”
People noticed us immediately. One guy asked if we wanted to cut in line. We did. But Mary was just getting warmed up. After another moment, Mother Mary cued the Broadway voice again. She spoke loudly:
“Remember that hip replacement surgery I had? Mercy, I wouldn’t wish that procedure on my worst enemy. Feels like a knife is stabbing me from the inside. Ahhh. Ooohhh. My poor hip.”
A young couple turned and asked if we wanted to cut in line again.
“You’re too kind,” said Mary.
A couple minutes later, Mary’s Oscar-winning voice sounded once more.
“Ahhh. Ooohhh. I need to take my medicine, but I can’t take my pills on an empty stomach. Aaaahhh. What ever will I do?”
That was all it took.
An employee beckoned us to the front of the line then led us to a table, bypassing the wait. I glanced behind me to see a gaggle of customers who all wore looks of sympathy and compassion as we walked by. One guy was even dabbing his eyes.
Mary followed the young employee through the dining room, but briefly turned to wink at me.
When we sat at our table, it was miraculous, Mary’s pain vanished. In fact, she practically hopscotched to the bathroom. No traces of osteoarthritic knees or titanium-hip discomfort.
After lunch, we sat at that two-top for hours, chewing the fat and jawing, with no particular schedule to keep. We laughed a lot. And I remember thinking that this was one of those beautifully ordinary days that I would probably remember forever.
When we left, we shuffled through the parking lot. I buckled her into the seat where she slept for the ride home. Mouth open. Hands folded on her lap. And now, as she lies in her hospice bed, I just want her to know how lucky I was to have her as my backseat driver.