Hot Tub Time Machine

“We still need things from our parents—some understanding, some piece of love, whatever it is. There never comes a time when you … don’t sort of hope, even in their decline, that they can still be there for you.”

Anderson Cooper on anticipatory grief

This is a story about getting drunk in a hot tub, but it’s not quite as exciting as the circumstances imply. For that, please proceed directly to a very different corner of the internet.

It was a Thursday, two days before my thirty-fifth birthday. I had a shitty workday and, by quitting time, needed to soak in our hot tub with a big glass of sparkling rosé in hand.

We hung out in there for a while as a family, and I had such a lovely buzz going that I fetched another glass and returned to the hot tub as Aaron and Evie got out. I sipped and scrolled on my phone as both forms of bubbles melted away my tension. I must have exhausted the content on my social media feeds because I ultimately found myself in my voicemail archive, staring at dozens of entries indicating messages from my mom.

Since her early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2019, my mom has slowly slipped away. It happened so gradually that every time I visited, her general reticence and increasingly jumbled words seemed normal. But I remembered, staring at those voicemails, that she was once upbeat and articulate. She once knew how to call me, and did so often to confirm plans, thank us for coming by the house, or check on us during inclement weather. And she always called on May 21 to sing happy birthday to me.

Two habits that drive Aaron crazy—my tendency to keep my phone on silent and never answer calls, and my total disinterest in deleting anything—proved valuable in that moment. My voicemail archive held pieces of mom I thought were lost forever.

I began listening to her messages and transported back in time. It was 2018, and my mom was wondering what time we were meeting at the mall for our Mother’s Day shopping trip. It was 2019, and she needed to know my Social Security number to update her beneficiary information for a new insurance plan. It was 2020, and had I heard about this virus going around?

I closed my eyes and listened to the mom I used to know, the mom who no longer existed—at least in any way she could communicate to me. I let my now intense buzz convince me that I had just missed those calls, that she was still the same. I could call her back right now and say, yes, I will stop by the store on my way over and pick up a bag of ice; no, don’t worry about paying me back.

And then I listened to the birthday messages. She and my stepdad sang an exaggerated version of happy birthday, with my mom replacing “dear Devon” with “dear sweet Devie Doodle Bug.”

It was then I started crying, realizing I’d never get a birthday phone call or voicemail from her again.

This is a small loss in the grand scheme of everything Alzheimer’s has stolen from us. But that evening—thanks in part to potent rosé—it unleashed a tsunami of grief.

In an effort to Be Okay and enjoy my life, I rarely tap into that deepest level of hurt. I’ll shed a few tears every now and then, particularly during therapy, but mostly I keep things tight. With my defenses down, I gasped for air as sobs overtook me.

I found myself wrapped in a towel, crumpled on my bedroom floor, raging over the phone to my stepdad about how fucked up this whole situation is. Why her? Why us? He understood and talked me down from the height of my hysteria.

Eventually I pulled myself together enough to get dressed and take Wally for his nightly walk. As we set out around the neighborhood, I called my mom on the off-chance she’d answer the phone. I just wanted to hear her voice. I just wanted to know she was still here.

She didn’t answer my call. Normally I would leave it at that, but something compelled me to try again.

“Hi, Mom?” I said, my voice cracking. “How are you?”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, concerned. I couldn’t believe she’d recognized the heartbreak in my voice.

“I just miss you,” I replied. “You… live so far away.” Our physical distance wasn’t the problem, but I didn’t want to mention the real issue.

“I know,” she said. “I miss you, too.”

I started crying again, struck by her clarity. It was 8:30pm and she was probably exhausted, yet she was able to express herself in a way I hadn’t witnessed in a long time.

Our phone conversations—on the rare occasions she answers—typically last about five minutes. I tell her everything that’s happened in the few days since I saw her last, then run out of things to say. She doesn’t contribute much, and there’s only so much silence I can bear to let hang between us.

On this night, we talked—like, a real back-and-forth conversation that mostly made sense—for 19 minutes.

We talked about my birthday coming up in a few days, and she asked how old I was turning. “Thirty-five,” I said, and she laughed: “How can that be? I still feel about forty!”

We talked about memories from when she really was forty and I was eleven, which were much more vivid for her than anything that happened in the past week. We talked about how she was worried that she hadn’t heard from Don lately, even though I know he calls her multiple times a day, every day. And we talked about how we missed each other, and how she was sad to hear me sounding sad. We said we loved each other, and that we’d talk again soon.

After we hung up, I took huge, deep breaths and tried to memorize everything about what had just happened. I had taken a photo of a stunning sunset during our chat. I took a screenshot of the call log. I wanted tangible evidence that I had gotten my mom back, if only for 19 minutes.

It struck me that I hadn’t been mothered in a long time. It’s not something I really appreciated when I did experience it, and it’s not something I realized I’d missed until that moment. My mom and I always had a good relationship—except for a few teenage years, when my hormones may as well have been napalm—but it’s not like I constantly turned to her with my boy troubles or friend drama. I didn’t seek from her the words of parental wisdom you hear at the end of every Full House episode.

But she was always there for me for the big things, like when my BAC was higher than my GPA the first quarter of college and I was hospitalized with pneumonia from wearing only skimpy going-out tops to freezing frat parties. Or when I wanted to go on the pill and asked her to take me to the doctor since I was still on her health insurance, and she did so without judgment. Or when I revealed I was thousands of dollars in credit-card debt after graduation, and she helped me make a plan to pay it all off instead of admonishing me for my stupidity. (She was relieved since she thought my big secret was that I was pregnant—which I never was, thanks to the pill.)

I still try to rely mostly on myself (and my therapist) to manage life’s everyday struggles. I like to keep my sadness contained, not wanting to infect others. Keep things tight, right? But it turns out I do still need my mom.

I went on to have a lovely birthday weekend, celebrating in person with friends and all different parts of my family, including my mom. I didn’t get a happy-birthday voicemail, but I did get an in-person rendition, which is definitely better. Someday that will be gone, too.

As a mother, I now understand my birthday means even more to my mom than it does to me. It’s my birthday, but it’s her Birth Day. I think about how April 29, 2016, is the most special day of my life, and figure May 21, 1987, must be right up there for my mom. I’m her second kid, but she made it no secret she wanted a girl and would keep trying until she got one. I may have come bursting out before she could get a desperately wanted epidural, but I think I made up for it with the fact that she’d never have to go through that again.

I try to be grateful for what I have left of my mom and not focus on what we’ll lose next, or guess at when she’ll leave us for good. I’m conflicted between wanting to keep her earthside forever and wanting her to be released from her pain.

She endured my excruciating arrival; I’ll endure her excruciating departure. Love is at the center of it all.

I don’t know what happens to us after we die. I’m humbled enough by the magnitude and mysteries of the universe to admit that. I respect anyone who possesses the faith to be certain that heaven or hell or some other manner of afterlife awaits us. There is safety in certainty. I prefer to marvel at all the possibilities.

My mom has always said, half jokingly, that she’ll haunt me when she’s gone. If she has any choice in the matter, I’m sure she will. But if there is some grand plan for our existence, I don’t believe hanging around my house and flickering the lights is her destiny. I like to think she’ll move on to something better.

I hope her energy, unleashed from the plaques and tangles that choked it in this lifetime, finds freedom as something wonderful in the next. Maybe she’ll be a bird or a butterfly. Maybe the universe has a sense of humor and she’ll be an elephant. Or maybe her energy will disperse, becoming one with the elements. Maybe it will coalesce, on occasion, when it feels some force pulling it back together and toward something it once knew.

When my mom is gone, on my birthday, I’ll listen for her. Maybe I’ll let my skin go wrinkly in the hot tub and remember that night it was a time machine. Maybe a spring breeze will tickle my neighbor’s wind chime. Maybe I’ll close my eyes and believe it’s my mom calling to sing to me.