I have been driving this road all my life.
This road is the great artery of the region, picking up smaller towns and hamlets like the tributaries of a river, all coming together to flow to the sea.
When I first traveled this road, I could not drive it but was driven on it - to the zoo, to the seashore and camping, to the magical place called "The Mall", to the Bigger City where Aunt J lived. It was the road we followed to go "places".
Later, I would drive this road myself - first as an escape from my hometown as freedom, then to college near and college far away. Eventually I would come back the other way, bringing my own family up the way I had come down. And then after we moved to New Home only occasionally as we became salmon, swimming upstream to find our roots. But always, this road.
I have been driving this road all my life. And now I am driving it to take my mother to her new home.
If I were to tell her this, she might very well believe me - she has been convinced for some time that the Ranch is not her home, although it has been for over 20 years. She lives in a world now where "home" is a nebulous concept, a place that she knows exists but never seems to quite know where it is.
The skies are overcast but thin to sun as we drive, first into The Big City for another doctor's appointment, then back towards "home", the old and the new. Traffic is light in both directions - it is the middle of the day, and those who have places to be are already there.
My father decides that he is hungry for lunch - I agree, out of both a perceived hunger but just as much a need to delay what is now the inevitable conclusion of this journey. We stop at Denny's, one that I have never been in although it may be as old as I. We go through the now-normal routine: she picks up the menu while I pick up mine and try to beat her to the punch by suggesting what she will be able to finish, which is always much less than she thinks she can eat.
Lunch is delayed, longer than usual - a bit surprising for a restaurant so empty, but neither I nor my father comment; we are in no hurry. We eat the way we always do now: my mother picking at this and that, my father and I trying to balance out what she eats with suggestions. The meal is good - surprisingly good, in my opinion. My father decides he wants ice cream for dessert. The server - the server who always seems to be the ever-present stock character of any server in any Denny's - brings him the equivalent of a sundae instead of the single scoop he asks for while charging him for the scoop. I am happy, because I get to swipe the whipped cream on the top that neither my mother nor father care for. We all eat some, even my mother having a spoonful or two. I do not even smell like a Denny's when I leave, something which I cannot remember every occurring.
But lunch delayed is not destination denied. And so we get back in the car for the short journey to where she will stay.
We pull up and I tell her we need to go inside here. She seems a bit confused -she does not recognize this place - but complies the way she always does, with the acquiescence of someone who does not always know what is going on but is sure that someone does. I ask my father if he wants to come, but he says he would like to just sit in the sun in the car. And so we go in.
We wait in the foyer, which is now covered with health notices the way high school bulletin boards used to be covered with fliers during the first week of school advertising clubs. I comment on it to another patron waiting in the foyer. We all laugh; my mother introduces me as her brother - one last, gentle reminder of where we actually are in the scheme of things and why we are here.
The door opens; the moment of truth has arrived.
The intake operation is one smoothly choreographed flow which is as impressive as it is well rehearsed: everyone from the facility is there to greet her. They welcome her by name, commenting on her choice of colors on her shirt, reminding her of her interests (cats and reading), telling her that they have been expecting her. We go into the office to get the now-obligatory scan of our temperature. She asks our host why she is here. "To work on your memory" comes the reply.
"How long will I be here?" she responds.
"For a few weeks, until you get better" comes the response I am sure has been spoken a thousand times.
My mother turns and looks right at me. "Does my family know about this?" she asks.
I am frozen in a moment. I can pick out the individual forms on the desk near me, hear the copier as it drones on and draws down characters through an electronic well onto a blank sheet of paper, and discern 50 shades of grey and brown in the office furniture. In that moment I am not sure of who she thinks her family is. It may be me. It may not. And I do not know, now, that it matters.
"Yes Mom, they know" I respond, grateful for the ability to speak the truth in however garbled a form.
They whisk her back out to meet more people as I finish up a few questions and go out to the truck to get the last things that we had to bring because she was using them last night. My father gets out and decides that he, too, would like to come in. We go in together and go to her room; I unpack as our host walks around the room, telling her about the small snacks and rose on her table and asking her about the pictures on the wall. Mom remembers them, even as she recognizes the things in the room. She knows these things; I do not know if she is convinced but at least she seems unalarmed.
We finish unpacking and setting up; I am ready to leave not so much to end the experience as much as to make the transition easy for her. We say a quick goodbye; our host has done this part as well and there is an unspoken agreement - at least between us - that keeping her half distracted as this happens is the best. We wave goodbye and go out to the truck; we see her through the window getting settled as we begin to back out.
The drive back is silent, the silence that fathers and sons have shared since there were fathers and sons when events happen and they do not quite know what to say or how to say it: I fearing to break the spell of my father who seems at least somewhat comfortable with the change, my father perhaps lost in the silence of memories or simply realizing in a way that I cannot the passing of an era.
While she is still with us, she is gone - gone in the way a child entering school for the first time or a young adult striking out on their own is gone; gone in the way that happens when a friend gets married or divorced or has the first child and you are neither married nor divorced nor with children They have a life away from you now that in some way will always be separate from you and something that, no matter how close you are to them or how much you learn about it, you will never quite be able to ever really enter into.
The house, when we arrive, looks as it ever did; other than the missing bed we took and a few items that were in closets and cupboards and empty places where a few pictures sat, nothing has changed. But her presence, while experientially around in things, is not here. Which seems strangely reflective of the reality that while my mother was here, in some ways she has not been "here" in some time.
Perhaps even houses mourn.