Mom leans her head back against the headrest of the wheelchair to look out at the redwoods. These forests are a kind of refuge for her, as she has lived in the midst of such massive trees for more than 20 years. It’s an October afternoon in Samuel P. Taylor Park north of San Francisco, and as I push her down the rough-surfaced path that meanders along Lagunitas Creek, where salmon spawn, there are trees on either side. Ferns cover the shady ground, punctuated by deeper redwood sorrel that cover the earth with their small, heart-shaped leaves. When sunlight hits the sorrel, the leaves fold down to protect themselves and then straighten up again once direct sunlight has passed. Amazingly adaptable, this species. Can change if a change is required.
Once my mom left our minivan stuck in one of those redwoods that you can drive through. We tried to push and pull it, accelerated, but nothing worked. Eventually, with no options left, we deflated all of the tires and strangers helped us propel them back and forth. I’m starting to remind her of the story, but a quick breath makes me stop. I am on high alert for signs of pain or distress.
This is the first time I have taken my mom to a remote place by myself and I am scared. We are deep in the forest, far from help. My mother throws one arm – the good one – aside, a surprising gesture. She tilts her head back and I tense up. We’re out of the reach of cell phones, so an emergency – which we’ve had many of over the past few years – would be a disaster. She no longer wears a helmet these days, although the part of her skull that was removed to access the bleeding in her brain has never been successfully replaced. But we are wild women. We are risk takers. Or rather, it is.
But instead of screaming in pain, she begins to sing. She can no longer speak, but it doesn’t seem to matter. She repeats the one note she can make – well – and weaves it into a melody she made herself.
(Photo: Courtesy Tessa Fontaine)
Two years earlier, my mother had a major stroke. She was 64 years old. The right half of the body was paralyzed and had expressive aphasia. This means that she is no longer able to communicate with any form of language – verbally, in writing, or manually, such as. B. Signing or gesturing. After more than a year in hospitals and rehab facilities, she came home.
I was concerned – no, I was afraid – that her physical and cognitive changes would make any kind of future adventure impossible. Gone were her days performing stunts on surfers’ shoulders, repairing fishing nets on turbulent Oregon ships, or simply traveling the world with ease.
But my stepfather refused to let her remaining time resemble the life of a typical sick person. “We’re not going to sit around and smell urine,” he said. He bought her an off-road wheelchair with large bicycle tires in the back and oversized, inflated wheels in the front so she wouldn’t get stuck in the divots that clung to her regular chair. He added and modified for her comfort and ease of adventure. We decided to do as much as we could during our lifetime to help her really live.
Mama is in the adventure wheelchair during our Redwoods trip. The extra-large tires roll gently over branches. I allow her song to stabilize me. In our new arrangement, I’m trying to win something of her thirst for adventure: I push the chair a little faster, turn away from the path and into the forest. Here the ground is soft with layers of bark and needles and the debris of long-dead things that return to the ground. Two black-tailed deer are still holding up the hill on our left. A new redwood tree shoots out of a fallen log and creates life where none seemed possible.
Together, my family created adventures where none seemed possible. A year after our trip to the forest, my stepfather took my mother on a journey across land and sea – a person cannot fly if a piece of the protective skull around the brain is missing. They arrived in Italy to begin the world tour which they had always dreamed of but which they could never do. By then, my mother had suffered dozens of complications, including brain surgery, infections, regressions, and sepsis. Nobody, especially my brother and I, thought they could do it. It was too physically impossible. Too exhausting. Too risky.
But they did and my mom became obsessed with ice cream.
Three years later they questioned the limits of what trips could be made and how and by whom they made another trip to Greece, where my brother and I met them for a week on the island of Rhodes. There we pushed my mother through the cobblestone streets of the ancient city and carried her up the castle stairs.
Mom had always loved swimming in the ocean, but hadn’t been able to do it since her stroke. On our last day together in Greece, we took the adventure wheelchair and swapped the rear tires for huge inflated tubes that were almost the size of small car tires. We named this version of the chair Bubbles and rolled it gently onto the sand first and then drove down the beach before slowly and carefully turning into the water. With my stepfather in front and my brother and me on either side, we took the chair into the sea as far as possible and then began to loosen her body and support her from all sides. She was floating on her back with all of our hands under her. Then she blinked at the clear blue sky, smiled, and sang her song. It was the happiest I’d seen her in years.
She closes her eyes and listens to the changing sound of the stream as we walk along it. And with her, through her, next to her, I do the same.
All of this is coming soon. Right now, Mom and I are weaving in and out of the shade of the redwood, pressing our hands against the bark and rolling into tree holes big enough for both of us. in the the Wheelchair, we go slower. There is no urgent need to have a lot of ground under your feet. Instead, she examines all the details that make up her immediate surroundings. She closes her eyes and listens to the changing sound of the stream as we walk along it. And with her, through her, next to her, I do the same.
Not far from our destination, we had visited a land peninsula at another point that we had visited many times before her stroke stands out shortly after Point Reyes. This is the place where, for reasons not entirely clear to scientists, seabirds gather that are lost when they fly along the coast or across the ocean. They are called vagabonds. Trees fill with species rarely seen in the area, a gathering of birds that have lost their way.
I feel that way with my mom sometimes. We lost the journey we had been on, but we did not fall into the sea. We found a new peninsula. Regrouped in the trees. And set out again, changed, but headed for something new.
Main photo: Skyimages / iStock