I pulled my car out into the cloudy March afternoon, leaving the doctor's office and impatient to get on with my day.
"I'd spring for a treat," she says, though her purse only carries a few tissues and cough drops these days.
"Oh, Mom, I can't," I reply too quickly, grasping at the fleeting relief I'd felt as this errand was coming to an end.
Then, the memory came: a little girl, about 5, in the front seat scooping up her chocolate sundae, mom behind the wheel, on the way home from another checkup long ago. That was the deal, and a promise always kept -- a treat after the doctor's office.
I shifted to neutral at the next corner and waited for traffic to clear. Lifting her out of and back into the car was a routine I avoided, much less navigating her wheelchair through a cafￃﾩ, and dabbing her shirt dry when she inevitably dribbled ice cream on it.
But this doctor's visit was a rare venture outdoors since her odyssey began two months earlier. A broken hip. Surgery. Rehab. Infection. More surgery, more rehab. Good news from the doc -- the bone was healing well -- yet lackluster rehab all but guaranteed a long-term spot in nursing care for her. On this gray day, she was sprung from the cycle of bed to chair to pot to chair to breakfast to rehab to bingo to lunch to nap to dinner and being wheeled through the endless hallways in between. The lightness in her voice, the invitation to a treat and the joy in her heart tugged at mine.
"How about a Coke?" I say, remembering her lifelong favorite.
"I'd love a Coke!" she says. I turned into traffic and pulled in a drive-through.
"Yes, that'll be all," I told the crackling speaker, just two Cokes this afternoon. I reached through the window and paid for our drinks. I slid the straw through the lid and placed the chilled cup in her bony hands. She drank deeply and sighed with satisfaction, savoring the sugary mix.
We continued our drive back to her rehab center. She cycled through the same stories she tells me every time we're together: of her own mom, "the life of the party," with her beautiful voice and piano skills; and of her brother and only sibling, "gone too young." she says.
Then suddenly, something I haven't heard before: "Well," she says, "you can always say you were so good to your mother." I turn to her, the sting of tears in my eyes. "Nothing you wouldn't do for me, Mom," I say, swallowing hard against the crack in my voice. She lifts the straw to her mouth and takes another sip. The light turns green and I drive on.