Travel Diary

Grief With My Mother In New Orleans

I tried — and failed — to cheer my mom up with a trip. It wasn’t that New Orleans wasn’t the right place. It was that for my mom, the only right place was one with my dad.

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My mother was demanding a refund from some vampires. I was hiding in the corner, pretending to be extremely interested in a decorative coffin balanced against a wall.

“As I said, we don’t do refunds,” the vampire glowered at my mother from beneath long, crimson bangs.

“And as I said,” my mother sniffed, “nowhere on my receipt does it say you don’t do refunds.” My mom waved her receipt in the air, her other hand clutching her pink purse at her side.

I now wanted to climb inside the decorative coffin and disappear, even though this whole scene was entirely my fault. For it was I — the aggressive New Yorker — who had been encouraging my Midwestern mom to be more assertive in her daily life. It was also I who had insisted we come to the Boutique de Vampyre, as my Lonely Planet New Orleans had starred it as a “must see.” I was also the one who’d suggested she buy T-shirts for my horror-enthusiast brothers.

But, like everything else on this mother-daughter trip, my suggestions all turned out to be bad ones.

The vampire continued to stare my mother down, before finally heaving a sigh and turning to the mohawked guy behind the register.

“Just give it to her in cash,” she mumbled.

He nodded his spiked head and pulled out a wad of bills.

Our refund collected, we stepped back onto the cobbled streets, and the thick humidity immediately curled around us like a giant tongue. My mother smiled at me triumphantly.

“That vampire doesn’t like me very much, does she? But I knew I didn’t want to spend that much on Dracula shirts! What was I thinking?”

There was no point in reminding my mom that the shopkeeper was not an actual vampire. To my mother, the woman’s eyebrow piercings were evidence enough that she spent her lunch break sucking the blood of the innocent.

“Now’s the cemetery tour thing, right?” My mom eyed me skeptically.

I wiped the sweat from my upper lip and gazed down the knotted streets of the French Quarter. Overhead, baskets of dewy ferns spilled over iron railings, while in the street, a garbage truck crunched through several bags of trash. I unfolded my map and tried to refocus, to get us moving in the right direction. To somehow get this trip on track.

She got up every day and put on earrings that matched her sweater. She smiled and went to the grandchildren’s basketball games. But I knew she was grieving intensely.

I was in my 40s, and my mother her 70s, and while we’d both done our fair share of traveling, neither of us had ever been to New Orleans. I’d always wanted to come, had a sense I would relish a place where the Spanish moss on the trees was tangled with the rainbow beads hurled by topless revelers. A trip here had just never happened before. And though my mother had visited me in New York several times, her preferred destination was Destin, Florida, a place she and my dad had visited regularly.

But my father was no longer with us. He’d passed away a little over a year ago after the unspeakably cruel fade that always follows an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. And after his passing, my mother was devastated. Even though she did her best not to show it. She still got up every day and put on earrings that matched her sweater. She still carefully curled and sprayed her hair into its shiny blond bubble of curls. She smiled and went to the grandchildren’s basketball games. But I knew she was grieving intensely.

And as it is when you see someone you love suffering, I wanted to make it better. My tactics for this were all over the place. I learned to needlepoint, something I’d never done in my life, but thought my mother, a lover of crafts and sewing, would appreciate. I awkwardly stitched an inspirational print bearing the words: “Life’s a journey — enjoy the ride!” I ordered beige tap shoes off of Amazon and encouraged her to take lessons. I daily sent GIFs of funny cats doing funny cat things. I signed her up for a quilt-square-of-the-month club. Anything I could think of that might make my normally easy-to-laugh mother actually want to laugh again.

And so, when she’d turned to me during one of my visits home and suggested we take a trip, my mind had immediately drifted to someplace full of color and gaiety and warmth, someplace neither of us had ever been. To New Orleans. Now, as we stumbled our way through the 90-degree heat of October, past hooting bachelor parties and shops selling neon sex harnesses, I doubted the wisdom of my choice.

Nothing seemed to be going as planned, and the trip did not in fact seem to be lifting my mother’s mood. Rather, it seemed to be putting her into a mood. That defining mood being irritated.

There had been the usual mother-daughter frustrations. She argued with me when I insisted on pulling her heavy suitcase for her. (Even though she and I both knew that pulling a heavy suitcase would make her shoulder sore.) We squabbled over how many bags of Cheese and Onion Baked Ritz were really necessary for a three-hour flight. (Three, apparently. One for each hour.)

But these things I’d expected. What I had not expected was for it to be so hard to find something in New Orleans that really, truly seemed to bring my mother joy. The sculpture garden, with its whimsical 20-foot safety pins and glinting swirls of silver, had been too big. The breezy cocktails we’d ordered in a lush outdoor garden had tasted like “cold dishwater.” And of course, the vampire T-shirts were exorbitantly overpriced.

When we did finally tour the ghostly grandeur of St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, I was not at all surprised when, at the end, my mother nodded a polite farewell to our guide, then turned to mumble into my ear: “His talk wasn’t even scary.”

Back in the air-conditioned cool of the Marriott, I tried to think of what to do for the rest of our trip. What outing could we possibly attempt that would bring a look of real, genuine pleasure to my mother’s face? I peered at my Lonely Planet like it was some scroll from Harry Potterlike if I just stared long enough, all would be revealed.

My parents had a real, honest to God love story, like some kind of southern Indiana Brontë novel, filled with basketball courts and Long John Silver’s instead of wild endless moors.

“Can’t we just go get some champagne and oysters?” My mom called from her bed, crunching from one of the bags of Cheese and Onion Ritz.

I smiled with relief. We most certainly could.

The next day, I pulled on the same black sundress as the day before, while my mother managed to conjure yet another tasteful pastel ensemble from her tiny Samsonite carry-on. While my own clothes already felt sweaty and wrinkled, my mom’s suitcase was like some bottomless Mary Poppins bag, endlessly yielding items from the Coldwater Creek catalog.

After a brief spat over me unplugging her curling iron before she finished, and then another over who had the room key, we finally made our way outside. I’d managed to secure a reservation for an early lunch at Galatoire’s, a restaurant on Bourbon Street that Lonely Planet assured me was “a New Orleans institution.”

Bourbon Street was fairly quiet at this hour, most of its neon signs advertising “Crawgator Daiquiris” had yet to flicker to life. We entered the restaurant and were greeted by a waiter clad in a crisp white tuxedo jacket. He ushered us through the sunlit room to a table alongside a mirrored wall.

Champagne and oysters was not a typical jaunt for my mother and me — our outings were usually more along the lines of sneaking mini bottles of rosé into an afternoon showing of Julie and Julia — so we sat rather awkwardly with our starched linen napkins, pretending to understand the French on the big leather menus. We ordered a bottle of champagne and oysters Rockefeller, my mother nixing anything raw after I’d made the mistake on our walk over of sharing a detailed story about a friend who’d had a tapeworm.

We gazed about at the elaborate mosaic floor, at the men nibbling shrimp cocktail the same delicate shade of pink as their sports coats. The restaurant felt charming and touristy and deeply old-fashioned, and I realized it was the kind of place my father would have loved. Glancing about, I half expected to catch a glimpse of his ghost somewhere in the mirrored walls, smart in a blue knit vest, a dot of lotion he forgot to rub in perched beside his long, hawkish nose. I could easily picture him joking with the waiter as he asked for more Sweet and Low for his iced tea. Could imagine him reaching across the table to hold my mother’s hand.

My mom and dad had held hands often. Even after 51 years of marriage. They’d had a real, honest to God love story, like some kind of southern Indiana Brontë novel, filled with the same darkness and light, but with basketball courts and Long John Silver’s instead of wild endless moors. They’d had 10 children together — seven boys and three girls. And they’d lost two of those children together; my oldest sister when she was 5 and a son who was stillborn. While this kind of tragedy might have decimated most couples, it seemed to bind my parents more tightly together.

After my dad got sick, my mom insisted on caring for him at home. She’d spent seven years watching his big blaze of a personality slowly dim to a faint spark. When he passed away one bright morning in May, she’d been standing by his side.

While I missed my dad immensely, I knew it was only a fraction of what my mother was feeling. He and my mom, they’d shared a lifetime — thousands of days of happiness and hurt.

Perhaps my mother was thinking the same kinds of thoughts, for despite the airy bubbles of our champagne, the same heaviness seemed to descend over our table. We dutifully drained the bottle and shucked every shell, then woozily made our way outside.

Bourbon Street had apparently woken from its brief slumber. It was now a swarm of color and shouting. It looked like a giant, drunken, piñata had eaten another, even drunker piñata, and then thrown the other piñata back up — a mess of tank tops and beads and the tatty nets of bachelorette veils. Guffawing men stood in clumps clutching cups shaped like hand grenades, while a man bedecked in an elaborate costume of purple and orange feathers beat a tambourine.

Suddenly, from around the corner came the cymbal crash and oompah of a second line. The musicians, dressed in shiny caps and stiff black pants, hoisted their tubas and slide trombones up to the blue sky, while a group of twentysomethings followed behind dancing. The trailing revelers all wore paper masks of a bearded man on the backs of their heads, their shirts emblazoned with: “Mike is 30!”

“Look! You said you wanted to join one of those parades, didn’t you?” My mother nudged me.

“Well, yes, but…” I started, but my mom was already taking off behind them down the street. She stomped up Bourbon Street, and with her tasteful silk dress, carefully coiffed hair, and high-heeled sandals, she looked a bit like she’d been plucked out of a Broadway matinee and airlifted into the middle of a frat party. I watched as she marched determinedly — less like she was sashaying along with the music and more like she was storming Normandy. But more than that, what set her apart was when she looked back at me: Her face didn’t contain the open joy of the people laughing around her. She looked hopeful, but lost. And the sight made my chest grow tight.

I hurried up to join her, and we marched with the band for a few blocks before pausing to catch our breath in the heat. Beside us stood two enormous Ewoks wearing suits that looked to be constructed from the pelts of a hundred Yorkshire terriers. The Ewoks waved and danced around my mother as if she were far more intriguing a sight than they were.

We wound our way through the quarter, past shops selling bins of petrified alligator heads and long feather boas. We wandered as though looking for something, though what was unclear. We passed a psychic perched at a card table. Perhaps we should ask her? I briefly thought. But she was scrolling Facebook and didn’t even note our presence.

We eventually ambled toward the water, and as the wide expanse of the Mississippi came into view, I heard my mother gasp. “Would you look at that!” she shouted.

I glanced over and smiled, noting the quick flicker of wonder that passed over her face. Together, we flopped onto a bench and watched the wheel of a white steamboat churn the dark water

“So.” My mother asked. “Now what?”

The question hung between us, as though suspended in the thick, heavy air. As bright as a flashing daiquiri sign.

The next day, I announced we were going shopping in the Garden District. Shopping was usually a safe bet with my mom, as she was the type of person who could walk into a Family Dollar on the outskirts of hell and emerge holding a pitchfork deemed “just perfect” for some future holiday decoration she planned to make.

And indeed, my mother seemed somewhat invigorated by an afternoon free of guides and Ewoks. We made our way toward a row of restaurants and shops, and I was immediately drawn to a store displaying a T-shirt featuring a picture of the famous drag queen Divine tossing a dirty look at a young Donald and Ivanka Trump.

“Of course you want to go in there,” said my mother, rolling her eyes. But she followed me into the novelty shop. On the floor sat a bucket of two-headed rubber babies, while in the corner was a wall display of Mardis Gras masks. My mother wandered off while I inquired about the Divine tee.

It wasn’t that the vampires were rude or the cemetery was boring or that the sculpture park was too big. It wasn’t that New Orleans wasn’t the right place. It was that for my mom, the only right place was one with my dad.

Next I led us down the block to an antique mall I thought she might like. We entered, and she immediately disappeared amid the bric-a-brac of crystal vases, faded postcards, and a porcelain figurine of Bill Clinton clutching Hillary in one arm, Monica in the other.

After several minutes, I wandered up to the front and found my mom purchasing some needlepoint featuring a frolicking kitten.

She held it up to show me. “Thought I’d turn this into a cushion for the living room?”

I nodded in approval.

The woman handed over her change, and my mom turned to me expectantly. I pulled out my Lonely Planet, and made my way to the door. She followed, as I called over my shoulder: “Well, it says here that down the block there’s a shoe store that…”

Then suddenly, from behind, there was a blur of movement. Strange movement. And then there she was, my mother, face-down on the sidewalk in New Orleans.

“Mom?!?” I shouted, blood rushing into my ears. I leaned down to her, and immediately could see that even though her nose was on the pavement, she was giggling ever so slightly.

“Mom! What happened? Are you OK?” I reached down and tried to help her up.

“No, no, just leave me for a second. I’m fine. I just didn’t see that last step.”

“Why are you laughing?” I shouted, incredulous.

“Well, what else am I going to do?” she mumbled into the ground.

I stood over her, my mind reeling. What if she’s broken something? What if she’s bleeding? And of course: This was all my fault.

Suddenly, a young man in a Lacoste shirt with a popped collar was also leaning over my mother.

“You all right there, ma’am?” he drawled.

My mom rolled slightly at the sound of his voice.

“Yes,” she smiled back politely.

“How ’bout I help you back up?” He reached down for her.

“Oh, why thank you,” my mom said, daintily taking his hand as if he were helping her step down from a carriage, not hoisting her up off the sidewalk.

Once on her feet, he eased her over to a bench.

“Yer sure yer OK now, ma’am?” He peered at her through his Ray-Bans.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine. Thank you!” My mother smiled and waved him away. He gave a slight bow, then sauntered off down the street.

I stared as blood trickled down my mother’s knee. She dabbed at it, then noted the look on my face. “I’m fine! I just missed a step!”

I nodded slowly. I couldn’t help but note that yesterday, she’d marched down Bourbon Street in high-heeled sandals after half a bottle of champagne and was totally fine. And now she had fallen out of an antique shop after purchasing some needlepointed cats.

I flopped down beside her and waited for my heartrate to return to normal.

She waited until we were back at the hotel to admit she’d twisted her ankle. We weren’t scheduled to fly back until the evening of the following day, but unless we planned to hire a dozen Lacoste-wearing Southern gentleman to carry my mother around the city, this trip was over. I called Jet Blue, and they informed me that I couldn’t technically change the flights until the next day, but if I called at midnight, they could put us on an earlier return.

That evening, after helping my mother into pajamas, and then bed with ice on her ankle, I flipped through the channels on the TV, searching for something to distract me from the mess of feelings knotted in my gut. There was my guilt over my mother’s injury, my frustration over my failure to show her a good time, my irrational irritation at her inability to have a good time — all layered over some dim, hazy confusion at my own inability to somehow make everything OK, just for a moment.

I stared into space, pressing the remote like a lab rat seeking a food pellet.

“Can’t you just find something decent?” my mother muttered.

“I’m looking,” I said, knowing full well that “something decent” was code for Everybody Loves Raymond.

I continued to flip, searching for Ray Romano’s idiot grin, then suddenly spied a dimpled Hugh Grant stammering over Andie McDowell.

“Oh, Four Weddings and a Funeral!” I said. “I haven’t seen this in years. This is good.”

We sat in silence as Hugh fumbled and mumbled. I wearily sipped some warm chardonnay out of my Marriot bathroom tumbler and marveled at my stupidity. What the hell were we doing here? What kind of idiot brings their grieving mother to the party capital of the world? We should have gone to Siberia and stared out at a snowbank.

My mother began to snore lightly, and I turned up the volume. Onscreen, Hugh had been to all of the weddings and was finally at the funeral. I watched, as a man stood over the coffin of his deceased lover, and began to recite the W.H. Auden poem:

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I glanced over at my mom. Her hands were crossed primly over the blankets, her swollen ankle propped up on a towel. My eyes began to fill, as realization slowly rolled over me. It occurred to me that, in some ways, this was in fact the perfect place to bring my mom. Death and grief and moments of grace are as wound into the city as the Chinese wisteria creeping along the ornate balconies. But more so, I realized that it wouldn’t have mattered where we went. Or what we watched. What we did. Because it wasn’t that the vampires were rude or the cemetery was boring or that the sculpture park was too big. It wasn’t that New Orleans wasn’t the right place. It was that for my mom, the only right place was one with my dad. Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good…

Lying there in the darkness of our hotel room, I suddenly understood that I could not fix my mother’s grief. Nor could I take it away. For grief can’t be taken off someone like a heavy suitcase. Rather, it’s something a person walks with every day, trailing after them like their own private parade. For the rest of her life, my mom would hear the song of her sadness. In time, it might fade to the sound of a lone trumpeter. But right now, the horns were deafening. The cymbals crashed.

Jet Blue changed our flight to one later that morning, and I woke up early and raced out a CVS in search of a pair of compression socks. Factoring in the speed at which my mom was moving on her twisted ankle, I wanted to be sure to give us plenty of time. I burst back into the room, and saw that she was already dressed, and sat perched on the edge of the bed. She was staring down at her shoes like they’d just insulted her.

“I got you some special socks for the flight,” I explained. “To help with swelling on the plane…” I pulled them from the bag and handed them over. She eyed the thick black material.

“They don’t really go with my sandals,” she muttered. “But okay.” She bent and tried to pull one on, then immediately grimaced in pain. I took the sock from her and knelt down, carefully sliding one over her manicured toes. I thought of the countless times she’d done this very same thing for me, bending over me when I was small, sliding my little foot into a lace-trimmed bit of fabric.

Later at the airport, I gave her a final hug goodbye, and held her Poppins bag as a TSA worker eased her into a wheelchair. I watched her be ferried toward her gate — head held high, compression socks peeking through her sparkly sandals — and I was struck for a moment by her bravery. By the fact that even when she wasn’t on her own two feet, my mother pressed onward. Time and again in her life, she’d found the courage to keep moving, to keep asking: “Now what?” Even when she was hurting deeply. Even when she was angry and irritated and unsure of the answer. She marched on.

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