Prologue: I wrote this story many years ago. My mother passed away in 2013. My son-in-law recently purchased a walker to keep in the utility room—just in case. I take my daily walk with a ski-pole in case I lose my balance. I wonder now who’s holding whose hand.
“No wheelchair. I’m not going to be pushed around like a toddler,” Mom said, her stooped frame silhouetted against the bright vista of mountains and blue skies of Window Rock, Arizona.
“Really, Mom. Don’t be so stubborn. It’ll be easier for us to cover the museum,” I said, pushing a wheelchair in her direction.
“But I can walk. It’s embarrassing,” she replied.
Ignoring her protests, I clicked my tongue impatiently while helping her to sit down in the chair. The Navajo Nation Museum was a beautiful arts center, but it was very large, containing many galleries full of contemporary art and ethnic history. I wanted to explore it all but, after several days of slow going to accommodate Mom’s aging shuffle, I decided that using the wheelchair provided for guests was a great idea.
Mom smiled up at me, camouflaging her resignation to her plight. I patted her hand and smiled back. I wasn’t giving in and, if she wouldn’t cooperate, I wasn’t offering any options. It was for her own good. We began our mobile tour in a portrait gallery. Stunned to see faces with the likenesses of Tibetan friends who lived half a planet away staring from the canvasses, I forgot about my mom and wandered off without her.
“Hey!” she called.
“Sorry, Mom! Won’t happen again,” I said as I retrieved her.
I kissed her lightly on the cheek, apologized again. We moved to the galleries filled with artifacts of struggle, resistance, death, and survival. The high vaulted ceilings sent beams of light down to the floor below. One beam illuminated my mother as she read famous Native American quotes that lined the desert-red walls.
“You should remember this one, young lady,” she said, pointing to a short quote on a plaque above a bronze warrior standing over a dead grizzly: Force, no matter how concealed, begets resistance. – Lakota
“I’m not forcing you to use the wheelchair. I just want to make getting around easier for you.”
Then I saw it—a Pueblo quote a few yards further along the wall: Hold on to my hand, even if someday I’ll be gone away from you. Mom saw it too and looked meaningfully up at me. I reached out my hand; she took it and pulled herself up. A museum guide took the wheelchair away. Mom pulled back her shoulders, looked around to see who might be watching and, letting me take her hand in mine, continued slowly through the exhibits with me.
I’m not sure if we covered every exhibit, but we saw enough. Mom had a good laugh when I had to park myself on a bench to catch my breath. We chatted easily face to face, which was better than looking at the top of her head while she sat in the chair. I was glad that she had resisted, reclaimed her independence.
I also discovered something else that day—not just her strength, but also her increasing vulnerability. Her hands, soft and plump, had always held mine—crossing a busy street, maneuvering through a crowded store, entering a classroom for the first time. But that day in the museum, it was I who held her hand in mine. It was my hand supporting her, reassuring her, protecting her.
*Excerpted from The Fourth Moment: Journeys from the Known to the Unknown