Today, we have an excerpt from Mark Chestnut‘s new memoir, Prepare for Departure. Due to be published tomorrow, by Vine Leaves Press, here’s the synopsis:
At an early age, award-winning travel writer, Mark Chesnut, learned to dodge discomfort by jumping on the nearest plane, bus or car. That tactic proved especially useful when his single mother made it clear that there was no room for discussion about his gay identity.
Mark, overwhelmed with wanderlust, shoplifts in airports, avoids Southern Baptist salvation, acts like Hillary Clinton in a nursing home, and dresses in drag with his grandfather. He even creates an imaginary airline and flies away.
Now, as 89-year-old Eunice Chesnut moves to a New York City nursing home to be near her son, Mark’s obsession with travel takes a backseat as he embarks on the most emotional journey of all.
More than an end-of-life memoir, more than a collection of childhood memories and travel stories, Prepare for Departure showcases what happens when a permissive mother and a mistfit son face death while revisiting life. Buckle your seatbelts for a witty, touching and darkly humorous trip – through time, loss, forgiveness and acceptance.
The Last Road Trip
New York City, July 2015
My mother arrived in New York City with a black eye and one arm dangling in a sling.
By the time the dirty white van finally swerved to a halt after seven hours navigating the highways of New York State, I’d been waiting on the street for more than an hour. The truck looked like something that kidnappers might drive. The sign on its side — a cheap magnetic logo that identified the vehicle as a non-emergency medical transportation vehicle — seemed like a perfect ruse for spiriting away some wealthy heiress to a remote cabin in the woods to await a ransom.
The driver jumped out and opened the back door, but there was no sumptuously garbed kidnapping victim inside. It was just my 89-year-old mother, strapped into a wheelchair that was tethered to the wall of the otherwise gapingly empty van.
“I thought that trip was never going to end,” she blurted as the lift lowered her wheelchair onto the steamy sidewalk in front of the Venerable Hills Care and Rehabilitation Centre. I hadn’t seen her in nearly three weeks, but she offered no smile, no kiss hello. I knelt and wrapped my arm around her bony frame as I kissed her forehead.
With her matted gray hair, limp right arm and right eye ringed by oversized bruises, Eunice Chesnut looked like an ancient soldier returning from war. But my mother’s injuries weren’t combat-related; they were the result of her latest fall at the assisted living facility where she’d lived for just over a year, in upstate New York.
Now, here she was, frowning at the sidewalk and examining her veiny hands. She didn’t cast even the briefest of glances at the imposing brick-and-glass building that towered in front of her.
Did she understand she’d be living here in New York City now? Did she remember selling her own home a couple years earlier? Or retiring from her job at age 88, selling her car and moving into assisted living?
“Well, so what are we going to do now, sweetie?” she asked, squinting into the sunlight as she smoothed her wrinkled blouse with her good hand.
Thanks to an extensive round of tests at a sprawling hospital on the outskirts of Rochester, we knew why my mother had become so confused and unbalanced in recent months. A large brain tumor had taken up residence inside her skull. When she got the news just a few weeks earlier, she called me from the hospital and declared that she would not seek treatment.
“I am old, and I don’t want them to do anything to me,” she had said, her voice weak but resolute. “There’s no point in putting myself through some awful surgery or any more suffering when I might only live another year or two. I’ve already had a very good life. But when it’s time to go, it’s time to go, kiddo.”
After the fall and the diagnosis, the assisted living facility in her town couldn’t meet her needs anymore. Neither could my sister Glynn and I, since we lived in New York City and New Jersey and worked full time. So, after several days of research, I called my mother at the hospital to talk about her moving somewhere new — and I made sure to not call the new place what it really was: a nursing home.
“Momma, Glynn and I have found a really nice place for you to live, near where I live in New York City, so we can see each other all the time,” I said as brightly as I could. “Would you like that?”
“That sounds wonderful, sweetie.” She was almost always cheerful, even in the hospital. While her decades living in the Great Lakes region may have imbued her voice with a decidedly midwestern tone, her southern-born manners dictated the content of what came out of her mouth. That meant she remained upbeat and polite whenever possible.
The urgency of Eunice’s move to the Big Apple had thrown a monkey wrench into the Hollywood-style plans that I had previously concocted. I had wanted to fly up to Rochester to accompany her on the long ride down to the city. I had imagined a meaningful trip laden with emotional discovery and reconciliation, like something you’d see in some sappy TV movie. I’d be the doting son with a constant smile that illuminated the interior of the handsomely appointed black luxury SUV that would have surely been our form of transportation. We’d reminisce about all the vacations we’d taken together. Ponder how she gave me the travel bug and the tools to become a travel writer. Reflect on the symbolism of what would likely have been our final road trip together. Maybe we’d even discuss weighty issues like why I had to cancel my wedding plans because of her. Or why she hid the only published book I’d ever written. So much to discuss! And so appropriate for the emotional bonding to take place as we charged down the New York State Thruway, the thoroughfare that had once served as a gateway for our long distance adventures.
As we reviewed and resolved every possible aspect of our mother-son relationship during that final trip, heartfelt soundtrack music would swell as the driver finally opened the vehicle’s perfectly polished door to welcome us to the glistening high-rise nursing home where Eunice would spend the last days of her life. My mother and I would be emotionally renewed and fortified, ready to confidently face her impending decline with Oscar-worthy strength, an even stronger mother-son bond and a well-honed sense of humor. Cue the music again as we enter the facility, hand in hand. And cut.
But there was no time for that soul-strengthening voyage. My mother’s latest fall and diagnosis had accelerated the need for her to move downstate, and I had to stay in New York City to hastily arrange her accommodations at the nursing home. A couple of her wonderful, always supportive friends were there to see her off, but she traveled on her own, bandaged up in a wheelchair, in the back of that empty white van. The cathartic moments would have to take place here, at the nursing home — although I now realized that I’d probably be journeying down memory lane by myself, as her awareness continued to fade.
My mother was exhausted and confused, but sure of one thing as the nursing home’s glass doors slid open with an air-conditioned whoosh: she was ready to leave this earth