How I met my Mother (in New York)

When my father died he had never been out of the country, and it occurred to me only very recently that my mother hadn’t either. When I was young I was as poor as they were so I never went anywhere, but once my circumstances changed I seized every possibility. I felt as though I wasn’t only travelling for myself, I was out there for my mom and dad as well, I was seeing northern fields and southern ice and smelling the broken sea winds of the East as much on their behalf as mine. My mother was always interested to hear where I’d been but she never showed much interest in the idea of travelling herself, and I thought that was just her personality until I remembered that in the days when I had no prospect of going anywhere, I would shrug and act uninterested in travel, and maybe she was doing the same thing.

And so at the end of last year my mother went overseas for the first time, and we came in low over the marshy maze of Jamaica Bay and landed in an icy, electric New York City. Before we’d left, people had told me, ‘You’re a good son for doing this’, and I’d waved them off and muttered modestly but secretly I’d thought, ‘Yes I am’.

Now here we were with the bright blades of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State and the raindrops making blurred diamonds on the windscreen of the cab as we came into Manhattan across the Queensboro Bridge. I looked at my mom to see if she was impressed with her first sight of the city, but she was fiddling with her phone, trying to send a text to my sister.

The next morning we walked across Second Avenue and had breakfast in the Murray Hill Diner where an old Russian waitress with bleached yellow hair dropped menus on our table. ‘It’s like in the movies,’ my mom said. ‘Look, when people come in, they take off their coats and hang them on the hook.’

I arranged my face into a patronising smile, even though that’s exactly what I was thinking myself.

After breakfast I took charge. ‘The best way to get to know a new city,’ I said with authority, ‘is to walk!’

We were staying beside the East River in Midtown so we walked up to the Empire State and then down Seventh Avenue towards Central Park. I pointed out Macy’s and the Algonquin and Radio City Music Hall. We walked into the park to see the ice rink, then to the Met, and then afterwards I suggested we weave our way back up to Midtown along Park and Lexington and Madison. She must have been tired by then but she didn’t complain. I should have checked how she was feeling, but I was too busy being the big man and the knowledgeable traveller. We bought a pizza slice and stopped for a beer and she was grateful to sit, but then I led us back out into the bright cold afternoon. I tutted and tsked as her pace dropped and thought how much more I could do if I was on my own. She never complained. We were crossing 33rd Street and she was lagging so I waited impatiently on the far sidewalk and while I was looking up at the cold blue sky I heard her fall.

She was tired and her feet were dragging and there was a pothole in the tarmac. I have never seen my mother fall before. I’ve never seen her lying helpless on the ground.

I had brought her across the world and walked her to exhaustion in order to feel like a good son, but in that moment, maybe for the first time in my life, I saw her clearly: I saw a 74-year-old woman who loves me and doesn’t want to disappoint me, an old woman who came on a 20-hour flight not to see New York, but to spend time with her son.

I haven’t cried in front of my mother since I was 14, and I didn’t cry then, but as I helped her to her feet she said, in an embarrassed voice, as though she had let me down, as though she could ever let me down: ‘I’m sorry.’

Then I did cry.

Getaway, 6 May 2015