Vital Signs


"Whew-whew! Whew-Whew!" I looked past my mother through the half open taxi window. An old man in a grey flecked, tweed jacket was walking a Scotch terrier on a leash. With much effort she cranked the window down another turn and stuck her head out. "Whew-whew!" she whistled again. The man turned, surprised, though not unpleased, and then the taxi lurched forward and my mother slumped back into her seat. "What a hunk!" she said, and let out a momentous groan. I laughed, but she did not respond. She sank more deeply into her seat, her face turned away.

Eighty-three, and weighing no more than that, she was still capable of such surprises. My sister, Katharine, had called the previous week to tell me that "Noni," as we called her now, had—with tears in her eyes and all the frustration of a teenager—fought with her for half an hour about wanting to marry Bob, her 41-year-old physical therapist. "Why shouldn't I?" she'd complained over and over again. "We're both free." Recently divorced, her therapist was known to us all for his good looks—the picture on her dresser showed a smiling, wavy-haired Perry Como—for his magic fingers, and for the jokes he told her twice a week, repeated to us as regularly as news bulletins. "Good," I'd said to Katharine. "Keeps her young." But I didn't have to deal with her except on the...

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