Dave Barry today begins at least a year's leave from his weekly humor column. But besides a humorist, Barry is also an extraordinary serious essayist. Below is one of his finest columns, an account of his mother's death, called "Lost in America," first published Nov. 29, 1987, and included in his winning Pulitzer Prize entry for distinguished commentary.
_ JOHN BARRY, deputy Floridian editor
LOST IN AMERICA
Nov. 29, 1987
My mother and I are driving through Hartford, Conn., on the way to a town called Essex. Neither of us has ever been to Essex, but we're both desperately hoping that my mother will want to live there.
She has been rootless for several months now, moving from son to son around the country, ever since she sold the house she had lived in for 40 years, the house she raised us in, the house my father built. The house where he died April 4, 1984. She would note the date each year on the calendar in the kitchen.
"Dave died, 1984," the note would say. "Come back, Dave."
The note for July 5, their anniversary, said: "Married Dave, 1942. Best thing that ever happened to me."
The house was too big for my mother to handle alone, and we all advised her to sell it. Finally she did, and she shipped all her furniture to Sunnyvale, Calif., where my brother Phil lived. Her plan was to stay with him until she found a place of her own out there.
Only she hated Sunnyvale. At first this seemed almost funny, even to her. "All my worldly goods," she would say, marveling at it, "are in a warehouse in Sunnyvale, Calif., which I hate." She always had a wonderful sense of absurdity.
After a while it didn't seem so funny. My mother left Sunnyvale to live for a while with my brother Sam in San Francisco, and then with me in Florida; but she didn't want to stay with us. What she wanted was a home.
What she really wanted was her old house back.
With my father in it.
Of course she knew she couldn't have that, but when she tried to think of what else she wanted, her mind would just lock up. She started to spend a lot of time watching soap operas.
"You have to get on with your life," I would tell her, in this new, parental voice I was developing when I talked to her. Dutifully, she would turn off the TV and get out a map of the United States, which I bought her to help her think.
"Maybe Boulder would be nice," she would say, looking at Colorado. "I was born near Boulder."
"Mom," I would say in my new voice. "We've talked about Boulder 50 times, and you always end up saying you don't really want to live there."
Chastened, she would look back at her map, but I could tell she wasn't really seeing it.
"You have to be realistic," I would say. The voice of wisdom.
When she and I had driven each other just about crazy, she went back out to California and repeated the process with both of my brothers. Then one night she called to ask, very apologetically, if I would go with her to look at Essex, Conn., which she had heard was nice. It was a bad time for me, but of course I said yes, because your mom is your mom. I met her in Hartford and rented a car.
I'm driving; my mother is looking out the window.
"I came through Hartford last year with Frank and Mil, on the way to Maine," she says. Frank was my father's brother; he has just died. My mother loved to see him. He reminded her of my father.
"We were singing," my mother says. She starts to sing.
I'm forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air.
I can tell she wants me to sing, too. I know the words; we sang this song when I was little.
First they fly so high, nearly reach the sky
Then like my dreams, they fade and die.
But I don't sing. I am all business.
"I miss Frank," says my mother.
Essex turns out to be a beautiful little town, and we look at two nice, affordable apartments. But I can tell right away that my mother doesn't want to be there. She doesn't want to say so, after asking me to fly up from Miami, but we both know.
The next morning, in the motel coffee shop, we have a very tense breakfast.
"Look, Mom," I say, "you have to make some kind of decision." Sounding very reasonable.
She looks down at her map. She starts talking about Boulder again. This sets me off. I lecture her, tell her she's being childish. She's looking down at her map, gripping it. I drive her back to Hartford, neither of us saying much. I put her on a plane; she's going to Milwaukee, to visit my dad's sister, then back to my brother in Sunnyvale, Calif. Which she hates.
The truth is, I'm relieved that she's leaving.
"You can't help her," I tell myself, "until she decides what she wants." It is a sound position.
About a week later, my wife and I get a card from my mother.
"This is to say happy birthday this very special year," it says. "And to thank you for everything."
Our birthdays are weeks away.
About two days later, my brother Phil calls, crying, from a hospital. My mother has taken a massive overdose of Valium and alcohol. The doctors want permission to turn off the machines. They say there's no hope.
We talk about it, but there really isn't much to say. We give the permission.
It's the only logical choice.
The last thing I saw my mother do, just before she went down the tunnel to her plane, was turn and give me a big smile. It wasn't a smile of happiness; it was the same smile I give my son when he gets upset listening to the news and I tell him don't worry, we're never going to have a nuclear war.
I can still see that smile any time I want. Close my eyes and there it is. A mom, trying to reassure her boy that everything's going to be okay.